I’ll admit that, thanks to the presence of a Peugeot 205GTI in my shed, I was more torn than usual about my hopes for the Peugeot’s third attempt to replace it, the 208GTI. It’s rather like your relatives: of course you want them to be successful but not so wildly over-achieving and prosperous they end up making you feel a bit of a twit. So I wanted the 208GTI to be a good car; but a great one? I was not so sure.
I know comparing cars from different generations is a fool’s errand, just like comparing drivers. I can remember John Surtees getting really quite tetchy when I asked him to rate Fangio, Senna and Schumacher. Without putting them in the same car on the same track at the same time, how could anyone say? The only difference if I was able to drive two Peugeots on the same roads and, if not quite at the same time then at least in pretty quick succession.
The result was mildly surprising. I expected the new car to be wildly quicker point to point but offer a miserable fraction of the fun. In fact in both regards the cars were closer than I’d expected.
Around a track I am sure the 208GTI with its 197bhp, fat tyres and big brakes would walk all over the 205, but on the road the older car’s miniscule dimensions (parked nose to tail it looks like the 208 is about to eat the 205), outstanding all round visibility, instant throttle response, race car gearing and comically responsive handling make up almost all the shortfall.
The perhaps bigger surprise is that having laughed yourself silly in the 205, the 208 is still clearly entertaining to drive. It is perhaps not a car to have you instinctively reaching for the maps out in the hope of finding a the perfect road for it, but should you chance across one, it will keep you commendably amused from end to end. Upwards of 200kg lighter than the ghastly 207GTI and with a chassis tuned to offer more than several shades of understeer, 20 years too late, Peugeot is starting to reclaim its once impregnable authority in this domain.
In fact you only really become aware of just how much more ground remains to be covered when you climb back into the 205. What it has that remains lost even to the best modern hatchbacks is the ability to involve you in what it’s doing, the single most important component of driving pleasure. The steering is so lucid it’s as if you’ve been driving modern cars wearing several pairs of gloves, the chassis so active yet accurate you feel you could slide it all day and never use one inch more tarmac than intended. In short, it makes you feel like you know how to drive, while the 208GTI invites you to sit back, relax and watch a reasonably engaging show.
I know I am biased but I do know this: most cars that have long passed out of production but are not yet old enough to be considered classics exist today only to illustrate how wonderful modern cars are. If you drove anything from a Mini Metro to a Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit you’d be staggered by how much progress has been made in the last quarter century. But not with affordable driver’s cars. There has been progress, yes, but much of it in the wrong direction.
Even so, I think I can say that on the evidence of the 208GTI and also the excellent Ford Fiesta ST that the tide appears to be turning back to the shore on which we stand. But it will need to keep on coming for quite a while yet before anyone starts to make favourable comparisons between these cars and their most illustrious forebears.