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First Drive: Peugeot 208 is no featherweight

French flair: Peugeot's new 208 will go head-to-head with rivals from Germany and Japan.

Downsized 208 Euro supermini aims to elevate Peugeot to the top of the class

19 Apr 2012


PEUGEOT is pulling out all the stops to have its smaller, lighter and greener B-segment supermini in Australia by the end of this year.

But, unlike the latest Volkswagen Polo (and reborn Renault Clio IV from next year), importers Sime Darby will not be pitching the A9-series 208 in the $16,990 light-car fray against the Mazda 2 and Ford Fiesta, electing instead to stick closer to the outgoing 207 XR 1.4’s $18,990 price tag.

“We will offer a much higher level of standard specification as well as fixed-priced servicing of $330 for three years,” said Peugeot Australia PR manager Jaedene Hudson. “We will give people what they want.” Nevertheless, with no dual-clutch transmission in sight, and only a choice of a four-speed automatic or five-speed sequential robotised manual in lieu of the standard-fitment manual gearbox, the littlest Peugeot Down Under will be trailing its Polo DSG and Fiesta Powershift rivals.

A corresponding price as well as size drop means that, in Europe and other parts of the world, the newcomer will finally kill off the 14-year old 206 series, which is still produced as the ‘206+’.

In the process, Peugeot desperately hopes, the 208 will recapture the spirit of the 206 while evoking memories of the famous 205 – a model from the 1980s and ‘90s that has since proved both a blessing and a burden in terms of customer expectations.

With over 15 million 200-series superminis sales since the 205 surfaced in 1983, there is much riding on the success or otherwise of the French car.

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Released in Europe on March 29, the 208 will kick off in Oz with five-door hatch powered by an all-new, Peugeot-developed, EB-series 1.2-litre VTi petrol engine – the smallest of its type to ever carry the French Lion logo.

Driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual or EGC sequential manual, the dinky three-cylinder produces 60kW of power at 5750rpm and 118Nm of torque at 2750rpm. It has a top speed of 175km/h.

Majoring on minimising fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, it returns 4.5 litres per 100 kilometres and 104 grams per kilometre.

A trio of existing – though reworked – 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines will also be available at launch. The first engine sampled is likely to represent the lion’s share of 208 sales in Australia – the 1.6-litre VTi developed with BMW, with 88kW at 6000rpm, 160Nm at 4250rpm, a 190km/h top speed, 5.8L/100km and 134g/km as fitted with a five-speed manual transmission (the four-speed auto figures are not yet available).

We only drove the 1.6 VTi with the five-speeder, and it isn’t our favourite gearbox because of long throws and a loose linkage feel, undermining the many positive attributes of this powerplant. It also revs too highly at freeway speeds – 3100rpm at just 105km/h in fifth gear.

On the other hand, it is quiet and smooth, with willing acceleration right through the rev range. Pushing just 1090kg, this 208’s performance felt strong and healthy.

Unfortunately, Peugeot did not have any examples of the turbocharged version of this engine (dubbed 1.6L THP ‘155’), which delivers 115kW and 240Nm from 1750rpm to 4000rpm (with an extra 20Nm overboost for short bursts) and returns 5.8L/100km and 135g/km.

After driving the top-line HDi diesel version, though, we wondered whether 208 buyers should even bother with the petrols.

Fitted with a far more precise six-speed manual – with the top gear allowing a 105km/h cruise to happen at a much better 1650rpm – the 1.6-litre e-HDi belies its modest 84kW at 3600rpm output to offer a heady 270Nm at just 1750rpm.

Gutsy, eager and surprisingly quiet, the flagship (for now) diesel thrives on a constant stream of torque to carry it anywhere with effortless ease. There’s instant forward thrust aplenty at just a tap of the pedal away. We love this drivetrain combo, and reckon most Peugeot buyers will, too.

The 1.6L e-HDi 155’s top speed is 190km/h but it will have the bonus of being the lowest CO2 polluter at the 208’s Aussie launch – just 99g/km – while returning just 3.8L/100km on the Euro combined cycle.

Aiding consumption by up to 15 per cent is the introduction of Peugeot’s idle-stop system that uses a reversible alternator and energy recovery system during deceleration to store power into a special battery, for instant and seamless restarts.

Whether we see the less powerful (68kW/230Nm) 1.6L HDi ‘92’ in Australia after the launch remains to be seen. There is also a super-eco 50kW/160Nm 1.4L HDi ‘68’ that can achieve a barely believable 3.4L/100km and 87g/km.

At the other end of the 208 spectrum is the GTi high-performance flagship, as previewed at this year’s Geneva motor show ‘concept’ of the same name, though Peugeot personnel refuse to confirm a production date.

More than just a simple replacement for the lacklustre 207, the 208 follows the trend furrowed by the current Mazda2 in 2007 in being smaller and lighter than before.

More than 110kg on average has been shaved off – in areas such as the front end (23kg), superstructure (25kg), rear end (27kg – but that includes the loss of a spare wheel) and interior (15kg) – to tip the scales at an average 1050kg.

The 208 is 70mm shorter at 3960mm, 20mm narrower at 1730mm and 10mm lower at 1460mm, yet is roomier inside thanks to a more forward fascia and slimmer seats.

Rear-seat space increases and the luggage area is 311 litres (below the parcel shelf), rising to 1152L with the split-fold rear seats folded. The rear seat seems particularly accommodating compared to a Fiesta, Polo or Mazda.

Elements of past petite Peugeots are present in the aerodynamic design (a slippery 0.29Cd), which marks the production debut of styling chief Gilles Vidal, and the French talk endlessly of the 208’s ‘feline’ elements in the corporate nose, ‘three-claw’ boomerang-shaped tail-lights and sculptured side panels.

The three-door version features a more scalloped side view and chrome C-pillar extensions that are meant to evoke similar detailing on the 205. Mr Vidal said the overall look should “please all, like a good piece of music”.

After the drop in size and weight, perhaps the most significant change in the 208 is the rethink of the interior ergonomics.

The designers positioned the instrument binnacle further up and pushed it back towards the windscreen so it is more within the driver’s eyeline, then reduced the steering wheel diameter so the speedo and other dials are visible above the top of (rather than through) the rim.

Peugeot calls this a ‘Head Up Cluster’ and a company spokesman said it greatly reduces driver fatigue and response times, and only takes a moment to get used to.

We found it does take some acclimatisation, but the idea soon seems natural and sound, with unencumbered views of vital vehicle information at all times.

Peugeot is also progressing in the field of in-car infotainment with a seven-inch touchscreen monitor (believed to be standard for Aussie-bound 208s) featuring multi-screen layers, high-resolution graphics and an array of audio, entertainment, (optional) satellite-navigation and Bluetooth applications.

Some familiarisation is necessary here, but again the general idea is sound, particularly when it comes to the ease and operation of the audio streaming system.

Other cabin highlights include the use of mood lighting, chrome, high-gloss painted and metallic-like trim applications, panoramic glass roof availability with LED ‘runway lights’, more soft-touch plastic surfaces, and a completely redesigned centre console layout.

A lot of the refinement and noise-deadening lessons learnt on the larger 508 are said to have been applied to the supermini.

We drove the up-market Allure model heaving with the above options and the luxury ambience eclipsed any competitor in Australia – though the lack of overhead grab handles stumped us.

Other than the shorter body, revamped interior, prodigious weight paring and the fact that it is allegedly cheaper to build, the 208 is largely carryover beneath its pretty skin.

Built off a modified version of the P1 group platform underpinning the 207 and Citroen C3, the basics are standard light-car fare – MacPherson struts up front, a torsion beam at the rear, and an electronically powered rack and pinion steering set-up.

Clearly the weight reduction has helped the way the 208 steers, for the nose turns into corners willingly and easily without feeling overly laden – even in the heavier HDi models.

However, more steering feel would be appreciated. The Peugeot certainly follows your inputs faithfully, but there isn’t much communication between your hands and the wheels up front.

Though there is nothing wrong with the handling, roadholding or braking balance, a Fiesta is more fun to punt around.

But the 208 is quiet and comfy. Even on low-profile (205/45R17) tyres, the ride impressed us with its suppleness and isolation, so here the French car scores against the opposition.

Tight city streets revealed a compact and manoeuvrable machine that easily slots into tiny spaces, but doesn’t even jar your bones on demanding European cobblestone streets. And the lack of noise intrusion was just as welcome.

So the crucial baby Peugeot does many things well and a couple of things only adequately – but many questions remain.

On this first outing, we do not know how the outmoded yet volume-selling four-speed auto will perform if the EGC semi-auto shifter will be as annoying and demanding as other automated manuals how the newcomer will ride and handle on our nasty roads and if the entry versions will have the same sort of classy ambience.

With pricing yet to be ascertained, all we can state with some conviction is that the 208 – with the right mix of specifications – does approach the refinement of the Polo with the va-va voom that makes the Fiesta such a driving star.

The answers to all these things should be revealed when the 208 is launched locally just before the Australian International Motor Show in October.

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