How do you define the best athlete? Is it Usain Bolt, sprint specialist and arguably the fastest man on earth, or is it a decathlon competitor, capable of doing multiple things well, but none of them exceptionally? It’s the age old question of whether you’d rather be a jack of all trades or master of one – and Peugeot’s 208 GTi has the answer.
Why not be great at everything? This is the question Peugeot’s feisty 208 GTi poses, loaded with accessories, featuring a punchy 147kW 1.6-litre turbocharged engine – the same found in the previous Mini Cooper S – a manual gearbox, light weight, a great interior, and a comfortable drive. The 208 GTi has all of these in bucket loads; but against competition like the Polo GTI, Fiesta ST, Clio RS, and Corsa OPC, what sets the Pug apart?
Built on the foundation of the 208 that we love so much, the GTi turns the dials up a few notches, starting from the outside with sportier styling, larger wheels and accompanying rubber, and touches of red, with GTi badging differentiating the model from the lowly town-runners. The interior of the 208 GTi takes the game to a new level, with two-tone black and red upholstery and accents throughout the cabin, black fading into red on the dash and door handles. It feels special, sporty – aided greatly by the miniscule steering wheel which feels rather go-kart-like. Visibility is, as you’d expect from such a tiny vehicle, rather great, although the instrument cluster is awkwardly positioned behind the wheel, and only after much fiddling about with seat heights was I able to comfortably view the speedo- and tachometers whilst driving. The pedal placement and spacing was also slightly awry, seemingly off centre, and spaced just a bit too wide for heel and toe shifting.
Thanks to the excellent visibility, road placement in the 208 GTi couldn’t be easier – its small frame seeming to fit within the lines with masses of space to spare. The minute steering wheel felt perfectly sized once on the move, enabling small changes of direction with a sharp, direct response from the front wheels. Feedback through the wheel was ample, but never quite relayed the smaller intricacies of the road surface to the driver. The chassis remedied this somewhat, providing rather accurate feedback to the driver, but the comfy suspension setup still muted the full potential to relay road surface to the driver.
Despite muting some of the feedback, the suspension remained comfortably capable, and capably comfortable – riding over bumpy roads with a level of comfort seldom seen in the small hot hatch arena. Body roll was also minimised, despite the softer setup, a pleasant surprise particularly around long curves at rapid speed. The suspension setting carried with it a downside though, as the front wheels weren’t as grippy as one would have hoped, or expected. Under hard cornering, more so at speeds below 60km/h, and occasionally seen at speeds above that, the GTi had a tendency to understeer quite a bit – the front end letting go without much warning. The result retarded driver confidence through sinuous roads, forcing early braking to avoid carrying much speed through the corners, a problem when speed came so freely.
With 147kW and 275Nm on tap from the 1.6-litre turbo mill, speed was an expected outcome. Mated to a sweet 6-speed manual gearbox and driving the front wheels of the 1160Kg GTi, the engine had no problem revving freely and providing much grunt. The growl of the 4-pot somewhat shamed competitors in this class, and the power when in boost range was easily accessible in any gear. Turbo-lag was however an issue, with moments of delay between throttle inputs and actual acceleration. Flat out, with responsiveness a non-issue, the 208 was rapid, shunting forward with cartoonish drive. From standstill, Peugeot claim the GTi is capable of a 0-100km.h sprint of 6.8 seconds, which seems easily achievable. In a straight line, the Peugeot shines, enticing a smile and urging a poke of the throttle whenever a gap in the traffic appears. The slick-shifting manual gearbox fits every petrolhead’s fetish to a tee, and the short gearing combined with high torque on offer made for a pleasurable experience swapping cogs about whenever needed.
Fun-factor and hot hatchery apart, the 208 GTi also played the part of a town-runner with aplomb. The engine, although feisty, was able to maintain frugality too, with our test unit averaging 7l/100km on a combined efficiency test, and even under spirited driving conditions never cracking the 10l/100km mark. The comfortable ride and great visibility made manoeuvrability simple, and the standard park distance control, fore and aft, came in handy in tight gaps. Amongst the GTi’s party tricks was the automatic parallel parking ability, which worked flawlessly at identifying a parking space and parking accordingly with utmost precision. The most daunting part of the experience was by far the lack of control, the steering wheel turning freely ahead of you as if guided by an invisible hand.
Aside from that, the list of equipment was fantastic, with dual zone climate control, navigation, cruise control, a touch screen media and infotainment setup, and electric folding mirrors all included in the package. The Bluetooth connectivity worked like a dream, although the touch screen setup took some getting used to. The available kit belied the small dimensions of the Frenchman, and easily offset the slightly expensive asking price of R301 600 – but I couldn’t help but think a bare-spec R260k option would go down a treat.
The Peugeot 208 GTi proves that the French manufacturer is willing to roll with the big dogs in the small hot hatch arena. It’s the easy-going hot hatch with feistiness on demand and character in bucket loads. It’s far more than a one-trick pony and is a jack of all trades as well as master of some. However it isn’t the most dynamic and the masses of understeer somewhat dull its dynamic ability compared to the likes of the Ford Fiesta ST. For those who wish to have a good time in relative comfort and luxury, with a good old fashioned manual transmission, without too much exertion, the 208 GTi makes an argument that’s hard to ignore. The every day hot hatch remains a GTi, but it’s no longer German – instead it’s French, and it’s rather fantastic.
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147kW @ 5800RPM
275Nm @ 1700RPM
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Author: Roger Biermann