Raise a glass to 208
THE 208 hatchback sees Peugeot build yet more sophistication and style into its supermini line. With some extremely economical engines and a focus on making the car better to drive and better to sit in, this could well be one to watch.
Popularity contests are rarely edifying processes and the monster sales figures of Peugeot's 206 demonstrated that perhaps British buyers weren't quite as savvy as they liked to think.
Although it was pretty and well priced, the 206 was never a good car to drive, suffered a number of reliability woes and probably did as much as any car in Peugeot's history to turn well- intentioned buyers off the brand. Its successor, the 207, wasn't at all bad, but it was always playing catch up, trying to score sales at a time when the rest of the Peugeot range was increasingly plagued by ungainly styling.
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While some of this might sound a rather harsh review, it's key to understand how far Peugeot has come from the mediocre 206 through the credible but slightly unresolved 207 to the far more sophisticated and measured 208 we see before us here. Has Peugeot's supermini been fully rehabilitated?
The best thing about the 207 was its engine technology and the 208 carries on where the 207 left off with probably the most impressive range of efficient engines in the whole supermini class. Encouragingly, Peugeot has made a solid commitment to making the 208 a more fun car to drive than its immediate predecessor. Rather than start with a toe in the water, Peugeot is launching a full product offensive, with three diesel engines and five petrol powerplants, all installed into bodyshells lighter than before.
On the road, I tried some of the larger petrol and diesel engines on offer, figuring that more was better, but the affordable 82bhp 1.2-litre powerplant aced the lot of them for sheer fun. That's despite the fact that it's not even particularly quick. 62mph comes and goes in 12.2 seconds while the top speed is 109mph.
You'll need to be pretty slick with the five-speed manual box to keep things on the boil, but as you punt it through corners you'll be amazed at the sheer amount of front end grip on offer and its speed of turn-in. It's a real hoot to drive, with a willingness to rev and very little flywheel effect. It's the first small car I've driven for a long time that suddenly gave me the pang of wanting to actually own it.
DESIGN AND BUILD
The 208 represents a new design direction for Peugeot in this class. Many of the styling cues are directly attributable to the SR1 show car which debuted at the 2010 Geneva Show and while the basic silhouette could be accused of being a little more generic than its predecessors, the detailing is crisp, the surfacing neat and the overall shape is extremely cohesive.
The cabin is a big step ahead too and there's some novel thinking afoot. Rather than peer through the steering wheel at the gauges, Peugeot has instead made the wheel smaller and lower so that drivers will be able to look over it for an unobstructed view of the main instrument binnacle. Higher-quality finishes and a very neat infotainment system feature, while both three and five-door models offer plenty more occupant space.
While the Peugeot 207 was a reasonably competent and perfectly inoffensive thing, it was always a tough car to recommend over a bunch of very talented rivals. Peugeot certainly doesn't want the 208 to follow that path and has equipped it to challenge for class honours. With a broad range of engines, a choice of manual or robotised sequential gearboxes, three and five-door body styles and some sassy styling either way, the 208 gets the basics spot on.
It has also arrived at a very opportune time for Peugeot, with several of its rivals now ageing and due for replacement. If it can make its mark early and hard, they'll have a tough time to dislodge it. Peugeot is a brand that appears to have rediscovered its mojo. Anybody who loves small, fun cars will raise a glass to that fact.