Can Peugeot's quirky little 208 take on the Japanese giants?
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Peugeot’s new 208 five-door hatchback is a stylish and upmarket new competitor in the supermini segment of the market. It arrives in petrol-driven form here late this year, with an impressive all-electric e-208 version arriving next year.
The new models are a major upgrade from the previous and ageing 208, and promise to revive memories of the iconic original Peugeot 205 - including the hit of the 1980s, the 205 GTi hatch.
For the moment there will be no resurrected 208 GTi, but New Zealand will get the top-of-the-range GT Line editions of both the petrol and electric models.
We’ve driven both through the centre of Paris, and found them to be brisk, nimble and smooth-riding; the 208 was the ideal vehicle to tackle the chaotic traffic in the French capital.
Both models handled the bumpy cobblestones on the Champs Elysees with ease, and the models felt well-grounded and confident on 110km/h French motorways where local drivers are as aggressive as they are on the crowded streets of central Paris.
If you have to drive around the notorious Arc de Triumph roundabout in rush-hour, the new 208 isn’t a bad weapon to take into battle. It may be a small car but it is quick on the take-off, and the steering is precise with good feel.
The small seven-sided steering wheel and new cabin layout make the cars feel sportier and more contemporary than their predecessors.
The interior in particular is a massive improvement on what came before, and now provides real competition for other premium small cars such as the Audi A1 and Vollkswagen Polo.
There is a real “wow” moment when you hop into the 208 and turn it on - in front of the driver is a 3D display screen, and once you’re driving the speedometer appears to leap out at you. There will be no excuse for speeding in these cars.
The speedometer is just that much more prominent in the instrument cluster than the rev counter and the petrol gauge. While the 3D image might be something of a gimmick, Peugeot says it improves driver reaction times by half a second, which is significant given how quickly events unfold even at city speeds.
The interior has the look and feel of a quality vehicle, with many of the most popular features of the larger 508 models being introduced to the supermini class.
The 208 petrol model arriving next year is powered by a 1.2-litre engine putting out 74kW of power. It has an exceptionally smooth eight-speed automatic transmission, and meets Europe’s latest and toughest emission targets.
The e-208 will not be available until 2021, partly because of international demand for the model elsewhere in the world.
The new cars attracted a lot of attention when we drove them in Paris. Whenever we parked them, passers-by peered inside: it’s an important model in France. Parisians were impressed with the look of the 208s, and many of them went as far as peering inside when offered a closer look.
It is too early to reveal the prices of the two new models, but given Peugeot’s sharp pricing strategy around the larger 508 models, they will be competitive.
Features include wireless smart phone charging, with a pad that allows you to lay the phone down to recharge - and also to click it into the lid of the phone drawer, so the phone sits on its side and is visible.
The 208s have LED headlights with smart beam assist, which automatically reshapes the main beam to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers.
There are other features more commonly found on larger luxury vehicles, such as a leather steering wheel and carbon-like dashboard and door fittings.
Visibility from the driver’s seat was tested in dense Paris traffic, where suddenly and inexplicably two lanes often merge into one. But you can see cars coming from your rear from most angles in the 208.
There are other upmarket driver assistance aids such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, although this feature was somewhat academic given the French capital’s habit of constantly merging lane markings.
The new 208 looks good, with distinctive claw-shaped front headlamps setting off the front of the car.
It’s fun to drive in both petrol and electric versions, with the e-208 having a real-world range of 300km.