Bringing Up Baby

There’s one born every 24 seconds! That is Peugeot Talbot’s claim about its precocious baby, the 205, which has been a best-seller from its birth in 1983. Now it comes in every possible variant from the performance end (where there are two choices) through one of the most attractive cabriolets around, down to teetotalling petrol-misers and a powerful diesel which is the nearest thing to an oil-burning sportscar we have yet seen.

Inevitably we lived up to our title in selecting the very fastest (though not the dearest, which is the cabrio) model for this test, the 1.9 GTi. This is the third stage of development for the fuel-injected sports hatch, though not through any shortcomings of the first two. The original 1.6 GTi was right from the start, give or take a few damper settings, and its combination of cheeky looks and useable speed weaned many an envious eye away from the previously unchallenged Golf.

But the better the chassis, the more power is demanded, and Peugeot’s 105 bhp soon began to look a little stingy. A temporary answer was to offer a tuning package of cams and exhaust, known as the Plus pack, which squeezed out another 20 horsepower, but the result was a power unit which sacrificed all the flexibility of the basic unit and felt more like a saloon racer, wanting to work flat-out or not at all.

So, a year or so ago, the company introduced a revised 115 bhp specification which retained the healthy torque curve but increased the maximum to 122 mph, with 60 mph on hand in just over eight seconds. Impressive figures; yet parallel development work at Citroen, whose engine range is shared between the two French firms, was about to culminate in the BX GTi 1.9, the remarkably rapid medium saloon.

Coincidentally, MOTOR SPORT tested Peugeot’s original Plus-packed car at the same time as the Cheetah, a private 205 conversion from Charters of Aldershot, known and praised in these pages in past years for its potent modifications to Sunbeams and Sambas. This too was a 1900cc version of the little Peugeot, produced by mixing and matching from amongst the Citroen parts bins, and it displayed such staggering midrange punch that the tuned factory offering wilted in comparison.

History, so I am told, often repeats itself: the Cheetah Sunbeam was eclipsed by the glorious Sunbeam Lotus, a car I still remember in vivid detail. Raucous and tail-happy, it always seemed to be snarling on opposite lock, even on Hyde Park Corner . . . But to revert to our Gallic subject, the Cheetah 205 was only allowed to bloom briefly before the product planners at Peugeot Talbot agreed that the 1905cc BX engine should also find a home in the little 205 GTi.

As used in the Citroen and the 1.9 Peugeot, the transverse XU9JA engine produces 130 bhp at 6000 rpm. A single overhead cam driven by toothed belt (unlike the chain drive in smaller versions) operates two valves per cylinder in an alloy head. Fuel is controlled by Bosch LE2 Jetronic injection which incorporates fuel cut-off on deceleration, chiming back in at 1600 rpm, and at a maximum of 6900 rpm on acceleration, though it looked more like 7100 on the tach. Transistorised ignition is used.

Although the torque figure is a middling 115 lb ft, the curve is remarkably flat, with nine-tenths of the effort available for more than three-quarters of the rev range. This translates to a particularly flexible power source which pulls firmly in any gear; however, it is not the smoothest four in this class, displaying a degree of roughness absent. from, say, Toyota’s four-valver in either 1.6 or 2.0-litre guise.

To compensate for the larger diameter tyres, the final drive has been lowered, but first gear is slightly longer. At maximum revs the new top speed is claimed to be some 127 mph, although when we were taking our performance figures we were unable to verify this as the main test track straight was unavailable. Nor could we match the specified 0-60 mph acceleration times: on two separate days our best was “only” a consistent 8.6 seconds, instead of the claimed 7.8.

What did impress was the in-gear performance the 205 turned in: 30-50 mph, 3.6 sec; 50-70, 5.7 sec; even the top-gear surge from 70-90 mph was dispatched in a best of 8.2 seconds. These are figures which would do justice to a big-engined sportscar, and they indicate just what the Peugeot is strong on — mid-range urge. Overtaking is rapid in fourth and lightning fast in third, giving the little hatch the ability to keep up a good average speed even on busy roads.

Unusually, the lesser of the two GTis has been allowed to remain on the strength, giving the customer all the glamour that the GTi tag conveys while saving over £1250; the 1.9 costs £9695, not in itself bad value considering its extraordinary performance, while the 1.6 looks particularly good at £8445.

The price difference covers more than just the engine: the rear drum brakes found on all other 205s including the 1.6 GTi give way to discs, the suspension is a little harder, both in spring rate and damping, and the wheels grow to 15in, which is almost the only way of telling the two models apart. Yes, the badges say “1.9”, but one has to be parked next to it to read them.

In other respects the fastest of the 205 superminis is, not surprisingly, very similar to its brethren: electric windows and locks are included, and while both are supplied with a leather sports steering wheel, the bigger-engined car also gets leather trim on its seats.

After a particularly good run in the 1.6 GTi last year along a wonderful winding and undulating wooded route through Surrey and Hampshire, I was moved to comment to my passenger that I could not frankly imagine improving my average speed even with a more powerful car, such was the agility and confidence the car inspired. The same feeling returned after pursuing some Leicestershire by-roads in the 1.9, but reinforced by the tighter damping which ties the car down on undulating corners which would have unsettled the earliest version of the GTi.

On the other hand, suspension travel feels as if it has been reduced, and certainly I more than once saw the revs soar as the front end shipped over a brow, and a sudden bump can twitch the back wheels a foot or so sideways. Yet a minor adjustment of the wheel immediately aligns everything again.

In fitting the larger wheels, Peugeot has also countered criticism of excessive steering weight in the 115 bhp models by reducing the offset and installing a new front hub/brake assembly which reduces the track by 10mm. At the same time fitting rear discs has pushed rear track up by 11 mm, so there is no loss of stability.

Response to the small steering wheel is very rapid; whether trying to keep down to an officially acceptable rate on the M1 or being funnelled between country hedgerows, the chassis turns almost as quickly as the wheel does, though the set-up is not too light. Indeed, it can need a good heave to wind the car out of a tight parking place, and the wheel twitches oddly approaching full lock, but in general it has all the feel one could wish.

This is not a quiet car, for there is both wind and tyre roar, and the engine makes its efforts obvious with a loud rasp. Yet the effect of this and the lively ride is invigorating rather than tiring, at least over short periods.

Well-spaced ratios complement the flexible engine almost ideally, although second is perhaps a touch high for city corners; a little jerkiness in the test car’s throttle pedal at low revs often had me selecting first, which itself is higher than before. Yet the change itself is quite astonishingly light, and possibly the quickest I have ever used, better even than that of the Maserati Biturbo. It is possible to flick the short lever without thinking into any ratio with the merest touch on the accelerator. Fifth to third, or second to fourth, no need to pause for the syncromesh, the box will swap cogs as fast as you can move the lever. With such slick shifts as this, heeling and toeing is not really needed, though of course it does serve to smooth out the braking.

Pedal effort is reasonable, and the car stops very straight despite its short wheelbase, but the brakes get rather soft quite quickly in rapid driving.

Grey plastic is the dominant note inside, with a compact group of dials all visible through the wheel: the usual speedometer and rev-counter are split by a vertical bank of warning lights, with not only fuel and water dials but also oil temperature and pressure outside these. In the central section is a neat group of heat/vent sliders together with a clock the driver cannot see and an ashtray which pops open every time one adjusts the fan. The ventilation is not very flexible or effective. In front of the gear lever with its leather gaiter is a cubby-hole, which would be handy if only its contents did not fall out every time the car accelerates.

Red stitching adorns the cloth and leather seats, which lift forward to give very good access to the rear, although naturally the space thus revealed is hardly luxurious. But with the seats folded I managed to get a full-size bicycle in the back, minus its front wheel, and still close the hatch.

Settling behind the wheel of the diminutive Pug brings a feeling of purpose: the small wheel is nicely placed, with the gearknob near at hand, and the seat offers a good upright position. Two manually-adjustable door mirrors, though small, give a fine rear view because they are mounted well out; on the other hand, the visor interferes with the interior mirror.

Clutch action is light like everything else about the car; in fact it feels a little tinny, redeemed by the fact that it does not claim to be a luxury saloon, despite its electric windows. Only one extra was fitted to the test car, a sliding glass sunroof which works in an unusual and clever fashion. The sliding panel is of unframed glass with closing strips only on the front three edges. Around the opening below is a hollow rubber seal which is evacuated by a small piston whenever the handle is released, retracting and allowing the glass to slide backwards. Once the roof is open, the handle is flipped out of the way and air rushes back into the seal, locking the panel in the open position.

For, a front-wheel-drive car, this really is an exceptionally well-balanced vehicle. Faster roads with sweeping curves require little effort to keep the car flowing smoothly in fourth and fifth, while tighter terrain needs a bit more work at the wheel to turn the car into each comer. Once settled, with the revs buzzing near their peak, the car’s traction counteracts any tendency to run wide, and it will hug the inside kerb with grim determination.

That quick gearchange means that the chassis is not upset by shifting up mid-bend, so the revs can be kept in the highest part of the power band like a rally car when the mood takes one. But even including sorne of this fast transit the fuel usage was moderate, averaging some 27.6 mpg overall.

If this were only a larger car, it would be an outright winner in the hatchback race. For dynamic verve I can think of few cars which would have the legs of it at a comparable price. The two closest rivals in spirit both come from Italy: Fiat’s Uno Turbo which is very quick and has full room for four adults, but is not as stable or grippy, and Lancia’s Delta Turbo which in 2WD costs a little less at £9250. Certainly the Delta is on the same accelerative plane, but it requires more effort at speed on tight roads than the delightfully eager 205.

France’s other contender, the rapid Renault 5 GT Turbo , scores on speed and overall roadholding, but is less forgiving, and to many eyes not as handsome.

And, of course the Peugeot lion is on the crest of the fashion wave just now, something which means a good deal amongst its likely purchasers. French chic still counts. GC.