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Car reviews - Peugeot - 206 - GTi 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Elastic performance, style, practicality
Room for improvement
Difficult gearshift, awkward driving position for some

6 Jun 2001

FIRST impressions are that the pricing of Peugeot's new 206 GTI stretches credibility more than a little. A hatchback not much bigger than a Barina yet costing more than a Holden Commodore? You've got to be joking ...

A reasonable sentiment indeed, but a quick reality check shows that the new hot-hatch Peugeot is actually cheaper than its predecessor, the 205 GTI, at the time it disappeared more than five years ago.

On top of that, the new car abounds with features that probably weren't even thought of when the 205 was first conceived in the mid-1980s.

Unlike the 205, the engine is no longer a simple, single-cam unit, but employs aluminium construction, twin camshafts and multi-valve technology to punch out more power and more torque than the iron-block 1.9-litre - enough to easily overcome a weight increase of around 90kg. In fact the power-weight ratio goes up from the 205's figure of about 80kW per tonne to 97kW per tonne.

Then there are little niceties like anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes, power steering and a swag of passive safety equipment including dual front airbags as well as side airbags. This is in addition to a computer designed body able to cope better in impacts from any direction. It also resists time better, with 77 per cent of its body panels made of galvanised steel.

But wait. There's more.

The little Peugeot is also bigger, in all directions, so interior space and comfort has improved, as have general dynamics including ride comfort and handling.

So the 206 GTI is, appropriately, very much a product of the 1990s, as appealing to look at today as the 205 GTI was in the 1980s and definitely a car to consider if the idea of European credibility in a hard-charging small car appeals to you.

The GTI uses the three-door 206 body also available in entry- level XR trim, but throws in all the features of the more expensive XT. On top of this it adds the side airbags, and an extra couple of sound-system speakers.

The important stuff, though, concerns the running gear and in this region the GTI shows significant differences when compared to other 206 models.

The 2.0-litre, 102kW engine comes from the bigger 406 model and is mated to a modified five-speed manual transmission from the 306.

Suspension has been given a complete rework, with heavier front and rear roll bars, multi-valve gas dampers and new rear torsion bars working in concert with bigger, 15-inch alloy wheels and V- rated 185/55 tyres. All this is designed to hurry the GTI around corners more quickly - at the expense of a firmer ride.

The steering is different too, a little heavier than regular 206s, but with a wider turning circle and slightly less turning required to go from lock to lock.

Inside, there's a pair of more supportive "sports" seats up front, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, some metallic embellishments on the instrument panel and alloy highlights on the gear lever and floor pedals.

From the outside, there's a subtle but neat flaring of the front mudguards to accommodate the bigger wheels and a splash of colour coding on door handles. The teardrop headlight clusters use clear lenses where other 206s have the more common refractive types.

With 102kW and just over one tonne to carry, the GTI proves to be an eager performer, faster than the 205 yet surprisingly economical, and better on the open road than the smaller-engined XR and XT models.

And it aims to please the driver with more sure-footed response than regular 206s, underlined by the anticipated firmer ride. It responds more readily to the steering wheel, and clings more tenaciously to the road surface on the way through a corner.

But it still subscribes to the theory that a performance car should require some special skills from the driver and asks for quite a bit of concentration if smooth gearshifts are to be achieved.

Like the lesser-engined cars, it has a relatively long-throw shift lever and a clutch action that is only smooth if the driver takes special care. Tightly-spaced floor pedals don't help here either. And the "electronic flywheel" effect (where engine rpm dies slowly at throttle lift-off) that complicates the business of gear changing in other 206 models contributes difficulties here too.

The brake pedal is also unprogressive of nature and is usually responsible for some over-braking until the driver becomes accustomed to the car.

That said, the GTI has a long-legged feel about it as the engine winds out smoothly and musically to its red line, forging ahead with real enthusiasm to 100km/h in around 8.4 seconds and covering the standing 400 metres in 16.4 seconds. Not a whole lot faster than a 205 GTI, but embellished by a more forgiving, yet still agile nature.

In fact duality is intrinsic to the GTI. The multi-valve 2.0- litre is actually a quite relaxed performer, not a highly- stressed sports engine, so it has been designed for flexibility across the rpm range. The result is the GTI is content to dribble along at low engine speeds, but equally able to swiftly wind out to the red line.

The torque may not be the strongest in the 2.0-litre class, but this is counteracted by the GTI's low weight and means a burst of impressive acceleration is rarely more than a quick squeeze of the accelerator pedal away. So accessible is the torque that wheelspin - accompanied by some serious axle tramp in wet conditions - is always lurking.

The deft handling compliments the engine's responsiveness, allowing the car to be very quick point-to-point, and reassurance from the slightly over-sensitive, but essentially very effective all-disc anti-lock braking adds to the overall driving experience.

The more shapely seats do a good job of holding front passengers in place, although there remains the problem, also experienced in XR and XT models, of a range of adjusting positions not suited to all drivers. There is also the issue of a too-high steering wheel placement that can't be alleviated through adjustment because bringing it lower will usually foul the driver's knees. And that awkward clutch-gearshift operation requires a long acclimatisation period.

In all, the 206 GTI is imbued with a different character to its 205 predecessor - less immediate in its responses but much more refined, and generally more accommodating to suit the needs of 1990s customers. Apart from rear-seat entry/exit, it is equally as space-efficient as the four-door models in terms of loading abilities and passenger accommodation.

A delectable choice in the $30,000-plus hot hatch market.

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