It’s rare for a manufacturer to introduce a car that it doesn’t expect (and in all honesty doesn’t really want) to be popular with customers, but that’s exactly what the new entry model in the 2016 Peugeot 208 range is.
At $15,990 plus on-road costs (or $16,990 driveaway), the Peugeot 208 Access manual becomes the French brand’s cheapest-ever hatchback in our market, and its cheapest car of any sort in 35 years. An automatic version is also available under the $20K mark, at $18,990 plus on-roads, or $19,990 driveaway.
It’s with this new eye-grabbing price tag that Peugeot hopes to shake the market’s perception that its cars are expensive and attract a new generation of customers into its showrooms.
The ‘stripper model’ concept isn’t a new one, though the Peugeot 208 Access takes it to levels we haven’t seen in some time. The base variant misses out on features that have been standard on even the cheapest micro cars for years, lacking electric mirror adjustment, electric rear windows, and painted exterior door handles and mirror caps. And, unlike plenty in this price range, there’s also no large centre screen to operate the infotainment system.
The theory goes that once in the showroom, shoppers see not the basic Access but the nicer $21,990 Active, $25,990 Allure, $27,990 GT-Line and $30,990 GTi variants, fall in love, and try to find some way to squeeze one of them into their budget.
For most, that car will be the Active, which is much better equipped than the Access. In addition to all of those features mentioned above, it also gains 16-inch alloy wheels, LED daytime running lights, fog lights, rear parking sensors, and a multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The $300 to add a reverse-view camera to Active and all variants above (not available in Access) won’t break the bank, but it’s a key feature that should be standard at this price point - particularly given the 208's broad C-pillars that compromise the view out the back.
Adding the camera plus the steeply priced metallic paint ($990), as most are expected to, sees Peugeot’s second-tier 208 quickly climb to $23,280.
That’s a problem when you can get all of those features plus satellite navigation, head-up display, climate control, push-button start, auto LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers in the top-spec Mazda 2 Genki auto for $22,690, for example.
Paying $4000 extra for the next-model-up 208 Allure adds some of those features as well as front parking sensors and a semi-automatic parking function, but at this price point your money can get you more metal and more sophistication in a mid-grade small hatch or SUV.
The GT-Line is even harder to make a case for, and even though the GTi pocket rocket is more an emotional purchase than a rational one, it’s still $5000 more than the spectacular Ford Fiesta ST and $3500 more than the Volkswagen Polo GTI.
Despite all this, there’s plenty that makes the Peugeot 208 an engaging and seductive little car – much of which happens from behind the wheel.
The minority of buyers who buy the base Access five-speed manual will get a modest 60kW/118Nm 1.2-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder petrol engine. Peugeot didn’t have any of these cars available to test at the launch of the updated 208 range in Sydney, so we can’t shed any light on its performance at this stage.
The rest (GTi excluded) get a turbocharged version of the same engine that’s new to the 208 family but familiar from big brother 308. The boosted triple produces a much healthier 81kW at 5500rpm and 205Nm from 1500rpm – figures that put it among the stronger performers in the city-car class.
Compared with the old non-turbo 1.6-litre it replaces, the new engine is quieter yet far more characterful (if a bit grumbly at idle), and noticeably more responsive down low while also being 33 per cent more fuel efficient (4.5 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle).
It’s the new six-speed automatic transmission that transforms the Peugeot 208 into a car you can enjoy rather than endure, however. Where the old four-speed auto’s gearshifts could only be measured on a geological time scale, the new transmission is much sharper and doesn’t require the engine to work as hard.
Still, the new auto is lazy at times, particularly when driving up and down hills where it’s slower to drop down gears than we’d like. Engaging its sport mode helps here, hanging on to lower gears longer under acceleration and kicking back sooner on hills and under brakes, keeping the engine in the higher, thrummier, sweeter regions of its rev range more of the time.
That offbeat engine note is forced to compete with louder than average road noise, however, as well as some wind noise at higher speeds.
Ride comfort on the Active and Allure’s 16-inch wheels and tyres is decent. While the 208 lacks the ride sophistication of fellow Europeans such as the Polo and the Renault Clio, its cabin is adequately protected from small surface imperfections and bigger bumps.
The same can’t be said for the GT-Line, which feels too firm and fussy riding on its bigger wheels and skinnier tyres.
Sweetest of all is the 208’s steering, which is light yet darty and progressive, and combined with the small-diameter steering wheel is one of the most engaging systems in its class.
Sweetest, that is, except for the GTi, though with just 5km behind the wheel at the launch, we’ll save our praise for another review.
You view the 208’s instrument cluster over rather than through that tiny tiller. It’s a layout that has drawn some criticism in the past from drivers of different heights, but for my 180cm frame it’s positioned perfectly and imbues the cockpit with a unique character.
The dashboard’s centre display looks clean and crisp, though navigating its menus does take practice and patience. We do like that the climate controls are still physical buttons and dials, however, unlike the 308’s that are integrated into the touchscreen and aren’t as easy to use on the go.
Piano black trim, satin chrome highlights, and a textured soft-touch panel that snakes across the dash inject elegance into the cabin, though hard plastics on the window sills and door liners, average headliner material and the lack of grab handles in the roof serve as reminders that it’s built to a budget.
Plenty of padding in the seats means they’re comfortable, though they make you feel like you’re sitting on rather than in them. Legroom is tight but acceptable for this size of car, while headroom and toeroom are both generous.
The 208’s boot is among the largest in the light class, with 311 litres available with the back seats in place, and 1152L with the 60:40 split rear backrests folded forward.
Peugeot’s basic three-year/100,000km warranty is bettered by most rivals, though matching roadside assistance is a welcome inclusion. Capped-price servicing also applies for the first five years/75,000km of ownership, though there’s little to celebrate here. The cost of the first five services averages $500, making the 208 one of the most expensive city cars to maintain.
It’s this crucial factor – value for money – where the Peugeot 208, though better than before, continues to struggle against the competition. It’s sorely under-equipped in Access trim and overpriced from Active and above.
It’s a shame, because it means the 208’s strengths – the new three-cylinder turbo/six-speed auto combination, its dynamic performance, and its attractive and comfortable cabin – will likely continue to go under-appreciated in Australia.