Road cars

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181

Spent a day this month messing about in a chum’s Peugeot 205GTI – an early 1.9-litre car without power steering, the best standard specification ever conceived for what I have no doubt is the greatest affordable performance car of the past 30 years.

And now the jungle drums rumble ever louder about a new one, to be launched next summer directly after the cooking Peugeot 208, a car I would have expected to be rather excited by if I’d been fortunate enough to have had a quick private peek at one (right).

But a good-looking 208 does not a great driving 208GTI make, and the fact is that every performance car since Peugeot stopped making the 205GTI almost 20 years ago has, by comparison, been a disappointment. And while I remain hugely encouraged by Peugeot’s recent return to form with mainstream models like the 3008, 5008 and 508, this is not a guarantee nor even a reliable indicator that Peugeot will get the 208GTI right. Its most recent sporting effort, the great-looking RCZ coupé, is dynamically satisfactory, but no more.

Besides, we’ve been here before. When Peugeot launched the 207GTI in the UK four years ago, its introduction was accompanied by a campaign comprising a picture of said Peugeot and the line: ‘207GTI, I’m back’, except the two ‘I’s had been morphed into one vertical red devil. I was quite excited until I drove one; thereafter I felt like putting my fist through every billboard I saw it on.

I just hope Peugeot realises how important this car is to its credibility. I still remember sitting next to one of its engineers at a dinner some years ago while he calmly explained to me why the fun car was now dead. Happily many others have begged to differ and Renault in particular has found no trouble in creating cars that are affordable and safe yet still quite hilarious on the right road. At least Peugeot will therefore know what the standard is. Given that and the fact that every hack over a certain age who drives it will be mentally comparing it to a car that first went into production 27 years ago, anything less than a positively scintillating hot hatchback will be viewed as a disappointment.

*

Times change fast in this industry and nowhere faster than in Japan. Consider the attitude of Toyota and Honda to sporting cars in the past few years. Toyota canned all its sports cars including the Celica, Supra and MR2 while Honda killed the S2000, cancelled the replacement for the NSX and put its Type-R brand on hold. Both withdrew from Formula 1. It seemed there was no place for such frivolities in these hard-nosed, tight-belted, credit crunched times.

Or maybe not. In a sizeable volte face, both these marques are about to embrace once more the very types of car they so recently rejected. By the time you read this the Tokyo motor show will be about to start, where Honda will reveal a concept of a car aimed straight at the Porsche Boxster, and Toyota will reveal an affordable two-door sports coupé currently called the FT- 86 (below) developed in collaboration with Subaru. With luck, by the time you re-tune next month I’ll have even managed a few laps of a Japanese test track in one. In the meantime Toyota has announced its return to Le Mans, while I have it on good authority that far from more Type-R Hondas being a distant hope, their announcement is an imminent reality. For both Honda and Toyota, whose brands have been suffering from a surfeit of worthy but dull product, this change of heart has come not a moment too soon.

*

Two of the most important car launches of this or any other year take place in the next month. First we will finally get to experience the new 911. Having spent a day in its passenger seat, I am confident it will be a fine Porsche, but without actually driving it I cannot say whether it will also deserve to be called a great 911.

Even more significant for millions more people will be the launch of the new 3-series BMW. By its own usually stratospheric standards the Bavarians have made some curiously lacklustre cars of late, but this is one they have to get right. The early signs are encouraging: the new car is longer, taller, more spacious and luxurious but also lighter and, model for model, more economical than the last, the result, says BMW, of its most ambitious engineering programme to date. Some things haven’t changed: it retains its rear-wheel drive layout, 50:50 weight distribution and proven Z-axle rear suspension, though interestingly a double wishbone arrangement at the front is used for the first time.

Sales begin in February but, as ever, BMW will drip-feed models into the market, aiming to maintain interest in the car throughout its lifetime. Count on the usual assortment, of estate, coupé and convertible body styles to be joined by a crossover hatchback to offer proper competition to the threat from Land Rover’s Evoque. As for the next M3, expect it to be rather different to the current car: the strategy of large capacity, normally aspirated engines for all M3s to date is likely to be ditched as it follows the lead of the new M5 and 1-Series M Coupé and adopts a forced induction engine. And don’t stay up waiting for it – it took two years after the introduction of the current 3-series for the M-version to turn up, and there’s no reason to think this generation will be any different.

*

I hope as you read this the country is not already under a carpet of snow. More than that I hope you’re not counting on heading out to your nearest tyre dealer and fitting your car with winter tyres to help you through the season. Far from these tyres not being worth it, they’re so good it appears they’ve become victims of their own success. Recently Continental felt inclined to delay a feature I’ve been planning involving its winter rubber, at least in part and quite understandably because it didn’t want publicity for tyres that are already in such demand and short supply they’re exceedingly hard to come by.

And if you can’t find the right tyres, please don’t presume that just because your car has four-wheel drive and a reputation for being good off road that you somehow have immunity from the conditions. To my knowledge no research has been done into the types of vehicle that have accidents in extreme adverse weather conditions, but I’d bet plenty that the proportion of 4x4s involved goes up and not down. People with cars lacking this facility tend to take the only truly safe option and stay at home, while those with huge and heavy off-roaders fitted with fat tyres utterly unsuited to the conditions often appear to take the first flakes of winter as their cue to behave like idiots. So it bears repeating: four-wheel drive has no effect on braking distance, nor can it give a tyre lateral adhesion it would otherwise not possess. What it does do, and do very well, is provide traction, allowing cars to accelerate hard on extremely slippery surfaces. Put another way, it can raise the speed at which you finally fly off the road.

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