Motoring: Peugeot goes one better

Road Test: The 206 GTI is sharp, powerful and solid . Take note, 205ers, writes John Simister

WRITING ABOUT Peugeot's new 206 GTI poses a problem. Do I, or do I not, mention the 205 GTI? That car was possibly the most entertaining hot hatchback ever minted, but it went out of production half a decade ago. Is it relevant? Or have we moved on from then?

I think we should approach the 206 GTI as a stand-alone story. The idea behind this car is simple enough: it's a thoroughly sporty version of Peugeot's popular 206, and its arrival is entirely predictable, given Peugeot's past record. The engine is a new two-litre, 16-valve unit made of lightweight aluminium and delivering a sturdy 137bhp, and there's subtle but ample visual evidence of the new sportiness. However, it's a Peugeot, and Peugeot's hot hatchbacks tend to be more deeply engineered for the job in hand than most rivals are. The 205 GTI was proof of that, but I said I wasn't going to mention it again. So we find that, as well as aluminium pedals and gear-knob, huggy seats with leather and Alcantara trim, and fatter wheels hiding, at the front, under swollen wheel-arches, there has some been subtle but significant work on the parts you can't see.

Stiffer springing and firmer damping you would expect, stronger braking too, but the fact that the forward of each front suspension arm's two pivots is not a normal rubber bush, but a precise-acting ball-joint, signifies deeper thought. This is a car designed with focus, to feel focused on the road. Just like the, ahem, 205 GTI, actually.

All right. I declare an interest. I own an old 205 GTI, and I love it to bits because of its eager pace, pert looks and pointable, squirtable handling. The 205 GTI is not without its snags, mind. Its garrulous, interactive nature can wear you down if you are not in the mood, its hyperactive accelerator response can be a pest in slow traffic, and there are those who claim it can land you in trouble, spinning you off the road if you slow down suddenly in a fast-but-tightening corner.

That said, Peugeot claims to have made the 206 a little friendlier in a crisis. But does the DNA remain uncorrupted? Has the friendliness been achieved at the expense of thrills?

You can see signs of good intent, even before you go for a drive. The paired air-vents on the driver's side of the bonnet echo the motif on the 205's rear pillars, and both cars have a near-vertical trailing edge to the rear side windows. There's a bigger front air-intake below the bumper, too, and metallised adornment on the dashboard and around the dials. Red stripes are absent, as are grey plastic wheel-arch lips, but this is a pre-millennial hot hatch, not a pre-PC one.

A short drive will dispel any lingering doubts. Make it a spirited one, though. Because the harder you go, the better the 206 GTI gets. If you amble, you'll be surprised at the softness of the controls' responses, the engine's refinement, the car's relaxing nature. No hot 205 was ever like this. But you only realise that this is progress, and not dumbing- down, when you venture towards higher speeds and faster corners. Then the steering becomes fabulously crisp, transmitting a real-time picture of the road, instilling complete confidence and control.

It gets better. Like the 205, the 206 can be "steered on the throttle" - ease off the power and the line tightens, accelerate and spear towards the corner's exit, playing steering off against accelerator. There's more grip, too, and the brakes bite harder when asked. In short, it helps you more.

Lots of pulling power, ready revvability and a close sequence of gears keep you flying. There's also a fine feeling of solidity about the structure, something that could not be said of the 205. Thick roof pillars, meaning a more obstructed view out, is the price you pay.

There's not much direct opposition to the 206 GTI, although that will change when Renault's two-litre Clio Sport appears. For now, though, the 206 GTI is the best small hot hatchback. It also assumes the 205 GTI's mantle better than I dared hope. Mission accomplished, then.

`Independent' readers test drive Peugeot's luxury 206 `Roland Garros': in the magazine, page 48

Specifications

Rivals

Make and model: Peugeot 206 GTI

Price: pounds 14,995 (to be confirmed by June on-sale date)

Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 137bhp at 6,000rpm

Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive

Performance: 131mph, 0-60 in 8.2sec, 28-33mpg

Ford Puma 1.7: pounds 14,950. A coupe rather than a small hatchback, the Puma is fast, smooth and handles neatly, but is not an intense driver experience.

Honda Civic VTi 3dr: pounds 15,750. Only 1.6 litres, but more powerful thanks to sky-high revvability. Rest of the car is fairly underwhelming.

Rover 200 Vi: pounds 16,725. With 1.8 litres and variable valve timing, has the credentials. Feels soft and dull after Peugeot, though

Seat Ibiza Cupra 16V: pounds 14,995. Closest match for character, with rally pedigree behind it. Lots of fun, not so polished

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