Peugeot 208 GTi harks back to glory of 205GTi
Original was every bit as exciting to drive as the Ferrari Testarossas of its time
Date Reviewed: June 26, 2013
Cars usually improve with each new model: they get more refined, more reliable, safer and more economical. But the combination of qualities that made the 205GTi so appealing are almost impossible to replicate now. It was a democratic supercar: it was every bit as exciting to drive as the Ferrari Testarossas that it pushed off the covers of mid-1980s car magazines.
Its appeal lay in its combination of small size, light weight and thrilling, sometimes tricky handling, which in turn allowed a small, relatively low-powered engine to give strong straight-line performance, and which in turn made it relatively affordable to buy and run.
That combination of attributes is even more appealing and relevant in these straitened modern times, but modern safety legislation, customers’ expectations on kit and refinement, and corporate paranoia on handling together mean you just can’t build a car like the 205GTi any more.
Don’t get me wrong: safer, more solid cars are a good thing, and we shouldn’t beat Peugeot’s later hot hatches over the head for failing to thrill us as the first one did.
I have one: an absolutely mint, original, white 205GTi 1.9 from 1989 that provides useful mental recalibration on how well a small, front-wheel drive car can perform. As a motoring journalist, it ought to be an allowable business expense. I drove mine to meet the new Peugeot 208GTi: perhaps an unfair comparison, but instructive.
The new car uses the same 200PS turbocharged four-cylinder 1.6-litre engine as Peugeot’s RCZ coupe (and the Mini Cooper S) to produce a 6.8 second 0-100kph sprint and a top speed of 230kph.
Both figures improve on the outgoing, 175PS 207GTi, helped by more power but also the fact that Peugeot has at least partly turned the tide of spiralling weight in cars and cut an impressive 165kgs from the 207GTi at 1160kgs. The 205 was 875kgs. Less mass also makes for better economy and emissions: CO2 output drops from 171g/km to 139g/km, and fuel use improves from 7.6 l/100km to 5.9: both now impressive figures for a car of this performance.
The 208GTi certainly doesn’t look like a lightweight, its solid stance helped by its wider track (the distance between wheels on the same axle) and by the standard, part-black 17-inch Diamond Carbone alloy rims. Inside you’ll find a cabin that even that mid-80s Ferrari would envy, the 208’s standard swoopy cockpit design made almost supercar-like with the liberal use of very high-quality leather, red stitching and red trim: red detailing was the 205GTi’s hallmark. The seats are deep and supportive and very comfortable, but I couldn’t set the steering wheel to my liking and leave a clear view of the (red-trimmed) dials.
On the road, the first impression is how well the GTi rides despite its lower, stiffer sports suspension. The handling is sportier as a result, with strong front-end grip through bends, flatter cornering and more weight to the steering. The turbocharged engine responds crisply to your right foot; it makes its power evenly as the revs rise, strong torque lends flexibility and the car is certainly quick. The six-speed manual gearbox is quick and slick enough, but no revelation.
But neither the handling nor the performance feel as edgy and frenetic as you’d hope for from a small, relatively light, high-power car. The excellent refinement and an exhaust note that’s rather muted despite its claimed sportier tune help disguise the car’s pace.
That might be a good thing, depending on what you want your 208GTi to do. This car has a very different combination of attributes to a 205GTi, but they’ll be just as appealing to some. In this case, small dimensions and good economy and emissions make it a perfect town car, while strong performance and good ride and refinement give it a big-car quality on the open road.
That lushly trimmed cabin helps here: it feels more like a miniature grand tourer than the GTis of old, which took their acronym from grand tourers but came to represent something quite different.
No, the 208GTi is not as seminal and important a car as the 205 I drove home in, but it’s still a fine car, and Peugeot’s best GTi for some time.
Road test: Peugeot 208GTi
Engine: 1589cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 200PS at 5800rpm, 275Nm at 1700-4500rpm; six-speed manual
0-100km/h: 6.8 seconds
Top speed: 230km/h
Fuel economy/ Emissions: 5.9l/100km, 139g/km
Price: starts at €27,995