I think it’s safe to say that, even for the most ardent of Peugeot enthusiasts, the company had lost its way after the turn of the millennium. The fantastic 106 and 306 platforms were nearly a decade old at this point and soon to go out of production. The 205, the car that saved the company, dominated the Group B rallying era and in GTI form, arguably the greatest hot hatch of them all, was a distant memory. The 206 was the difficult follow up act in that sector and while it looked good and sold well, it didn’t capture the imagination of the public like the older car. Then there was the 207, modern looking but unremarkable, which pretty much summed up their entire 2000’s lineup.
Entering the 2010’s, we started to see a small resurgence from the French giant. The RCZ captured the design appeal that the Audi TT lost moving into its second generation, the 508 was a handsome executive saloon and the gawkyness of the 207 was rectified with the stylish 208. From my eyes at least, both the interior and exterior are a huge step up from the previous car, managing to look less bulbous and more premium, giving it some real kerbside appeal.
With the design aspect addressed, did Peugeot manage to get the driving dynamics right and create a genuine class leader?
Things inside get off to a mixed start. The driving position for this class of car is great, you sit low and the small wheel comes nicely to hand. However, Peugeot’s attempt to raise the dials and place them up in the drivers eye-line, while great in theory, meant the top of the steering wheel covered most of the display. Of course this could be rectified by playing around with the manual seat/steering wheel controls but on a daily driver, comfort shouldn’t have to be sacrificed just to see how fast you’re going. Cabin quality is also mixed. Some parts look smart and feel well screwed together, the main infotainment screen for example is far better integrated than many newer cars. It feels solidly put together and doesn’t protrude above the dash and obstruct your vision like in the current Yaris for example. The door cards on the other hand have a cheapness that gets worse when you close them, the entire panel sounding hollow and lacking the solidity of its German rivals.
On the move, the first thing I noticed was how high the clutch biting point is. While this could be just this particular car, it is a low mileage example and the owner tells me it’s been like that since they bought it. Not a biggie but combined with the lack of clutch pedal feedback, it takes some getting used to. Unfortunately, and seemingly the story of this car, it’s back to mixed feelings. The 1.4 litre turbo diesel engine is smooth and quiet but is so slow you’d think it wasn’t boosted. Pulling out of junctions in a hurry and slotting into a gap in traffic is out of the question. On the move it gets worse. Accelerating from 30 to 60 is almost painful, with power tailing off after 3000rpm. I understand modern engines are suffocated by emissions systems but I’ve no idea what Peugeot was thinking here.
While the lack of straight line grunt is hard to overlook, the 208 isn’t a lost cause. The steering weight is decent, it’s not wriggling with feedback but with the wheel sitting so nicely to hand, it works well with the firmness of the suspension and the sporty, supportive seats. It all comes together to give you the sense of being able to nip in and out of traffic (even if the engine doesn’t back you up). The ride is well controlled and communicative, however I can see that some, including the owners, find this to be busy and fiddly. The gearbox, never one of the French manufacturers strengths, is actually not bad. The throw is a little longer than I’d like but it’s positive, direct and not overly bushed.
Trying to summarise this car is a tricky one. It’s nice and easy to drive with a good driving position and better than expected visibility. Judging the little Peugeot by it’s looks and driving dynamics, it’s a winner, although it’s hard to ignore just how flat the engine is and that really does let it down. There’s concern over some of the build quality, parts of the car lack the solidity of some of its rivals. Road noise is rather obtrusive and the lack of arm rest in the centre or even on the door could grate on longer journeys. What I felt most disappointed by, was a distinct lack of Frenchness. For decades they’ve been the masters of ride, handling and comfort. Cars with soft, supple suspension that soaked up bumps and ruts with an effortlessness only matched by bigger, more expensive cars. Sumptuous velour seats with acres of cushioning used to be a staple of anything French. With the 208, they’ve clearly benchmarked the Germans. The soft suspension has been replaced by firm suspension and soft seats by supportive seats. While that’s not a bad thing, (manufacturers build what they think the buying public want) I think there was a chance to set the car apart from its competitors and give people a reason to search out for a Peugeot dealership. This could however, just be me living in the past. Do people still want soft armchair seats and silky, unflustered suspension?
BUY THIS CAR IF…
+ You want a stylish small car that’s cheap to run
+ You enjoy flickable handling and good steering
+ You’re not bothered about getting anywhere in a hurry
AVOID THIS CAR IF…
– You’re expecting Japanese/German build quality
– You want something fast or do lots of motorway miles
– You prefer feather light steering and traditional French suspension