French get fair dinkum

At last, Peu­geot fur­nishes a gen­uine al­ter­na­tive to the usual sus­pects

Herald Sun - Motoring - - First Drive - NEIL DOWLING neil.dowling@cars­guide.com.au

EURO­PEAN small cars— once quirky, ex­pen­sive or frag­ile— are find­ing favour.

Un­prece­dented pric­ing, im­proved qual­ity and gen­er­ous fea­tures are putting chic badges in drive­ways at the ex­pense of the usual Asian play­ers.

As Peu­geot showed this week with the launch of its 208 small hatch at $18,490 and Volk­swa­gen with its sub

$14,000 Up, the Eu­ros are hit­ting hard on the back of a strong Aussie dol­lar that makes im­ported cars very af­ford­able.

VALUE

Though not the cheap­est in the light-car class, the 208 starts at $18,490 for the peppy 1.2-litre Ac­tive five-door man­ual. An auto is $1500 more. Pay from $21,990 for the 1.6-litre Al­lure five-door man­ual.

Then step up in equip­ment and per­for­mance to the son-of-GTI, the Al­lure Sport (three­door only) at $26,490, which in­cludes panoramic roof, mood lighting and weeny steer­ing wheel. The top-line Al­lure Pre­mium is also $26,490.

Cabin de­sign is pretty much stan­dard across the range— in­clud­ing 7-inch touch­screen — as is five-star safety, mak­ing the base Ac­tive very good value.

Capped price ser­vice— at $270 for each an­nual ser­vice — ices the French pas­try.

DE­SIGN

Though an all-new model, there’s a lot of the out­go­ing 207 in the 208’s pro­file and skele­ton. The new­bie is shorter and sig­nif­i­cantly lighter but it’s much roomier. It’s also bet­ter built.

Some de­sign lan­guage is in­ter­est­ing— the claw marks that stripe the LED tail-lights cutely ref­er­ence Peu­geot’s lion logo. Stretched head­lights in­clude LED run­ning lights in some mod­els. The grille is slat­ted or hon­ey­combed, de­pend­ing on the model, and keen-eyed Pug-ophiles note that the three and five-door 208 mod­els have no com­mon body pan­els.

Steel wheels (15-inch) iden­tify the lower-spec ver­sion — and look closely for the rear drum brakes— while al­loys of 16 and 17 inches fit the up­per­spec mod­els, leav­ing the 18s to next year’s GTi.

Inside is even bet­ter. The small-di­am­e­ter steer­ing wheel (flat-bot­tomed on the Al­lure Sport) is un­der the driver’s eyelevel view of the slim in­stru­ment bin­na­cle that sits on top of the dash­board.

Un­usual, yet makes it easy for the driver to flick be­tween the gauges and the road ahead. The in­tu­itive touch­screen is a beauty, work­ing like an iPad, but Peu­geot has yet to con­firm it will take sat­nav.

Cabin room is damn good for a car less than 4m long. I’m 177cm and had plenty of legroom in the rear of the three and five-door. Only the three­door’s slop­ing roofline touched my grey­ing locks.

TECH­NOL­OGY

The three-cylin­der 1.2-litre petrol engine over­shad­ows Peu­geot’s de­light­ful 1.6-litre turbo petrol— the one it also sells to BMW/Mini— for its will­ing per­for­mance, scant thirst and sur­pris­ing smooth­ness.

There are five and six- speed man­ual trans­mis­sions and four and five-speed au­tos — the lat­ter a man­ual with an elec­tri­cally op­er­ated clutch and only fit­ted to the 1.2. No au­tos were on hand for the 208’s launch, so we’ll catch them later.

Elec­tric steer­ing, con­ven­tional yet pre­cisely made sus­pen­sion, four-wheel disc brakes (ex­cept the 1.2) and a very taut body are fea­tures.

Cut­ting the weight and mak­ing the body slip­pery to save fuel is done by us­ing a lot of high-ten­sile steel and some al­loy parts. Av­er­age weight loss across the range is 114kg.

SAFETY

The 208 gets a five-star crash rat­ing in the lat­est, up­graded

Euro NCAP test­ing. It also picks up ex­tra ele­phant stamps for pedes­trian safety (it has things like a col­lapsi­ble plas­tic front grille struc­ture). All mod­els get six airbags, sta­bil­ity and trac­tion con­trol, brake as­sist and so on. There’s even a full-size spare wheel.

DRIV­ING

Three mod­els— 1.2, 1.6 Al­lure five-door and 1.6 Al­lure Sport three-door— were taken through the moun­tains be­hind Sanc­tu­ary Cove.

Pity was, I started with the Sport. This is a quick ma­chine and sets the pace for the hot­ter GTI due mid next year. The Sport gets a six-speed man­ual box, big 17-inch al­loys and crea­ture com­forts such as the small steer­ing wheels, part-leather up­hol­stery and large panoramic glass roof with blue-light edg­ing for a real Moody Blue ex­pe­ri­ence.

It feels too firm through the carpark and I fear a harsh ride. But no— the sus­pen­sion is set up so well for com­pli­ant com­pres­sion and quick re­bound so the Kabul-stan­dard roads around the Gold Coast hin­ter­land rarely up­set the Sport’s mid-cor­ner de­meanour or un­set­tle the oc­cu­pants.

I loved the sharp­ness of the steer­ing, an im­prove­ment on the 207 and a re­flec­tion that all elec­tric-as­sist steer­ing boxes are not the same. But best was the torque from that engine and its vel­vet-glove mid-range punch.

The nor­mally as­pi­rated 1.6 — same engine, delete turbo— was a lot of fun but paled against the Sport. Though the five cogs worked in hand with the engine’s de­liv­ery, the less ro­bust low-end torque meant stok­ing the fire to 3000rpm­plus for any driv­ing joy. That’s not a prob­lem— in fact this is the same hall­mark of the lon­glost 205 that em­bod­ied Peu­geot’s soul be­fore the ac­coun­tants took hold— but you just need the nerve and a quiet road to ex­ploit its abil­ity.

The ride char­ac­ter­is­tics are the same as the Sport— ie, great— and same goes for the steer­ing. But the three-cylin­der is the jewel for those who love the art of driv­ing.

You can’t slack off with the 1.2 be­cause when you push it, it de­liv­ers acres of smiles but de­mands more at­ten­tion. The engine is shy of low-speed torque so likes a rev but there are only five cogs to play with. In its favour, it runs smoothly to 6000rpm and is still pump­ing.

The gearshift is a bit rub­bery — and may continue down the path to plas­ticine as the car ages— but the ra­tios slip through a light clutch with ease. Again, the taut body, firm sus­pen­sion and sharp steer­ing rack help give the 208 its gokart feel. Fuel econ­omy is pretty good. The 1.6 de­liv­ered 7.2L/100km, the Sport 7.5L and the 1.2 was 5.5L de­spite the hills and the heavy foot.

VER­DICT

The strong Aussie dol­lar, a kick in the rear from cus­tomers de­mand­ing bet­ter qual­ity and the global move to fuel ef­fi­ciency gel per­fectly in this car. It puts Peu­geot back on the map as a se­ri­ous ri­val to Asian small cars.

Lan­guage of de­sign: ‘‘Claw marks’’ on the LED tail-lights are a cute ref­er­ence to Peu­geot’s lion logo

Back on the map: Peu­geot is once again a se­ri­ous ri­val to Asian small cars

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