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First drive: Peugeot's hot 206 GTi 180

Understated: Deliberately conservative, the GTi 180's styling merely hints at the 206 flagship's pocket-rocket performance.

The GTi 180 is Peugeot's performance flagship for the 206 range

30 May 2003


IT has been a long time coming, but Peugeot has finally added what it describes as another petal to its 206 daisy in the form of the three-door GTi 180.

As the new performance flagship of the 206 range, which has notched up more than 3.3 million sales globally since 1998 to become Peugeot's third best selling model ever, the 180 (a reference to its 130kW output in horsepower) will leapfrog the top-shelf GTi in the current 206 range when it goes on sale Down Under following its Sydney motor show debut in October.

The GTi 180's Australian release, with a price expected to exceed the current GTi range-topper's $29,990 sticker by about $5000, will follow a subtle midlife cosmetic makeover for the full 206 range around September.

A third 206 bodystyle in the shape of the 206SW wagon will not join the present line-up, which comprises three five-door hatch variants and the 206CC convertible, until next year.

In the meantime, GTi 180 will vie for sales with a number of new entrants in an expanding hot hatch segment, including the Mini Cooper S, Holden Astra Turbo, Ford Focus ST170, the current GTi's old foe in the Renault Clio Sport and, to a lesser extent, Toyota's price-busting Corolla Sportivo and even the Subaru Impreza WRX.

Known internationally simply as the 206 RC - a loose reference to the World Rally Championship, which Peugeot racecar has won for the past three years with its 206 racer - the GTi 180 name will be adopted for Australia and New Zealand from the United Kingdom, where all right-hand drive examples of the hottest 206 will be built.

Featuring the same clear-lens tail-lights, honeycomb grille and chromed number plate flanks the facelifted 206 will offer in September, the GTi 180 is visually distinguished by its use of big five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, body-cloured bumper and rub strips, prominent hatch spoiler, carbon-look wing mirror inserts and twin chrome-plated tailpipes. A slightly wider rear bumper and front quarter panels wrap tightly around the 80mm-wider wheel tracks, courtesy of the shift from 165 to 205mm-wide tyres.

Look beyond the deliberately understated exterior styling, however, and the GTi 180's premium model positioning is more evident.

Inside, there's seating for just four, including two more sporting bucket seats up front and two equally supportive rear pews.

They are partially finished in Alcantara fake suede to match the lower half of the doors and dash, while a dual leather steering wheel (the gearknob retains the GTi's alloy look and the handbrake cover stays plastic), drilled alloy pedals and carbon-look instrument rims complete the interior package.

Sadly, GTi 180 does without a six-speed gearbox like the previous generation 305 GTi6 or, indeed, its close rival the Clio Sport

Automatic headlights on, rain-sensing wipers, dual front airbags, ABS, automatic air-conditioning, a single-CD sound system, heated/power mirrors and engine speed variable assistance power steering are all standard fare.

Significantly, a switchable Electronic Stability Program is also fitted as standard, while "RC" external badging and seatback embroidering should be replaced with "GTi 180" nomenclature for local examples.

Complementing the bigger wheels and firmer front springs, the GTi 180's biggest chassis improvement is the adoption of the 206 SW's rear suspension system, which first appeared on the race-oriented 306 Maxi and features twin tie-rods for better rear axle location and improved road holding.

A development of the 2.0-litre, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that powers the 206 GTi (known elsewhere as the 206 S16), the 180 engine used input from Peugeot Sport technicians to increase peak power from 100kW to 130kW at 7000rpm, while maximum torque has also been boosted to a handier 202Nm at 4750rpm.

The improvements come courtesy of a Mechachrome-machined cylinder-head, dual-mode intake with four-way aluminium manifold and a new Emitec-developed catalytic converter, in addition to the standard EW10 J4 engine's variable valve timing on the intake side.

Sadly, GTi 180 does without a six-speed gearbox like the previous generation 305 GTi6 or, indeed, its close rival the Clio Sport because it would have come at the expense of its tight turning circle. Instead, Pug engineers have reworked the GTi's five-speed manual transmission, making first gear taller, shortening all other ratios and retaining the same final drive ratio, in effect producing closer ratios that are shorter overall.

The result of all this is a respectable top speed of 220km/h and relatively spirited acceleration, including a claimed 7.4 seconds to 100km/h, 15.5 seconds for the 400-metre dash and 28 seconds to 1000 metres. Claimed flexibility is good too, including 5.7 seconds from 60 to 90km/h in fourth gear and 10.6 seconds from 80-120km/h in fifth.

Just 10,000 206 RCs will be built annually, with 7000 earmarked for markets outside of France, including two shipments of 50 GTi 180s due Down Under before the end of the year.

Thereafter, Peugeot Automobiles Australia hopes to sell as many as 30 GTi 180s a month throughout 2004, although the 180's success is expected to come at considerable expense to the GTi's impressive 50-per-month sales rate. It is hoped the popular 206CC, meantime, will plough on unabated with monthly sales of up to 90 units.

Although Peugeot executives say the successful five-year-old 206 has a long life ahead of it - thanks in part to variants like the GTi 180 - they admitted at the recent world launch in Biarritz, France, that Peugeot's world car has a big task ahead if it is to match its giant killing 205 predecessor, which accumulated about 5.5 million sales throughout a 16-year model life.

But in a frank admission they did not want to play all their 206 card at once, Peugeot executives say the volume selling French hatch's success is to blame for the delayed release of the 180.


WHILE the deliberately understated styling of the 206 GTi 180 appears to be a sore point with Peugeot high-ups asked why the most rapid 206 to date remains so conservative, it is clear after a 140km drive loop through a variety of roads in the south of France and into Spain that the 180's performance is anything but tepid.

Peugeot says it did not want to enter the "road rage" game by producing an overly sporty or aggressive looking hot hatch.

The 180 aims to achieve customer loyalty by being a versatile, civilised car with performance - one that doesn't require a racing licence to cope with a disobedient rear-end like the previous 205 GTi.

And it is clear the 206 180 is a different, more forgiving beast altogether, with a philosophy that is much broader in focus.

None of which means to say the 180 is a stifled performer - far from it.

Sitting in the most comfortable and supportive sports seats yet found in a 206, the engine emits an unmistakably purposeful and raspy resonance from its twin chrome tailpipes. Quicker to both spin up and down than the regular GTi, it immediately feels more responsive and muscular.

First impressions prove correct once on the move, with the taller first gear easily managed by the extra urge down low. Peugeot says about 80 per cent of the 200-odd Newton metres of torque is available from just 2000rpm - and it shows. Sensibly undersquare cylinder dimensions of the donor engine (85mm bore x 88mm stroke) surely play a role in this, along with a waife-like 1100kg kerb weight.

But there are plenty of revs to play with, too. From the mildly raucous idle to the 7300rpm cut-out, the warmed, turbo-less 2.0-litre produces a linear crescendo of useful power without any drop-off.

The longer first gear ratio is claimed to extend its usefulness to an impressive 66km/h at 7000rpm, but beyond that the extra urge combines with more closely spaced ratios to provide an ever-eager power delivery at all speeds.

While it is just as happy to trickle around town as it is to be bouncing off the rev-limiter, the shortened gearing's trade-off is an engine that spins at a revvy 3000rpm at 100km/h and it is here - particularly on the more leniently policed French highways - that the 180 felt wanting for a sixth ratio. There's cause, too, for mention of the long, sloppy gear change that comes direct, unchanged from other manual 206s - despite a 20m shorter shift lever.

And while we're complaining, although it is less evident in left-hook 206s, the switch to right-hand drive will continue to plague taller drivers by bringing the pedal box further out of the already shallow footwell and making it nearly impossible to find a consistently comfortable relationship between them, the seat and the non-telescopically adjustable steering wheel.

Yes, the ride is somewhat less compliant - bordering on harsh - thanks to the imposingly large 17-inch alloys, but it never became unbearably intrusive, even on badly deteriorated French backroads similar to ours. Crisper turn-in is the upside, however, and we doubt it will turn anyone in the market for a hot Euro hatch away.

Indeed, throw in the array of undeniably brilliant 206 traits, and the GTi 180 makes a convincing argument.

These include a solid build quality, superbly nimble steering kept well in check by the ESP despite the power increase and an uncannily well balanced chassis that always amazes with its combination of agility and stability.

The revised, more serious rear suspension helps in a big way here. But even with the stability control switched off and both front wheels spinning on broken, undulating wet surfaces, the 180's general poise and controlability was never in question. Nor were the single-piston GTi-spec brakes.

Okay, so this impressive chassis could use even more grunt than the 180's worked 130kW four offers. But, as is, the trickiest 206 leapfrogs its fiercest rival in the Clio Sport by a fair margin, and interior touches like the specific 250km/h speedo, 8000rpm tacho and carbon-look details go some way to justifying the expected $35,000 pricetag.

Besides, any more power may well begin to undermine the 206 GTi's reputation as one of the sharpest, best sorted and most rewarding Euro hatches on offer.

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