Blends performance and comfort, but likely to suffer for its price
Engine: 1.6 litres, four cylinders
Power: 197bhp @5800rpm
Torque: 203lb ft @5800rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Top Speed: 143mph
There’s my definition of a hiding to nothing: pitch a brand-new Peugeot 208 GTI against an old 205 GTI and expect the new car to emerge with anything other than egg on its face. Of course it has made progress, just not in the areas that interest those like me who’ve so fallen in love with the 205 GTI they have one in their shed.
So the 208 GTI is not as much fun as the 205 GTI and it would be naïve at best to think otherwise. It has more power — far more power, in fact — than the ancestor looking over its shoulder, but so too is it massively heavier and born into an era where a penchant for disappearing backwards through hedges is frowned upon.
So no, the spiritual successor it is not, nor ever was it likely to be.
But the 208 GTI is still a likeable and engaging performance hatchback. This is particularly pleasing, not only because its predecessors, the GTI versions of both the 206 and 207, were such poor driver’s cars, but also because it means the 208 can join the new RenaultSport Clio and Ford Fiesta ST to create the first new wave of credible, affordable performance hatchbacks in more than a decade.
Unfortunately it is also one of these cars — the exceptional Fiesta — that provides a good reason not to buy the Peugeot. Both cars offer very similar on-paper performance, but while the 208 is probably the best-handling Peugeot since the 306 GTI more than 10 years ago, that’s not saying much. The Peugeot has a clear enthusiasm for the open road whereas with the Ford it’s something closer to an obsession.
In the Peugeot’s favour are a far plusher interior, better ride quality and a higher level of standard equipment, but I’m not sure such considerations should count for much in such cars. When I bought a 205 GTI as a new car in 1985, I can remember reading all the road test reports criticising its bone-crunching spring rates and wondering why on earth they were getting so exercised. These cars are meant to handle like roller-skates and that one did.
This one doesn’t. Whereas you feel Ford has thrown caution to the wind and decided to make the most agile and engaging driver’s car it could, whatever the consequences for passenger comfort, Peugeot has been more cautious, retaining substantial compliance in the suspension and the light steering of other 208s.
The approach makes for a pragmatist’s hot hatch. You might not like it as much as the Ford, but your family will. Indeed most of the time it’ll make more sense even to you because it provides a level of civility and comfort the Fiesta cannot. But then you’ll find the very roads you bought a hot hatch to enjoy: the quick and nimble 208 will make you smile, but won’t split your face from ear to ear as will the Fiesta.
But here’s the thing: were they the same money I’d take the Ford, but they’re not. The 208 GTI is available from £18,895, the Fiesta ST from £16,995 — and that’s enough to make the narrow gap between the two nothing less than unbridgeable.