Marketing can’t make the legend. That was the implicit acknowledgement in the local presentation for the Peugeot 208 GTi, the small hot hatch launching beneath a big ancestral shadow.
The 205 GTi of the 1980s was a legend because it introduced new levels of steering and handling talent to the small hatch class, and it looked – and still looks – superb. Its 206 and 207 successors, meanwhile, weren't, which is why the PowerPoint presentation quickly skipped over them and determinedly – and very explicitly – claimed the new 208 GTi is the spiritual successor to the 205.
Ironically, however, it’s that very presentation that is now trying to make a legend out of the Peugeot 208 GTi…
Where the 205 GTi was challenged by few competitors, the new $29,990 Peugeot 208 GTi is rivalled by many – including the forthcoming Ford Fiesta ST and Renault Sport Clio 200, in addition to the current Volkswagen Polo GTI, Skoda Fabia RS, Citroen DS3 and Fiat 500 Abarth.
The 208 GTi also doesn’t look too different to the regular 208 range, at least on first impression.
Look closer and the GTi applique on the rear guard, subtle red lip gloss on the front bar, chequered inserts around the headlights and, inside, red-striped seatbelt and trim stitching does indeed look very cool.
The cabin alone makes the 208 GTi feel $4000 more expensive than the Fiesta ST.
That’s without mentioning the extra equipment, including standard satellite navigation with seven-inch colour touchscreen, part-leather seats and dual-zone climate control over the Ford (see full equipment here).
With beautifully bolstered seats, a leather-look dashboard, soft red lighting, red/black trim accents, that superb little steering wheel, and even proper side grabs for rear passengers, the Peugeot feels semi-premium.
The low-set wheel irks taller drivers, however, by obscuring the high-set instruments.
There’s decent room for rear riders, three seatbelts across the bench, and an excellent 316-litre boot with a full-size spare wheel underneath.
Peugeot probably doesn’t want us to mention the 207 GTi, which was laggy because it was heavy, hard riding yet sharp only on smooth roads, and poorly packaged. Despite having a driver’s seat and steering wheel each adjustable for height and tilt, it also had a worse driving position than the 205 with its fixed steering wheel.
The 207 GTi is worth mentioning, however, because more than linking itself with the 205, the 208 GTi goes about addressing every single flaw of the 207.
The 208 GTi weighs 1160kg, a full 165kg less than the 207 GTi. Yet it gets much more power from its still-1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine.
With 147kW of power at 5500rpm and 275Nm of torque at just 1700rpm, the 208 GTi claims 6.8 seconds from 0-100km/h and 5.9L/100km combined.
Off the line the Peugeot 208 GTi no longer feels laggy, though it doesn’t pull as immediately from 1200rpm as the non-turbo 1.9-litre 205 GT that weight just 945kg; the 208 has a doughy throttle at low revs and the turbo takes a moment to spool up.
It is more than competitive in performance terms with the competition, and the six-speed manual transmission – the only one available, proving there’s still French resistance to automatics – has a long throw, but feels well oiled and slick between gears.
Although keen and flexible, the engine note isn’t very sporty but instead boomy and loud as it encroaches 6800rpm, and the slight exhaust bark is drowned out with the windows up.
We tested the 208 GTi first on a racetrack, and then on the open road. This is a supremely stable and neutrally balanced chassis. On the track, it resists understeer very well up to a point.
Equally, however, it takes aggressive steering movements and a sharply lifted throttle to provoke the sort of challenging lift-off oversteer for which the 205 GTi was renowned.
Even then, even with stability control turned completely off, there is some interference by the electronics to shut down the out-of-shape fun.
There’s a hint in the press release about why this is so. Compared with regular 208 models, the GTi gets tracks widened by 10mm front, 20mm rear. The 205 handled the way it did because it had front wheels that stuck out of the guards like rabbits ears, and that gripped for dear life, but a narrow rear track that swung drivers around like a pendulum.
The widening of the tracks in the Peugeot 208 GTi perhaps should have been the other way around.
Peugeot claims that in this day and age of safety equipment and OH&S regulations it would be "impossible" to recreate the 205 GTi’s handling, which was extremely faithful if driven sensibly – and capable of keeping up with any modern hot hatch on the right road – but which if provoked will be a challenging snap-oversteerer. That’s a questionable claim, however, since today’s Honda CR-Z, for example, is able to produce big-angle lift-off oversteer.
At this point it’s best to ignore the ‘spiritual’ marketing connection with the 205 GTi and enjoy the 208 GTi for what it really is – a sweet little hatchback.
The steering is light and precise – perhaps not as incisive as the best in the business that belongs to the Ford Fiesta – but still pretty damn good. And while the handling isn’t as crisp as, say, the Renault Sport Clio RS200 driven in France a few months earlier, the ride quality is marginally more impressive.
The Peugeot 208 GTi has a delicate ability to nail a tight inside line then remain glued at both ends on corner exit. The suspension is firm and beautifully controlled – only slightly busy on poor surfaces but well judged for a hot hatch.
The Peugeot 208 GTi is benign and predictable, yet also plenty fast enough and fun. Arguably, ‘spiritually’, the French engineers should have been more daring; they should have made the latest GTi something that stands out from the crowd and is focused and challenging.
Instead, the 208 GTi settles on finely balancing cabin comfort and sporty design, ride comfort and dynamics, and performance and economy. It is, then, an excellent all-rounder that will drive its rivals hard.
It’s no 205 legend, but there's no shame when the 208 GTi is the greatest Peugeot in years and a properly good hot hatch.