Peugeot is remarkably open about the relative lack of success of the 207 - in comparison to the 206 in any case. Its all-new 208 hatchback is set to redress the balance. It's significantly lighter, to the benefit of the ride and handling, and of course efficiency. One of the stars of the line-up is the new three-cylinder petrol engine tested here.
In the Metal:
Peugeot's new family face has been applied to the 208 and it works well enough with the smaller grille. It's more distinctive with fog lights and chrome highlighting, which means basic cars may not be as interesting to look at. Elsewhere, there's plenty to look at, from the sculpting of the doors to the kink at the front of the side glass. We also love the little chrome kick at the rear, harking back to the plastic inserts of the Peugeot 205. The lights are distinctive too, especially the 'claw' like rear items. Word of warning though: like a lot of contemporary designs the 208 is colour and wheel sensitive. Go for a metallic hue with the largest wheels you can afford - if the looks are important to you.
Inside, Peugeot has managed to liberate more knee room for rear passengers and 15 litres of extra space for luggage. The big talking point though is its unconventional dashboard layout. You view the (impressively clear) instruments over the top of the steering wheel, not through it. This relies on the fitment of a distinctly small wheel, which is a joy to hold by the way, and it works for the most part - though drivers will have to find the right position of seat and wheel to ensure they can see all of the instruments. Meanwhile, the centre console is dominated by a large touch-screen system.
The adoption of a small steering wheel across the 208 line-up is a stroke of genius. Immediately it gives the car a feeling of nimbleness. It's no false dawn either, as it quickly dives into corners sticking resolutely to the line you set it. There's some roll, but body control in general is quite good and you can adjust the car's attitude through a bend by judicious use of the throttle. Amazingly, it does all this while riding with real composure, soaking up bumps as good as any other car in the class.
All versions we tried share the above characteristics, along with an overall sense of refinement, but the 1.2-litre model goes further thanks to the extra weight reduction over the nose of the car. Its steering is alive in your hands and it's genuinely great fun to drive. That's despite a modest 82hp on tap and uninspiring straight-line performance figures. The way this car carries speed makes it quicker in the real world than many more powerful models.
What you get for your Money:
Peugeot Ireland won't release full pricing and specification details until closer to the 208's Irish launch in June, but it has confirmed that the new hatchback will be sold in three- and five-door formats in three trim levels: Access, Active and Allure. The mid-level Active model is expected to account for 80 per cent of sales in Ireland, most powered by the company's new 1.2-litre petrol engine as tested. ESP and six airbags are standard across the range. The touch-screen system will be standard on Active and Allure models, though satnav will be an extra.
Until the 208 GTi arrives all versions of the 208 sold in Ireland will sit in Band A (excluding the special order 1.6-litre versions). Petrol options are a 68hp 1.0-litre and an 82hp 1.2-litre. Diesel buyers are catered for by two versions of a 1.4-litre HDi engine, both with 68hp - boasting emissions as low as 87g/km. Despite the proliferation of diesel in Ireland Peugeot expects the petrol-powered 208 to account for 65 per cent of sales due to their lower pricing.
Understandably, Peugeot wanted to talk to us about the hatchback rather than future derivatives of the 208, but we did manage to glean a few choice details from various personnel. Clearly the GTi is of interest to a lot of enthusiasts, and the new chassis bodes well for its abilities. Little was said other than 'no decision has been made'. However, it will have more than 200hp at its disposal.
Peugeot has plans to replace the CC coupé-cabriolet and SW estate models too, though intriguingly it suggested that they may not be the same in execution. We suggested the possibility of a Peugeot 2008 along the lines of the Nissan Juke and it was agreed that it would be great. Could there also be a separate coupé and roadster? No doubt the Paris Motor Show this autumn will reveal more.
Peugeot has done the unthinkable and replaced its so-so 207 with a car that instantly competes with the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo. In many ways it's better than those cars. Not only is the 208 highly efficient, comfortable and refined, it's great to drive.