Car nuts (us included) still rant on about how great the Peugeot 205 GTi was, and that's the car the new 208 GTi has to square up to spiritually, but in buyers' eyes it needs to be better than the equally new (and cheaper) Ford Fiesta ST and Clio Renaultsport. Can it do that?
In the Metal:
It's down to personal preference, but the Peugeot 208 GTi is certainly one of the most striking of the junior hot hatches on the market right now. Peugeot sensibly went for the sportier three-door body shell and it clearly stands out from the rest of the 208 line-up - without labelling its owner as an enemy to society. Wheelarch extensions and side sills beef up the appearance no end and they're helped by the lower ride height and wider tracks front and rear. The 17-inch alloys fill those arches convincingly too.
Up front are uniquely styled headlights and a new grille that takes the form of a 3D chequered flag. Under that is a red inlay that may be replaced by one bearing the Union Jack or the Italian or French tri-colours if you feel so inclined. That red colour is used throughout and there's a chromed 'GTi' logo at the trailing edge of the side glass.
Inside, the colour theme is red, black and 'satin chrome' and it looks suitably distanced from humbler 208s. The small steering wheel is rimmed in leather and features the GTi motif plus a red 'straight ahead' insert, while the dashboard is trimmed in black polyurethane PVC with prominent red stitching. The latter is better than it sounds, and distracts you from the hard scratchy plastics further down the cabin... As does a chunky aluminium top to the manual gear lever. The high-mounted touch-screen infotainment system is standard.
As part of the international launch, Peugeot managed to secure a small section of public road for its own uses, so we had the security of knowing that nothing was coming the other way while testing the chassis to its limits on proper surfaces. In fairness, the surface was better than most roads in Ireland, but there was a lot of camber and direction change to test the 208 GTi's mettle.
The overriding impression we came away with was composure and stability. In the dry there's a surfeit of grip and the GTi can be steered wherever the driver pleases. Body control is kept in check and the steering is direct and well-weighted. The brakes are strong and the gear change fluid and the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine sounds suitably sporty when you put your foot down.
However, if you're hoping to hear that the 208 GTi recaptures some of its illustrious forebears' engagement with the driver, you may be disappointed. The steering system is devoid of feel for a start, regardless of how quickly the nose seeks out an apex. The engine performance, despite what the numbers suggest, isn't all that impressive at low speeds either. It only truly comes alive when you wring it out to the redline. Do that and the whole car begins to feel more interesting. It's almost too good at normal road speeds for its own good.
Admittedly, we suspect that it's the minority of car buyers - even those that invest in performance motors and truly love cars - that have the skill or tendency to drive them really hard. That appears to be a gamble Peugeot is taking with the 208 GTi, as it eschews adjustability and engagement for safety, security and more refinement than you might expect. No doubt that makes it a better all-rounder, one that will appeal to more buyers, but it will certainly leave those that relish driving wanting more.
What you get for your Money:
At first glance there appears to be an elephant in the room, and that's the price of the 208 GTi in comparison to the equally new (and equally talented) Ford Fiesta ST. In fairness, the Peugeot has more power and torque than the Ford and considerably more equipment than the entry-level Fiesta ST1. Compared with the Fiesta ST2 it makes a good value case for itself.
The final Irish specification has yet to be nailed down, but we expect it to feature half-leather sports seats, air conditioning, rear parking sensors and electric windows at least.
Is the 208 GTi a little too overtly sporting for your tastes (and wallet)? Then Peugeot would like to talk to you about its new XY models. Available with 1.6-litre HDi diesel or THP petrol engines, it's more of a trim level than a standalone variant, though it does adopt the wider wheelarches and sills of the GTi and comes in a range of bespoke colours. It also has sportier suspension than the standard 208 and a higher specification interior. Peugeot Ireland doesn't plan to list the 208 XY as for sale, but dealers would be happy to take special orders for it if there is interest.
Apparently the name 'XY' is to show it's for men and women and it's a hint of what's the come from the company in terms of attempting to move its image more upmarket.
It may seem harsh to criticise the Peugeot 208 GTi for being too competent when that's what the majority of buyers will want. Enthusiasts demand more though, and the new hot hatch lacks that all-important emotional connection with its driver, association with the 205 GTi notwithstanding. Can we have a limited edition Rallye version for those of us that care, please Peugeot?