Price: From £10,495. On sale July
Engine: 1,199cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, 82bhp
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 109mph, 0-62 in 12.2sec, 62.8mpg, CO2 104g/km
Remember the Peugeot 205? In its 13-year career, this pretty, comfortable little car, lightweight and great fun to drive, rescued the brand from oblivion and set the standard among small cars for years. Strangely, however, the marque failed to replace it and momentum was lost until the larger 206 appeared – less charismatic but ultimately even more successful. It, in turn, gave way to the 207, a seriously lardy small car with little to commend it and sales figures to match. Thus was the plot, and the leadership, lost.
So here's the 208, with which Peugeot hopes to regain leadership of the small-car segment known as "supermini". It has lost a little length and a lot of lard – around 110kg of it. To most eyes it has gained in prettiness, though there might be a touch too much bright-metal embellishment. The three-door version has a fashionable wave along its flanks, and a little motif on the pillar behind the rear-side window redolent of the GTI badges found on the most-loved of the three-door 205s.
Inside there's more space, but that's not what you notice. Rather, you note the dashboard and steering wheel. The latter is unusually small, like a lightweight sports car's, and is set unusually low. Ahead is a very high-mounted instrument cluster. The steering wheel's small size engenders a feeling of wrist-flick agility as it used to when we fitted tiny steering wheels to our hotted-up Minis, but nearly everyone who sits in a 208 for the first time will adjust its height to create a normal driving position. Yet, if you do that, all you can see is the very top of the dials and half of the digital speed display. So either you drive information-blind or you return the wheel to its low setting.
It's odd, having a steering wheel in your lap, but you do soon get used to the position – and being small, rather than tangling with your knees, it helps towards the 208's convincingly go-kart-like demeanour. The unconventionality opens your mind to the graphic display screen, too, with its sat-nav, multimedia and the other toys expected in premium-flavoured cars nowadays.
Premium? In a small Peugeot? Not quite, because there are too many hard-plastic surfaces, but the ambience has a quality feel and, as mentioned, there's too much bright metal garnish (the gear lever is comically overstyled). What the 208 needs above all, though, is to be comfortable and fun to drive the way the 205 was and its successors were not.
I'm pleased to report that, despite being based mainly on 207 components under the skin, it is. The stodge and stubborn resistance have gone from the power steering, replaced by proper precision, pleasing transparency and credible weighting. The small steering wheel and revised suspension settings make this a frisky, joy-promoting car. It rides with a flow, too, although it's more fidgety on the optional bigger wheels.
Engines? Mainly as in the 207, including a smooth and punchy 1.6-litre turbodiesel (available with a sweet-shifting six-speed gearbox) and a rather lacklustre, 120bhp, 1.6-litre petrol engine (five-speed gearbox, ponderous shift action). But there are also brand-new 1.0- and 1.2-litre, low-CO2, three-cylinder options.
Herein lies the pick of the range, the 1.2-litre with 82bhp, a deep and tuneful engine note, a crisp response and a sackful of character. Add to this the curious dashboard and the 208 generates much to talk about. Which, as Oscar Wilde observed, is much better than not being talked about at all.