Can Peugeot’s newest 208 shake up the supermini sector with its superstar looks and cabin alone? Matt Robinson finds out
Peugeot’s recent renaissance has come about thanks to two things: An almost unfathomable improvement in interior quality, with its cars’ cabins now featuring the i-Cockpit high-mounted digital instrument cluster and tiny steering wheel beneath, and a return to one of the marque’s traditional strengths — movie-star good looks.
Through the 20th century, Peugeot always made pretty cars, but, somewhere in the early 2000s, something changed, and its products started to look a bit… frumpy, to put it kindly.
However, in the early 2010s, this stylistic mini-slump ended with the handsome 208 and 308 hatchbacks, although it really took off with the sharp-suited 3008 and 5008 crossover-SUVs, and the concept car-like 508 saloon and SW estate of more recent years.
Now it’s time for the second-generation Peugeot 208 (it doesn’t flick over to 209, as expected, as the highly important Chinese market views the number eight as lucky) to gain the same exterior and interior design flourishes, and doesn’t it wear them well?
In the supermini sector, in which rivals include the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo, SEAT Ibiza, Nissan Micra, Skoda Fabia, Renault Clio, and many more, style counts for a lot.
And nothing in this class has as much of that commodity as the 208. Admittedly, lower-spec models do without the signature ‘Lion’s claw’ three-strake light signatures front and rear, and they also do not have black plastic cladding over their wheel arches nor particularly big alloy wheels housed therein, but even base-trim 208s are lovely to look at and, with all the options loaded on, it’s a genuinely striking little hatchback.
Inside, the appearance, fit and finish of everything is pretty much class-leading — not even Volkswagen, so long the mainstream market leader in this regard, can match up to the Peugeot. New for the 208 is a 3D rendering of the i-Cockpit instrument cluster, which not everyone will get on with, but we found it to be a delight to look at and operate. The seating position up front is excellent, and the weighting of the major controls is highly pleasant, although rear-seat room is only average by the standards of the supermini segment. The 311- to 1,106-litre boot is also good, rather than remarkable.
In terms of motive power, Peugeot has offered a two-pronged range of cars. The regular 208s have either petrol or diesel power. All of the petrol engines are 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech units, which either come without a turbo (75hp/111Nm) or with one (a choice of two, these being a 102hp/205Nm motor that is expected to be the best-seller or a pseudo-sporty 130hp/230Nm variant at the top of the tree), and then there’s a solitary turbodiesel — the 100hp/250Nm BlueHDi 1.5.
All of these, bar the 130hp, come with a manual gearbox, which is a five-speed item on the 75hp PureTech and a six-speeder elsewhere, while an eight-speed automatic is the only gearbox on the 130hp PureTech. It is also a cost option on the 102hp model.
Then there’s a pure electric version of the French supermini, called the e-208. This uses a 100kW (136hp) electric motor with a rather large 50kWh lithium-ion battery pack, allowing for a 340km WLTP-ratified range on a single charge and Band A0 road tax (€120 per annum), on account of its zero-emissions status. With a relatively low limited top speed of 150km/h, the e-208 is nevertheless the most accelerative model of the five launch cars with an 8.1-second 0-100km/h time, thanks to it having 300Nm of torque available from the minute you press the throttle. This is despite it being the heaviest 208 of all by a hefty margin of 290kg, with a 1,455kg kerb weight.
To drive, the e-208 is a curiously underwhelming experience. Maybe it’s the normalcy of electric proposition these days that has taken away the ‘wow’ factor of an electric car, or maybe it’s just that Peugeot has made the e-208 look so similar to its conventional siblings inside and out (the biggest giveaways are subtle badges dotted about the exterior and a body-coloured chequered front grille with a dichroic Lion emblem).
Whatever the reason, while the e-208 accelerates smoothly, it doesn’t feel as brisk as its on-paper stats might suggest, while a firm ride quality really doesn’t help with interior comfort. Given it is the most expensive 208 of all, even factoring in all grants and rebates (it’ll start at €27,345), it’s not the car we’d recommend first from the 208’s range.
Same goes for the diesel, a fuel that is unfashionable these days and, in the 208 BlueHDi’s case, the driving experience is similarly flat, like the e-208. So it’s the petrol engines that win the day and, of these, thankfully it’s the mid-ranking 102hp version that is the most likeable.
While there’s a certain old-school charm to driving the 75hp non-turbo model, we suspect its anachronistic power delivery characteristics would soon irk daily commuter drivers, while the 130hp model — which is the most fun to drive — is rather pricey for what it is.
Thus, the 102hp model with the six-speed manual gearbox easily makes the most sense. Its ride quality is still not the best we’ve encountered in this segment, which is a shame as French cars are normally supremely supple, but it’s good enough and controlled enough to avoid becoming uncomfortable.
The weight and calibration of all the major controls is excellent, although the steering is a little light on feel for those who enjoy a challenging series of bends.
Nevertheless, with its beautiful exterior, quality cabin and amenable driving manners, this is a small run-around that will make its buyers very happy indeed. It would appear, then, that Peugeot’s renaissance is in full swing and happily, in the case of the new 208 range, its beauty is most certainly more than merely skin deep.