First drive in Peugeot’s new 208 supermini
Peugeot has created the prodigal son of superminis. In the 1990s it was the small hatch that others wanted to imitate. Its 205 – albeit in GTi form – adorned the bedroom walls of petrolheads from Mullingar to Majorca. While we were less enamoured by the more feminine wiles of its replacement 206, with its softer lines, we still admired its cheeky appeal.
Then came the 207. It was like meeting your childhood hero after a few years out of the limelight and finding they’ve spent too much time in the takeaway. It was fat, frumpy and well below par. There was nothing lithe or nimble about the French lion’s offering any more.
Well the good news is that the little Pug has been to rehab, shed the pounds and is back with a bang. The new 208 harks back to the days of the 206 in its looks and the glorious 205 in its handling. Suddenly Peugeot is back again with a car that warrants the supermini tagline.
Everything about the new car, from its exterior styling through to the small steering wheel, is in keeping with what a supermini should be. It’s a tidy little package that can cope with the functional needs of family life but does so with fun and flair.
Several new features impress, not least the new cabin layout. Peugeot has moved the central dials up to the driver’s eyeline and the smaller wheel gives a far more immediate feel to the 208’s handling and charm. A new touchscreen system in the central console – offered in the second-tier specification and a feature that’s expected to be fitted on 80 per cent of 208s sold – is a smart addition. It’s not in any way the equal to the tablet computers on the market, despite the claims of various Peugeot marketing executives, but it’s great to see it replace the plethora of buttons and knobs that have long cluttered the cabins of Peugeot cars for years now.
The firm is launching a new stable of apps for the device, including versions of the Michelin hotel and restaurant guide, but they seem to be merely expensive gimmicks, certainly too expensive – at €350 in the initial year and €150 annually thereafter – and more immobile than what you can get on a decent smartphone these days for less than one per cent of that price. Credit to Peugeot for the effort, but don’t expect a queue of customers for this particular feature.
Where the new car really excels is in its ride and handling, harking back to the glory days of the 205. The ride is much more refined than on the 207, capable of soaking up the bumps and potholes, particularly when shod on 16′ tyres. It’s dynamically much better as well, cornering at speeds and holding a tight line in bends without too much body roll. During our test drive we pitted it against some of the worst road surfaces we’ve come across since a recent trip to Connemara and it soaked up every bump and pothole without complaint. Its cornering ability is just what you want from a small fun car, sharp and reassuring in the bends, encouraging you to kick on.
Overall the car feels far more nimble and eager than the frumpy 207 ever was. It all bodes well for the introduction of a GTi version which is supposedly in the pipeline.
The 208 comes in both three and five-door formats, with little design differences between the two, including the use of chrome strips on the side of the three-door. Despite being slightly smaller in stature, the 208 manages to offer greater legroom than its predecessor. An extra 7cms has been added to the backseat legroom and it’s very evident once an adult jumps in.
The engine line-up boasts significant improvements in both fuel economy and emissions, although not all these benefits will be reaped by Irish drivers. The impressive 1.6-litre diesel and petrol powertrains may seem perfectly mated with the new look of the car but the mainstays for the Irish market will be a 1.4-litre diesel and two versions of the firm’s new three-cylinder petrol engine.
The new three cylinder engine comes in 1–litre and 1.2–litre format. I got to test the latter and while it’s noticeably slower off the starting blocks than the larger four cylinder engines, it is neither noisier nor slower when you get it up to speed. With emissions below 100g/km, the slightly longer take–off will be regarded as a price with paying for many Irish buyers. One complaint is that the five–speed manual gearbox on the three–cylinder engines is not as precise as the one fitted to the larger engine and there’s a noticeably longer gap between the gear gates. Engage fifth gear and you feel like your reaching for the passenger glovebox. It’s the one disappointment I had with a car that otherwise put a smile on my face.
The fit and finish of this car is far superior to what has gone before. The smaller steering wheel makes a big difference to the cabin and the driving feel.
Other nice touches include the new speedometer and rev counter binnacle that places the dials and information in the driver’s eyeline, and the touchscreen centre console. The latter may not be in the same league as an average tablet computer in terms of functionality or form, but it’s much better than the cluttered knobs and buttons of past Peugeots. As it comes in the middle grade equipment level – expected to make up 80 per cent of sales – it will be a common sight on Irish 208s, not simply reserved for top level variants.
While the car is arriving here on June 30th prices have yet to be finalised, but given that its main rival will be the Toyota Yaris and its ilk, we expect the new 208 will enter the market below €15,000.
Peugeot is going through the financial wars like many of its European counterparts, struggling with overcapacity and losses in lacklustre European markets. While a restructuring seems on the cards, everyone knows that the most important recipe for recovery remains a garage of good cars. With the 208, Peugeot is dramatically improving its chances of a return to profit.