Icing on the birthday cake
Peugeot marks 30 years of its GTi with a grown-up’s two-door funster
IF you’re very quick you can still get a Peugeot 208 GTi with all the fruit. Just a handful of the 26 Anniversary cars that arrived in Australia — with a symbolic 208 horsepower, or 154kW — are still available for people who want a compact city car that’s a bit special.
I don’t mean the strawberry-dipped-in-chocolate bodywork that came on many of the cars but the go-faster gear that turns the basic 208 into a much more involving drive as a GTi.
It’s not a point-and-squirt toy like some pocket rockets that fight you all the time but it’s a grown-up’s funster that also will work for young families and long country runs.
Having run comfortably from Sydney to the Bathurst 12-Hour race last weekend, I park it sitting proudly among the Bentleys and Ferraris and McLarens that dominate the parking lot at Australia’s big new sports car classic. It also sprints a bit when I find some winding roads on the return leg.
Peugeot is just about to add a new 308 GTi to its local line-up, which promises to be a cracking car to go head-to-head with Volkswagen’s Golf GTi and which obviously has more space and a newer chassis than the smaller 208.
I ponder how the baby car would go with the extra 50kW promised in the upscaled engine in the hot 308.
Its iconic Peugeot forebear, the 205 GTi, landed 30 years ago. I’m old enough yet still young enough to remember the fun we had with that car.
There were problems with the aircon and power steering, plus the cabin rattled and squeaked, but there was nothing on the road back then that could compete or compare to the 205.
Ever since my time with the
original French GTi I’ve used it as a personal touchstone and the connection is even more appropriate when I jump into the GTi Anniversary.
As well as the punchy engine and six-speed manual gearbox, the Anniversary package adds beefier brakes, uprated suspension with wider stance, great Recaro-style front buckets and a Torsen mechanical limited-slip differential.
Once the last of the Anniversary cars are gone that package will disappear although there are some hints that buyer pressure could get Peugeot to reconsider it for Australia. It’s available overseas, where it’s called the 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport.
Right now, I’m happily settled into the excellent front bucket and enjoying the surge of turbo power fed easily and comfortably to the front wheels.
The Torsen diff — unlike so many fake limited-slip differentials that rely entirely on reversing the work of the anti-lock brakes to prevent wheel spin — ensures good grip at all times with minimal tugging through the steering. It’s so unobtrusive that most people would not realise it’s fitted.
Further enjoyment comes from the compliance in the suspension, the wide footprint that keeps the car planted in corners, the touchscreen infotainment setup and the compact 208 package generally. Did I mention the seats?
But there are some things that really annoy me.
Peugeot calls its dashboard layout iCockpit. It does not work for me. Not in the 208, not in the 308, not in anything else.
The instruments are good and I love the sports steering wheel but when I put the wheel in the right position for me to drive it obscures the digital speedometer completely and blanks half of the other dials. It’s a massive fail; Peugeot in France insists that I’m wrong.
Numerous people occupy the seat this past week and reckon they are either comfortable without information or informed without comfort.
Considering the police presence on the Sydney-Blue Mountains-Bathurst route, I eventually compromise by dropping the wheel down near my knees so I can keep an eye on the digital speedo.
The drive shows the car to be very different from the other hot hatch on my recent radar, the Renault Clio RS. Where the Clio is youthful and taut and feels very small, the 208 is roomier and more relaxed and better on the country run.
I’m also reminded of the Ford Fiesta and Focus STs, which have great engines but feel cheaper and more muddled inside.
Back to the Peugeot, and people really turn to look at the red splashed-on-black bodywork. It prompts lots of questions, too.
For me, I like the engine response (apart from a slight lag as the revs drop slowly between shifts), the sporty feel of the gearbox and the excellent power of the brakes. It’s nicely relaxed for touring and comfortable although the old Peugeot bugbear of a cramped footwell remains.
I cut loose a little before I park the car for the final time, enjoying the tactile response and its pace and the rorty sound of the exhaust.
It’s not as overt as the Clio and definitely a long way behind the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG that tops the pops for exhaust excitement while also delivering huge smiles for much more money.
The Peugeot is a different style of car to the Renault and I like them both, for different reasons.
For that reason, the 208 GTi gets the Tick and I have another one ready and waiting for the Clio RS.