Peugeot 208 - First Drive

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Prettier than its predecessors, but can it match their sales legacy?

Peugeot 208 1.2 VTi
Engine: 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol
Transmission: five-speed manual
Power: 82 bhp at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 118 Nm at 2,750 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 62.7 mpg
CO2 emissions: 104 g/km
Top speed: 108 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 12.2 seconds
Price: TBA, 208 range expected to start below £10,000

There's a lot riding on the 208. The small 200-series models have always been important for Peugeot but there is one, in particular, that the company would like the new car to emulate – the 1983 205, which sold by the million, its reputation burnished by a thousand rave reviews for the sporty GTI version. The 205's successors, the 206 and the 207, never enjoyed the same critical success, but the 206, at least, still sold very well. The 207 remains a top seller for Peugeot too, but doesn't shift in anything like the same numbers as its predecessors. Now it's up to the 208 to turn the tide, and the initial signs are encouraging.

The new car is certainly quite a lot prettier than some recent Peugeots. The nose represents an evolution of the sleek, smooth face first seen on the larger 508 and is shared across the whole 208 line-up but from the A-pillar back, the three and five door versions are quite different, with the three-door having much more deeply sculpted sides and a rear pillar that is supposed to recall that of the popular 205 GTI. In all, the new model helps to cement Peugeot's return to form as a seller of cars you might actually want to be seen in, and one day, the dumpy 3008 and the company's unfortunate across-the-range experiment with the now-discarded 'fish-face' look will just be distant memories.

The other thing to note about the 208's body is that it is 7cm shorter and 110kg lighter than its predecessor while being a little larger inside, a rare exception to the general rule that cars inevitably get bigger and heavier as they are loaded up with the safety equipment and creature comforts buyers increasingly demand. It will be interesting to see whether other manufacturers respond to the challenge and lighten up their future models as well.

The engine line-up is designed to reassert Peugeot's position as a low-CO2 brand. On the diesel side, there are three choices – a 1.4-litre delivering 68bhp, and 1.6s providing either 92bhp or 115bhp. Only the last of these gets a six-speed gearbox, although the 1.4 and the less powerful 1.6 are also available with EGC automated manual transmissions as well. All of the diesels scrape below the 100g/km barrier for CO2 emissions, an impressive achievement. The best result is achieved by the 1.4-litre paired with the EGC transmission, a combination that scores 87g/km and 83.1mpg in official tests.

The petrol range is headed by two 1.6s providing 120 and 156bhp. The first is linked to a five-speed manual transmission, the second to a six-speeder. There is also a 1.4 delivering 95bhp but the most interesting choices are to be found at the bottom of the range. It seems that no car launch is complete these days without the unveiling of an interesting new three-cylinder engine, and the 208's was no exception. The Peugeot three is available in two sizes, 1.0 and 1.2 litres, providing outputs of 68bhp and 82bhp respectively. The 1.0 sneaks into diesel territory with official CO2 emissions of 99g/km and 65.7mpg, and the 1.2 isn't far behind with 104g/km and 62.8mpg.

The 208's interior displays an impressive blend of style and quality but its most distinctive feature is an instrument pack that sits atop the dashboard so that the driver views the dials over the top of the steering wheel, rather than through it. This arrangement works so well, it's surprising that more manufacturers haven't adopted it. The main advantage is that it's possible to keep an eye on your speed and monitor the other instruments without having to look away from the road ahead too much, an effect that's achieved without going to the expense of providing a head-up display as Peugeot does on some of its other cars.

This unusual set-up is only possible because the 208 has a much smaller steering steering wheel than most, and the more direct inputs this provides suit the car's fairly sharp handling quite well. It's probably asking too much to expect that any modern car might match the agility and subtle chassis behaviour of the old 205-era Peugeots, which carried a lot less weight and were fitted with smaller and lighter wheels and tyres, but the 208 still does a good job. Out on the road, the engines are a bit of a mixed bag, which is hardly surprising given the variety of options available. I first tried the most powerful 115 horsepower diesel, which provided excellent performance and refinement, especially for motorway cruising. More disappointing was the 120 horsepower 1.6-litre petrol. This felt quite lacklustre, a bit of a mystery given that this engine performs well in other applications, and with its comparatively short gearing, it was also a rather wearing motorway cruiser.

Finally, I tried the 1.2-litre three cylinder petrol, which was outstanding. Despite having quite a bit less power than the 1.6, subjectively, it actually felt livelier. It was certainly a lot more fun, responding to hard acceleration with low-end shove and an eagerness to rev that put the bigger engine in the shade. The key to the difference in feel between the two may lie in the fact that the three develops maximum torque (118 Nm) rather lower down at 2,750 rpm, while the 1.6 delivers the most heft (160 Nm) at a much higher 4,250 revs. The three's far more agreeable engine note is a big bonus too. Peugeot has already said that the three-cylinder engine will get a fuel-saving stop-start system next year (which is expected to bring the 1.2's CO2 emissions down to 95g/km), with direct injection and turbo-charging to follow.

It's too soon to tell yet whether the 208 really will be as successful as the 205, not least because Peugeot reckons the B segment in which it competes is a lot more crowded than it was ten years ago (27 competitors in 2011 compared with 16 in 2001). Nevertheless, the company is gearing up to make 550,000 208s a year at four plants, two in France and one each in Slovakia and Brazil. And there's a 208 in the pipeline that could do more than any other to recreate that old 205-style buzz, a GTI version that was shown in concept form at this year's Geneva Motor Show.

No official UK prices have yet been released, but the least expensive models are expected to sneak below the £10,000 barrier – and if initial experience with the 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine is a reliable guide, the cheapest versions of this impressive new Peugeot may also turn out to be some of the best.

The 208 will be available in the UK from 28 June but Peugeot will start taking orders next month.

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