Peugeot’s numbering system means you always know where you are in its pecking order: 107, 208, 308, 508, 3008, 4007, 5008… The higher the number the bigger the car. But there are two inexplicable rule-breakers – the RCZ and the Partner; the first is a curvaceous two-seat sports car, the second a van with windows and back seats. Fine, but why not follow list protocol? As a self-confessed cutlery straightener who can’t, ever, wear mismatched socks, I find these anomalies intensely annoying.
Anyway, this week we are down at the bottom of the list in the new 208. It’s only on the second-tier of the Peugeot pyramid but don’t hold that against it, because it is not an exaggeration to say that much of the French manufacturer’s future wellbeing depends on the 208’s market performance. It’s at the bottom but only in the way a foundation is.
Ask anyone of a certain age (to be precise, ask anyone who had their eye on a sporty hatchback in 1983, so let’s say anyone now aged 47) about Peugeot’s small 200-series models and they’ll go misty eyed as they recall the red-trim detailing, smoked alloys and rally-inspired mud flaps of the 205, which sold by the million. The hot GTi version garnered rave reviews. The problem was that the 205’s successors, the 206 and the 207, were, frankly, not up to snuff. Small, steady, dull… they failed to capture the car-buyer’s imagination. (Though I did appreciate their respect for numbering conventions.) With mounting pressure from the ever-improving Korean and Japanese manufacturers, sales of Peugeot’s 206 and 207 began to stall. Cue cavalry music – and the 208 riding to the rescue.
Fortunately the bosses at Peugeot have picked themselves a likely winner. Since the marque celebrated its 200th anniversary last year with the RCZ (breathe) and the arrival of the technologically innovative 3008 and then 5008, the impression over at Pug HQ is that Peugeot means business.
The 208 is certainly an appealing-looking car – the dreadful open-mouthed “fish face” grills of the past are gone. Look a little harder and you’ll also start to notice all kinds of classy design flourishes – there’s the elegant curve of the front lamps, the chrome breakout by the back windows. These cost money and add perceived value. Peugeot is clearly keen to drive away from any notion of being a builder of iffy motors.
The car is marginally lighter than the outgoing 207 – these days new models are all on strict diets as this helps boost fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, but the advantages of a trim waistline are undone as there is so much new technology and so many safety features to be shoehorned in. So the cars continue to get bigger.
Inside the feeling of Peugeot poshness continues: rubber, soft-touch plastics, damped switches. At the centre of it all is a large infotainment screen which controls everything from the satnav to your playlist. It means the console feels futuristic and uncluttered – dozens of buttons, switches and dials have taken redundancy. An oddity you may notice is the tiny steering wheel – it feels sporty and makes the steering brisk and immediate, but it also allows you to look over it at the dials rather than through it. Most cars have their instruments partially obscured by the steering wheel, so here you can actually see how fast you are going.
There’s a good selection of engines, ranging from a basic 1-litre up to the vigorous 1.6 diesel I drove. The 1.4e-HDi, however, might be the one to go for as it produces just an 87g whiff of CO2 per km and knocks out a wallet-tranquillising 83.1mpg.
Fun, attractive, French, affordable and good to drive… It may have taken 25 years to reinvent the 205, but at least they got it right in the end.