First drive: Peugeot 208
History is sometimes a kind mistress, and other times cruel.
The Peugeot 205, and in particular the hotter GTi version it spawned back in the mid-1980s, are still regarded as among the finest examples of lightweight, affordable and feisty hatchbacks.
Its 206 and 207 successors, while moderately commercially successful, are generally not mentioned in the same breath.
It's now almost 15 years since the 205 disappeared from sale, and the French manufacturer thinks it has finally rediscovered the mojo, anointing the new 208 as the 205's long-awaited successor.
Such brash predictions can come back to haunt a car company, but a first drive of most of the 208 range reveals Peugeot's optimism isn't ill-founded.
The company has served up a diverse and fascinating range of engines, body styles, transmissions and trim levels, although diesel power - of which Peugeot was once a champion - is conspicuously absent.
Instead, the range kicks off with a three-cylinder, 1.2-litre engine that, in combination with the sole offering of a five-speed manual.
The little three-pot screamer sports a thrum that will be familiar to anyone who has driven Suzuki's three-cylinder Alto or Nissan's littlest Micra, as well as a signature vibration at idle.
It feels peppier than either of those two, though, getting its 60kW and 118Nm to the ground smartly and without fuss.
Climbing hills and blasting out of low-speed corners on our south-east Queensland test drive sorely test its shallow well of torque, but some fast arm action via a five-speed manual lever with a longish throw keeps things on the boil.
Handling is where the 208 really shines, and the 1.2 gathers enough momentum to demonstrate tenacious mid-corner grip.
Steering is direct and progressive from corner to corner, only lacking for substantive feedback, save for some rack rattle over bumps in cornering.
Ride composure is another asset, with the 208's dampers knocking the sharp edge off all but the gnarliest of potholes. There's some occasional pattering audible over road joins and a bit of buzzing on coarse-chip surfaces, but insulation from road, tyre and suspension noises is generally top-notch.
All models - including the 1.2's base model Active specification -include a seven-inch central touchscreen with colour graphics that match far more expensive fare in high-end prestige cars for sheer wow factor.
The cabin ambience is of a high standard with piano black and shiny silver features all over the dashboard, which is partially clad in soft-touch plastics.
The 208's real party trick is a heavily revised driving position, which sees the tiny, oval-shaped steering wheel moved down and the instrument cluster shifted up so it's visible above the wheel and not through its aperture.
The result is a clean, unfussed design with plenty of visual appeal and a seating arrangement that - although perturbing at first - becomes intuitive once you find the right seat position.
Moving up the range to the mid-spec Allure trim level cashes in airconditioning dials for a push-button dual-zone climate control panel, plus a more upmarket trip computer. All models including the 1.2 get a digital speedo, cruise control that can be adjusted in 1km/h increments, and Bluetooth phone connection with wireless audio streaming.
Cabin storage isn't everything we'd hope for, with two cupholders ahead of the gear lever that won't accept wide or tall drinks, a glovebox sliced in half by some hidden electrics, and a shallow tray under the handbrake lever.
Rear seat passengers fare little better, with only small door pockets evident in the 1.2 model. Rear legroom is quite tight for adults but headroom is good.
The boot space is surprisingly deep and capacious given the inclusion of a full-size spare wheel.
Stepping up to the 1.6-litre naturally aspirated engine adds a welcome 28kW and 42Nm (total: 88kW/160Nm) to proceedings, lifting driving enjoyment to another level. It's a smooth unit with decent tractability in traffic, only running out of puff on the sharpest of inclines during a winding run up Mount Tamborine.
It's the pick of the engines, with the turbocharged 1.6-litre four fitted exclusively to the more expensive Allure Sport model not feeling as responsive and urgent as its figures (115kW/240Nm) and price premium suggest it should. It provides a linear surge, but with the extra power peaking at 6000rpm it feels as if you're missing out if you're not revving the guts out of it.
Both of the four-cylinder engines returned 7.7 litres per 100km following an enthusiastic, mountainous drive, while the three-cylinder 1.2 fared only marginally better at 7.6, a far cry from its official 4.7L claim but still a good result given the type of driving undertaken.
All models we tested were fitted with manual shifters.
The clutch action is positive and well weighted, while the shifters in both five- and six-speed manual specification were comfortable and easy to use.
On first acquaintance, the 208 feels like one of the better light hatchbacks of recent times, but we'll have to wait until we've driven one with the volume-selling automatic to make a final judgement.
Still, there's enough that's right about the 208 range to have us salivating at the prospect of next year's 208 GTi, which just might have what it takes for history to smile once again on Peugeot.
Sydney Morning Herald