Motoring: Peugeot hits the spot with its new supermini

The new British-built Peugeot 206 is a car whose time has come.

Here is a new British supermini, to join the Ford Fiesta, the Rover 200 and the Nissan Micra. Well, British-built anyway, which is as good as we can do as our design and manufacturing momentum dissolves into the global melting-pot. Just three days ago, as I write this, the first UK-made Peugeot 206 rolled off the production line at the one-time Rootes Group factory at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry, a three-door version resplendent in metallic blue.

But never mind where it comes from. What matters is whether the Peugeot 206 is a good car. It's a late car, no doubt about that. Something like it should probably have been launched five years ago, as the Peugeot 205 started its sales and desirability decline. Of course, it's easy to harp on about the 205, the car that gave Peugeot a new direction, the crisply- styled supermini that was such a success that Peugeot didn't know how to replace it so elected not to do so. I should know, because I have one myself.

Anyway, back to the 206. It is Renault Clio-sized, which makes it usefully larger than the Peugeot 106. It goes on sale on 5 November, and it will cost as little as pounds 8,495 or as much as pounds 11,295, depending on the variant. And the styling is a whole new departure for Peugeot.

The new look is the work of Murat Gunak, who came from Mercedes (the four round headlamps of the E-class and the CLK are his mark) and who now, having overseen the 206 and upcoming 606, has returned there. Most previous Peugeots have had a hint of Pininfarina in their body design, clean and crisp and cleverly elegant, but this one is chunky and cuddly and a little contrived. There's a cartoon version of the Peugeot "face" - it's supposed to have a feline look, to go with the lion motif - and a curious bulge flows from the front wing into the door mirror.

As with the 205 (still made for the French home market, incidentally), there's a choice of three or five doors. There will also be a GTI version early next year, with a 2.0-litre, 138bhp engine, but compared to its hot-hatch-defining predecessor it will be more the refined grand tourer and less the hard-edged road rocket. The 106 GTI does the latter job, and it, too, continues in production. For now, the 206 comes as a 1.1, a 1.4 or a 1.6, or alternatively a 1.9-litre diesel. A 2.0-litre, direct- injection, "common-rail" turbodiesel, with 90bhp and a hefty 155lb ft of torque, comes at the same time as the GTI.

Inside, the 206 is rather good. It is roomier than its rivals, and the facia is especially neat. The optional (and switchable-off) passenger airbag is undetectably integrated into the facia's padded roll, with a storage recess behind it, and the glovebox is trimmed in seat fabric. Another clever piece of design concerns the front passenger seat, whose backrest folds forward and flat to make room for long loads, and whose cushion flips up to reveal a storage tray beneath.

LX models and above can have either an electric sunroof or air-conditioning for the same price, while the top GLX version (less cheesily, it is called XT in France) has the option of a satellite-navigation system built into the top of the dashboard, a first in this size of car and relatively cheap, too, at pounds 800. You can't, however, do anything about the coarse leather- grain look that's embossed on the acreage of interior plastics.

And to drive? I drove the 1.6 and the diesel: both are smooth and quiet enough, but lack ultimate zeal owing to the 206's surprising corpulence (it weighs over a ton). It's in the bends and over the bumps that Peugeots tend to delight more than their rivals, though, thanks to a magical combination of a fluid, roll-along ride and taut, helpful handling.

These traits are intact in the 206, particularly the comfort factor, but some of the feeling of communication with the road that gave the 205 its flingalong spirit has been smothered. This has happened because buyers demand power steering - they get it in every 206, however humble - and because Peugeot has made the 206 easier for an inexperienced driver to handle.

Nevertheless it's a solid, refined, well-built little car, a product of its time with all the constraints that imposes, but better able than its rivals to rise above those constraints and deliver a good time. The 206 is the most complete supermini you can currently buy, and in my view it's the best. But is it as significant now as the 205 was 15 years ago? Ask me again in 2013.

SPECIFICATIONS

PEUGEOT 206 1.6 GLX

Price: pounds 11,295.

Engine: 1,587cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 90bhp at 5,600rpm.

Transmission:

five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive.

Performance:

115mph, 0-60 in 11.4sec, 36-41mpg

RIVALS (all 5-door)

Ford Fiesta 1.4 Ghia: pounds 12,315. Fiesta's re-make made one of the dullest superminis into one of the very best. Sweet, punchy 16V engine, fun to drive, but rather cramped and expensive.

Renault Clio 1.6 RXE: pounds 11,250. The all-new Clio is smoother, quieter but less agile than the old version, and has bash-proof plastic front wings. Like the 206, safety equipment is one of its strong points.

Rover 214i 16V: pounds 12,025. Perceived as a larger car, but actually 206- sized. Lively engine.

Volkswagen Polo 1.6 GL: pounds 11,940. Lacks both pace and suspension decorum, but comes across as a quality job.

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