The Peugeot 208 GTi joins an ultra-competitive segment with a lot to prove.
The Peugeot 208 GTi has a lot to live up to. The French company has spent considerable effort promoting its latest hot hatch as a modern-day embodiment of the 205 GTi that, decades on, remains in the hall of fame for great driver's cars.
That model, however, has been more of a burden in recent years as the 206 GTi and 207 GTi versions, while performing decently with strong engines, failed to match the verve of the 205.
Peugeot claims that the “GTi is back” for its flagship 208. Its main advertisement for the Peugeot 208 GTi is brave enough to see it climbing a mountain pass with its great-great grandson in tow.
Peugeot admits the 208 GTi is built for the road with little attention paid to racetrack ability. It argues the majority of a GTi’s life is spent on the road, with very few customers considering hardcore dynamic credentials as a purchasing decision.
Not that the company is insecure about the car's handling abilities. To launch the fourth-generation hot hatch, Peugeot brought CarAdvice to Nice in France, where we got to experience the 208 GTi on several stages of the Monte Carlo rally, followed by an eight hour drive program which led us all the way from Nice to Gap and then on to Colmar.
With glorious roads and not a police car in sight, it was perhaps the most ideal location on earth to launch a car as road-focused as the 208 GTi.
And on the road it shines.The 208 GTi goes where you point it and there’s little to no sign of mischief from either end, even at the limit – which is fine in isolation, but when the 205 GTi was renowned for being a devilish lift-off oversteerer, the ancestral links seem strained. That neutrality also represents a vast differentiation between the 208 GTi and the new Renault Clio RS 200, which we recently tested on a racetrack in Spain, where it proved wonderfully playful.
There are similarities under the bonnet, though, with the Peugeot 208 GTi also employing a 1.6-litre turbocharged (twin-scroll) engine, seen elsewhere in various BMWs, Minis, Citroens and other Peugeot and Citroen models, and here producing 147kW of power and 275Nm of torque.
For a car that weighs just 1160kg – thankfully Peugeot has sliced kilograms off the portly 207 GTi – this is a pretty decent power to weight figure. Better than the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ twins (and in a whole new level when you compare torque figures of 275Nm vs 205Nm). It pushes the 208 GTi from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds, covers one kilometre in 27 seconds and gets from 80-100km/h in less than seven seconds in fifth gear.
Around the never-ending mountainous terrain of southern France, we continued to find the 208 GTi to be the most stable hot hatch we’ve driven in its segment. There’s no lift-off oversteer, no huge understeer – the handling is neutral at all times. Even with the traction control off, it’s almost too hard to make this little Peugeot misbehave.
That means it's missing the fun character of the 205 GTi, but also means it inspires enormous confidence in the driver with never-ending grip and smooth acceleration out of corners. Torque steer, the steering-wheel-tugging effect common to powerful front-drive cars, is also absent – even out of hard bends with the twin-scroll turbo at maximum spool.
Steering is the most disappointing aspect of the Peugeot 208 GTi, though. Peugeot’s electric power steering system is precise, super responsive and very direct. But it has almost no feedback. There’s a sense that the relationship between the front wheels and the steering wheel is simply a one-way communication system.
Push the 208 GTi past its limit and it's only tyre squeal and the direction of travel that communicated the loss of grip from the front end. In a hot hatch wearing a GTi badge, more is expected. Because Peugeot is keen to stress an apparent link between the 208 GTi and the 205, it's especially disappointing that the steering is nowhere near as chatty as the 30-year-old icon.
In normal driving, the 208 GTi is an easy car to live with. Although French roads are of superior quality to those in Australia, the way the 208 GTi's suspension coped with potholes and bumpy roads hinted at good ride quality.
The leather steering wheel is almost perfect: small, meaty and a joy to grip. It's just a shame about the 208 model's major ergonomic flaw, where for most drivers the steering wheel blocks the instrument cluster and crucial dials such as the speedo and rev counter.
There's no automatic option though the six-speed manual gearbox is smooth and easy to operate. The aluminium sports pedals are slightly on the small side and make it harder to heal-and-toe (using your right foot to brake and accelerate at the same time for a smooth rev-matched down shift) with the accelerator pedal too deep and too small for the task.
And at least the Peugeot 208 GTI – as with the upcoming Ford Fiesta ST – offers a manual gearbox for purist drivers. Both the Volkswagen Polo GTi and Renault Clio RS200 come only with a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
On the inside the Peugeot 208 GTi feels sporty and elegant. There are excellent sport seats for the front passengers and reasonable legroom and headroom for any guests that brave the rear (so long as you’re not 180cm plus).
The seven-inch infotainment screen has everything from satellite navigation to Bluetooth audio and telephone connectivity. It’s fast, accurate and of relatively high display resolution. It also lacks a CD player, relying on wireless audio streaming and USB for input. We found our car suffered consistent skipping or dropping out issues when playing via a USB cable from an iPhone 5 anad 4S. On the plus side, it's the first car we've seen that has two USB ports!
Hard plastics are still used on the doors and dash but there’s been a clear effort on Peugeot’s part to lift the cabin ambience further.
From the outside the Peugeot 208 GTi adopts a far more aggressive look than other 208s – with bigger wheels, red brake calipers, liberal uses of GTi badging, new headlights, modified exhaust (same as the one found in the RCZ), and a lower stance. It has also had its track widened 10 mm at the front and 20 mm at the rear. Like the interior, it's not as overt as the Clio RS but it’s different enough to get noticed.
In terms of availability, only 300 are reserved for Australia per year, all being three-door with a six-speed manual only. Peugeot says the size of the car made it unfeasible to fit a decent automatic transmission and that a five-door doesn’t embody the GTi spirit.
Pricing is yet to be confirmed, but we suspect it will be $29,990, which would make it $2000 more than the three-door Polo GTi automatic but a few thousand dollars less than the five-door Clio RS auto.
So is the 208 GTi a more worthier successor to the 205 GTi? Well, it won't entertain skilled drivers quite as much, and it isn't as pure and connected as the original. Forget the tenuous connections to the original, however, and as a modern, all-round hot hatch, the newest Peugeot is quick, safe, feature packed, with tenacious grip and fine handling.
In fact it seems the 208 GTi has been more heavily influenced by the Volkswagen Golf GTI – it's a fast hatch that feels just at home around stages of the Monte Carlo rally as it does at a Coles car park.