Published on Thursday 27 August 2020 in Car news
You only need glance at the Peugeot 208 to see that it's not your run-of-the-mill small hatchback. Peugeot has styled this thing to make a statement.
Same goes for the inside, with the 208 getting the latest and smallest version of Peugeot's so-called i-Cockpit, focussed on a much smaller-than-average steering wheel. It sounds simple, but it transforms the way the car feels. The 208 is no one-trick-pony though, as you'll find out. It's very, very good.
The Peugeot 208 actually forms the basis of the latest Vauxhall Corsa, Peugeot-Citroen having ordered that to happen after buying the company in 2017. But it's fair to say that something was lost in the transition from 208 to Corsa, because where the Vauxhall is relatively anodyne, and not especially memorable, the 208 sparkles. That applies both aesthetically and dynamically.
The Style Of The Peugeot 208
Now this is how you style a small car. Everywhere you look there's an interesting feature, like the LED Daytime Running Lights at the front, based on the teeth of a saber-toothed tiger, and the contrasting black panel that runs along the tailgate.
And yet it's proportionally spot-on too. It's coherent. It's busy but it still looks neat, which is a hard thing to get right – you only need to look at Peugeot's partner brand Citroen to see how easy it is to over-style a car and make it look fussy. The 208 very obviously shoots for a sense of occasion with the styling, and pulls off that trick effortlessly, inside and out.
The Interior And Features Of The Peugeot 208
Let's start this section by saying that the 208 has one of the most mesmerising cabins ever fitted to a small car, more striking even than the MINI and probably beaten only by the screen-laden Honda E for wow factor.
As per the exterior, the cabin could easily have been a mess, with all its buttons and dials and variety of surfaces and materials and, of course, its almost comically small steering wheel. But it all works, somehow. And not only in an aesthetic sense, but in a functional way too. Everything makes sense in the 208: the buttons are clearly labelled, and the infotainment software, although not class leading by any means, is much better than the system Peugeot was using even a generation ago.
Not since the first BMW-era MINI, 20 years ago now, has a small car been packed with so much surprise and delight. For instance, mid-level cars upwards get a 3D style instrument binnacle that works on two levels, making it appear that the speedometer is 'floating'. It's like a child designed it, but in a good way.
But it's not like the 208 just has a couple of party tricks and the rest of it is poor. You could actually argue that this has better perceived quality than anything else in this class, MINI and VW Group stuff included. It all looks and feels ace.
The 208 is very safe too, gaining a four-star Euro NCAP rating but with especially good scores for occupant safety specifically: 91/100 for adults and 86/100 for children.
The Practicality Of The Peugeot 208
To roll back a bit on the boundless enthusiasm, in classic French style the price for the 208's idiosyncrasy and styling flair is a relative lack of practicality. There's not a great deal of rear legroom, even for a car in this class, and headroom feels tight for taller drivers, especially if a sunroof is fitted.
As per most right-hand drive Peugeots it has close to zero glovebox, so small in fact that the little folder for the car's warranty card doesn't even fit into it, and in litre terms the 208's boot space is on the low side of average, at 311 litres (rising to 1106 with the rear seats folded down). For reference, the Renault Clio has a 391-litre boot. That said, the 208's boot is a couple of litres bigger than the Vauxhall Corsa's.
The boot's loading bay isn't flush, sadly, but the 208 isn't completely thoughtless when it comes to the more intricate details of practicality. The centre console storage box is quite large, and there's a flap in the dashboard where you can hide your phone – a good safety feature, that, especially if you're inclined to pick up your phone while driving. Mid-level cars upwards add a conductive charging plate to it, too.
Ultimately this is not really a very versatile thing, although we'd argue that's forgivable because it's not what this car's about; you don't criticise the 208 for not having class leading storage for the same reason you don't criticise a leotard for not having pockets. This is a leotard: sporty…jazzy…and, frankly, pretty tight fitting.
The Running Costs Of The Peugeot 208
For the time being the engine range is fairly simple. Peugeot has been gracious enough to offer a 1.5-litre BlueHDi diesel with 100hp and a WLTP average economy rating of 60.8mpg, albeit that will form a fraction of this car's sales and may not last too long on sale. It's great for those who want the big tank range though, or who just love to go against the zeitgeist, but the petrol engines are much nicer and more suited to short distances.
Peugeot offers just three of those – well, one really. It's a 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine in three states of tunes: 75hp, 101hp and 130hp. They'll all give you roughly 40mpg in real life and they of course have similar character, but we'd suggest that unless you're really after the cheapest 208 you can find, the basic one isn't ideal because it's quite torque deficient, with only 118Nm. The other two have 205Nm and 230Nm respectively, and because it's torque that gives you your pickup, your sense of responsiveness, they feel much stronger.
There's an electric version too, with a whopping 300Nm peak torque and from standstill, meaning that's the most responsive of the bunch.
And while the 208 certainly isn't the cheapest small hatchback on the market, there is an overwhelming sense in it that you're getting what you pay for. Sadly if you buy a base model, called Active, you will be looking at an analogue speedometer instead of the super duper 3D panel, like staring into the past, and your closable phone flap won't charge the thing, but the basic sense of idiosyncrasy…that you do get, wherever in the range you buy. As well as plenty of other stuff, including alloy wheels, air conditioning, DAB, Apple CarPlay, and even a Type-C USB charging port.
Driving The Peugeot 208
This is the latest Peugeot to get the Peugeot driving position…obviously. But it's actually a very specific thing. Starting with the current 308 in 2013, Peugeot unveiled the (horribly named but) brilliantly innovative i-cockpit. Essentially it shrinks the steering wheel down and sets it low, placing the instrument panel above the rim.
This really is one of the most fun small hatchbacks you'll ever drive and although it is partly to do with the simple ergonomic trick of giving you a small, low set setting wheel, there's also a great chassis beneath the 208's stylish body work. MINI might bang on about go-karts all the time, but the Peugeot setup means it's the only car that ACTUALLY does physically feel like a go kart. On a basic level the small wheel means you have to turn the thing less to get the car moving more, and that gives you a sense of agility.
It's not without its issues though. Shrinking the i-cockpit concept down to a car this size is problematic if you're on the taller side, and that's not really an issue with other Peugeots so equipped – the 3008 and 5008 crossovers for example. It feels a little on the tight side in the 208.
It's also exacerbated in cars with a manual gearbox because the pedals are set quite far forwards, lifting your knees towards the back of the steering wheel. That means when you're changing gear your legs can often hit the steering wheel rim. That's a problem specific to taller people, yes, but it's also specific to this particular driver architecture.
It's part of the reason why an automatic gearbox suits the 208 so well. That and the fact that it's just a great automatic because, amazingly, Peugeot has managed to get an eight-speeder working in harmony with a small capacity petrol engine. It shifts around its ratios a lot, as you can imagine, but it does so without a shunt, leaving you to just get on with two-pedal 'stop and go' driving. That heightens the go-kart feel even further. Plus the Peugeot manual gearbox isn't great anyway – a bit springy, and not something that adds to the driver appeal in the same way that the manual 'box in, say, a Ford Fiesta does.
It rides a bit like a go kart too, as in a bit too jiggly at times. But again, like the whole space and practicality thing, it's highly forgivable because of the car's nature and it never crosses into being actually uncomfortable. Thankfully there's only one suspension setup here, so if you want your car to look sporty – you want a GT Line car, that is – you don't have to pay for it with an over-firm 'sports suspension' setup that upsets the ride quality further.
At low speeds it doesn't thump about. And it's really, really good on the motorway. It feels more like a family hatch at high speeds than a supermini: eighth gear, no engine noise, fairly settled ride…it feels chunky, grown up.
The Peugeot 208 isn't perfect, but there was a time in the recent past when cars like this – small French ones that is – would be largely poor but with a few character quirks of styling or whatever to sort of lure you in. This is not like that at all. It's mostly brilliant, with loads of character on top.
The VW Group stuff – the Polo or the Fabia or the Ibiza – they all feel more spacious and just less frenzied and slightly daft. And they have better basic ergonomics and infotainment. The same could be said of the Korean stuff too. And actually, the Ford Fiesta does feel like it has a better chassis than this, it's conventionally more rewarding.
But none of them, Fiesta included, have the joie de vivre that this does. It's possibly the best small hatchback on sale today.