IAIN ROBERTSON

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All carmakers are under increasing pressure to reduce their Car Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) figures and, states Iain Robertson, punchy ‘triples’ provide a decent power source, while the manufacturer re-focuses on character and style.

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As an unashamed fan of the latest crop of small capacity, three-cylinder engines intended for the volume end of the new car scene, the recent appearance of an upgraded Peugeot 208 range presents a chance to try the firm’s turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol unit in a car that should allow it to operate most efficaciously. Peugeot’s ‘two-0-series’ has been immensely popular in the UK, since the introduction of the 205 line-up, despite critics lamb-basting the 206 (for losing its sense of direction) and the 207 (for striking indefensibly high levels of unreliability).

 

In truth, even though I rattled on around 20,000 miles in a 207 model, on a 12-months long-term test period, I can state categorically that it never missed a beat and, apart from an oil and filter change, the car never spent more than two hours in a garage over that term. I really grew to like that model, its style and its excellent performance, albeit from a 1.6-litre 110bhp turbo-diesel power unit.

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However, models change, usually on a six to eight year cycle and the 208 first appeared in 2012, which makes its recent mid-life refresher fairly pertinent. Since the 208’s arrival, it does appear to have put to the bed the nastier aspects that the 207 was reported to incur. It is a sweetly styled machine, possessing a number of stand-out details that have been enhanced with the mid-life changes…a wider mouth, skinnier headlamps and numerous interior upgrades.

 

While Peugeot insists that its five-speed manual transmission is more than adequate for normal use, I have wanted to sample the firm’s latest 6-speed automated transmission for some time and this test car, finished in Orange Power paintwork, provides the ideal mix. As cars of this type will be expected to spend most of their lives in town traffic, or commuting with relative cost-effectiveness, the benefits of an auto-box offer immense appeal.

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As it happens, the unit is matched perfectly to the power delivery of the teensy, 1.2-litre petrol engine. The days of power-consuming auto-boxes are done. Instead, the electronically managed, twin-clutch unit produced by Peugeot enables remarkably zesty performance, even though the engine delivers a ‘mere’ 110bhp.

 

Its ratios are well-chosen and both up and down-shifts, whether selected manually (by slipping the lever to the left, from the Drive position and tapping the lever forwards to move up and backwards to shift down), or left to its own devices, are smooth and almost imperceptible. I am a long-time fan of this class of transmission, of which VW Group is a master. The Peugeot unit lacks the ultimate refinement of VW’s DSG transmission but it does a pretty sound job all the same.

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While you might not expect zippy performance from this combo, the results are actually on-the-money. The 1.2-litre engine develops a modest 110bhp, aided by its small, high-spin turbocharger. A most satisfying, off-beat growl accompanies full-throttle acceleration, as the wee car cracks the 0-60mph sprint in a spirited 9.5 seconds. Its top speed is posted at 118mph but a 70mph cruise demands little more than a very comfortable 2,400rpm, at which speed the cabin is a relaxingly quiet place to reside.

 

With CO2 emissions pegged at just 104g/km, its first year provides tax-free motoring, with subsequent VED costs of just £20 annually. It is in affordable Group 15E for insurance purposes. In typical form, its Official Combined fuel figure is given as 62.8mpg, which I know can be attained, with some judicious eco-driving, although most owners will find that they achieve closer to 50mpg in daily use, a most liveable return.

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Yet, it is the sheer joy that can be exploited from driving the 208 (in GT line trim) that makes the car such a delight to live with. Its ‘power on demand’ capability is matched by taut chassis dynamics and delicious steering responses. To be frank, while my past experiences with various 208 models have been good, I do not recall feeling so positively rewarded as I do in this version. Even driving at fairly high speeds around my local test route, where the 208GTi was upset by a series of fenland road imperfections, this version of the car remains compliant and dismissive of them.

 

In fact, its suspension is so competently damped that I can believe it would be quicker than the GTi point-to-point, despite developing only slightly more than half the engine power. The overall balance of the test car is outstanding and a prime example of some highly intuitive chassis work carried out by Peugeot’s engineers.

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Although the 208 features the same tidgey steering wheel that is fitted to the 308 range, it seems far less out of place in the smaller model and even enhances its dynamic appeal. Fortunately (even though Peugeot will never agree) the pod containing the speedometer and rev-counter features clear dials in the right place that work in the right direction and are not counter-intuitive. The customary digital information screen, with gear position and digital speed reading is located between them, with a water temperature gauge on the extreme left and the fuel contents on the right.

 

The centre-stack consists of a iPad-like large screen that controls, through its touch surface, sat-nav (+£450), stereo and a useful reversing camera view (+£200). The dual-zone air-con (+£290) controls are located in the piano black panel ahead of the gear selector. A pair of largely useless (unless you are drinking small coffees) drinks-holders are at the base of the centre console, although a larger, more practical receptacle results, if you remove the cup-moulding. In-cockpit storage slots are provided by door pockets and the usual glove-box ahead of the passenger.

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For a sub-4.0m length hatchback (3.973m), space utilisation is actually quite good, with plenty of room for four large adults on the black hide-wrapped seats. While there are seat-belts for five, even a smallish child occupying the extra space would feel very cramped in the back seat. The boot is moderately accommodating but spacious, considering the car’s overall dimensions. There is certainly enough room for a couple of golf bags, or a week’s worth of family groceries.

 

The cabin environment is quite special for a small five-door car and access fore and aft is perfectly acceptable. On the test car, the 17-inch alloy wheels have a stylish gloss black finish, with a solitary spoke on each featuring a white graphic.

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Although I do not believe that I shall ever get over the shock of current small car pricing, the list price of £17,845, to which you must add £495 for the metallic paint finish, as well as the other options listed above, makes this another over-the-top tiddler, which is very disappointing. While the 5-door range starts at £12,445, a moderate base, the buyer does not actually receive much for the privilege. Of the four available trim levels (not including the three levels for GTi), GT Line is the most costly but there are still those options to acquire to make it as well specified as the test car.

 

Of course, Peugeot will argue that its PCP and lease finance programmes can make it more cost-effective for the consumer and that very few new car ‘buyers’ ever invest their own money these days. However, that precept is missing the point. Posting a price tag and then telling the consumer not to be concerned about it is a retrograde step, made worse by falling residuals and concerns about how long the manufacturer will continue to ‘underwrite’ the values.

 

Conclusions:   The Peugeot 208 hatchback is a charming small car that makes a lot of sense in 1.2-litre automated form. Fantastic to drive, through being both frugal, yet astonishingly punchy, it is the excellent handling, ride and comfort levels that make it a real winner for the majority of customers. The automated transmission is ideal for heavy traffic and city conditions. However, do take care on the options front, as up-spec’ing the car can become a costly sideline.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).