Peugeot 208 GTi

We get behind the wheel of the new Peugeot 208 GTi, ahead of its arrival in UK showrooms in April

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

While the new Renault Clio RS has taken a hi-tech route, the 208 GTi is a more traditional hot hatch. A punchy engine, quick steering, low weight and tuned chassis make it agile and fun – qualities absent from Peugeot hot hatches for years. On this evidence, the Ford Fiesta ST and fast Clio should be worried.

It's impossible to talk about the new Peugeot 208 GTi without acknowledging its two arch rivals – the Ford Fiesta ST and Renaultsport Clio 200 Turbo. By a miraculous coincidence, all three are being launched within a few weeks of each other, and the 208 is the final member of the trio for us to drive.

The similarities between the three run deeper than their 1.6-litre turbocharged engines – all have an illustrious history to live up to and a loyal fan base to keep happy. Of the three, though, the 208 GTi has the biggest boots to fill. The 205 GTi still looms large in hot hatch folklore and comparisons to the old master are inevitable, although it’s an unfair association to make.

The 205 GTi was adored for its communicative unassisted steering, its agility and its unfussy engineering, but a car in that mould isn’t possible these days. Crash regulations, the amount of equipment customers demand and ever-tightening CO2 emissions have moved the goalposts. So let’s wipe the slate clean and judge the 208 GTi how all hot hatches should – by how big a smile it puts on your face.

The standard 208 is our current Supermini of the Year, so we’re clearly fans of the looks, and the GTi builds on that with deeper bodywork, a three-dimensional chequerboard grille, plus the GTi logo on the C-pillar – a nod towards the 205.

Red brake calipers are visible through the 17-inch Diamond Carbon wheels, the wing mirrors are finished in chrome, while a twin tailpipe spruces up the rear. It’s a more mature look than the lairy Fiesta ST’s, but does just enough to turn heads.

You sit 10mm lower than in the standard 208, within the bowels of the car, hugged on all sides by the deeply bolstered part-leather sports seats. The small-rimmed steering wheel from the 208 is carried over and actually seems more at home in these sportier surroundings – although with my driving position the top of the wheel still blocks the instrument panel behind.

A red, black and satin chrome colour scheme is used throughout and there are some superb touches – such as the leather dash and metal gearlever – but the scratchy plastic on the top of the doors is disappointing.

To fire up the engine there’s no need to depress the clutch or find the starter button. Just like in the 205 GTi you simply insert the key and twist – an action that feels delightfully old-fashioned.

The engine sparks into life and settles to a quiet idle. Blip the throttle, though, and the exhaust emits a gruff cough. Making a 1.6-litre turbo – in the 208’s case with 197bhp and a muscular 275Nm of torque – sound the part is clearly an issue.

Ford’s engineers resorted to a sound symposer in the Fiesta ST (which pipes sound from the engine inlet through the dash), while the Clio RS has a similar sound pipe, plus an app that plays the sound of a Nissan GT-R – or a spaceship – through the stereo speakers. Peugeot has stuck with a more conventional sports exhaust, though, and the results are good enough.

There’s a whine from under the bonnet, but the bassy note increases in volume as the revs rise. It could just do with some MINI Cooper S-style pops and bangs on the overrun to add to the drama.

Squeeze the throttle, and unless you let the revs drop too low, acceleration is muscular and immediate. Get on the throttle early in tight corners and the front wheels scrabble slightly, before firing you out the other side. In other words, you can use all the GTi’s power, but still keep things smooth and fast on the road. The gearshift is precise, with a slight mechanical feel, which connects you to the whole experience.

The chassis has been thoroughly reworked, with wider tracks (10mm at the front, 20mm at the rear), tuned suspension (MacPherson strut at the front, multi-link at the rear) and firmer springs, dampers and anti-roll bars. More weight has been added to the steering, too, and at 1,160kg this car is 165kg lighter than the underwhelming 207 GTi. Crucially, it’s also 3kg and 44kg lighter than the Fiesta ST and Clio RS respectively.

The result is the 208 GTi dances from corner to corner with grip to spare. There’s a slight tilt of the body as you tip it into corners, but the body control never feels loose. Turn the wheel sharply and the nose responds obediently, while the steering weights up slightly, although Peugeot could have gone even further with that aspect. Overall, it feels utterly planted, and sticks like glue to the line you choose, even with the ESP disengaged.

Wind the pace down, and we’re pleased to report that Peugeot hasn’t ditched comfort and refinement in the pursuit of handling. The suspension only crashes over sharp ridges and is supple the rest of the time, while refinement is good for a car of this size. Which makes it just what a GTi should be – a performance car perfect for every day use.

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