The launch of the Peugeot 208 marks a critical evolution for the French carmaker - it won’t necessarily make or break the company, but it may well be the most important model since the launch of the Peugeot 205 way back in 1983.
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Prior to the early 205, Peugeot was by far the most conservative of the big three French car companies and better known for building large and mostly uninspiring sedans such as the 504 and 505.

So when the 205 series hatch came along, it was a certified game changer in the segment and largely responsible for reversing Peugeot’s floundering fortunes.

More than 5.3 million 205s were sold globally, including plenty of the iconic 205 GTi performance variants.

Peugeot had produced what many believed to be one of the best hot hatches of all time. The 205 GTi was light, agile and very quick through the bends.

It was also stylish, (in a functional kind of way) and was unanimously voted the new benchmark hatch by the world’s motoring press - surpassing even the Golf GTI.

Even today, newcomers to the hot-hatch segment are occasionally compared with Peugeot’s 205 GTi - such was its reputation for providing good honest fun for those lucky enough to get behind the wheel of the pocket rocket from France.

But due to a lengthy bout of what may be sheer complacency, Peugeot failed to replace the 205 with a car that could live up to its dynamic lightweight formula.

It wasn’t that the follow-up Peugeot 206 was a nose-dive for the French automaker. In fact, it sold in even greater numbers than the 205 (over 6.5 million), but it lacked its predecessor’s character and all-important driver involvement. It was larger, heavier and dynamically inferior to the 205.

The Peugeot 207 followed, and although blessed with plenty of French flair, it too was considered a far cry from the 205, with even more weight added to its girth.

However, with the all-new 208, Peugeot has pulled out all the stops to ensure their stylish new hatch ticks the right boxes this time round.

It’s lighter by up to 170k (1.2-litre version) and the car offers more interior space, despite being shorter than the 207.

It’s also got outstanding ergonomics, decent handling and a thick-rimmed small size steering wheel, just like those fitted to racing cars.

It should provide a good base for a GTi model and given Peugeot’s recent inertia, it had better.

Preliminary 208 sales are encouraging. After only a month since first launching in Europe, the Peugeot 208 has already put in excellent sales performances across Europe.

To put the model’s success into perspective, PSA Peugeot Citroen achieved 115 per cent of its business objectives for the period, with over 35,000 orders taken across 10 countries. Peugeot 208 sales also contributed largely to the company’s best sales figures in over 18 months in the popular B segment.

The really good news for Peugeot is that the mix of orders included an uptake of over 55 per cent for the premium trim versions of Allure and Féline, contributing to yet more attractive margins for the French carmaker.

The 208 is still in an early launch phase, with more markets kicking off in May and June.

Peugeot also showed two 208-based concepts at this year’s Geneva Motor Show; the GTi and XY, but the focus is clearly on the sportier GTi.

While the XY is an exercise in style and chic-ness, the GTi is all about restoring Peugeot’s creditability in the performance hatch world, but without losing that ‘Oh so French’ style that embodies the new Peugeot 208 model.

Peugeot believes these two concepts are a generation leap in the segment and that the GTi will ‘regenerate a legend’.

To do so, it will need to be an outstanding performer; better even than the 205 GTi if that’s possible in today’s automotive environment, given the safety regulations designers must adhere to these days.

The competition is fierce. There’s the Volkswagen Polo GTI, packing plenty of punch, great handling and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to boot.

And don’t forget the Renault Clio RS – the veritable benchmark when it comes to hot hatch performance in the supermini segment.

Ford is in there too, with the forthcoming Fiesta ST, which they claim is better than the GTI in every way.

The Fiesta will be armed with a turbocharged 1.6-litre EcoBoost engine, with front-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission for proper enthusiasts.

The Peugeot 208 GTi is likely to pack the proven THP 200 1.6-litre, four-cylinder from the RCZ coupe, and that should be enough to give the lightweight hatch the performance credentials it will require to compete with its rivals.

Although Peugeot was tight-lipped about performance figures for the GTi, outputs for the RCZ are 147kW and 275Nm of torque and we would assume that these would remain the same for a production version of the 208 GTi.

There’s plenty to like about the GTi Concept, despite the subtlety of the exterior treatment.

It’s not unlike the Golf GTI approach, although the giveaway signs are the18-inch alloy wheels, twin exhaust tips and brushed aluminium side mirrors.

There’s also the mandatory GTi badging on the C-Pillars, and the lower grille is adorned with a red, white and blue stripe to signify the French flag.

Inside, there’s no mistaking the GTi’s aspirations with its Alcantara dash and matching gloss-red border. There’s also a superb sports leather steering wheel with red-stitched centre-marker (just like high-end sports cars) and GTi badge, along with a neat oversize aluminium shifter with the same red accent.

Aside from straight-line performance, any production version of Peugeot’s GTi Concept will need extra-special handling to gain that all-important tick from the enthusiast world, preferably without the lift-off oversteer that so affected the 205 GTi.

Given the 208 is such a pivotal launch for Peugeot, it’s not surprising to see the company pack so much punch into what’s likely to be the key contender in the segment in 2012.