First of all, let me stress that the following review is based on a short 20-minute test-drive.
The version I test-drove was the 1,4 HDI (68 HP version), although I wanted to test-drive the new 3-cyl. petrol-engine 1,2 VTi. The reasons for this being that the 3-cyl. engine is based on the Daihatsu/Toyota 1,0 3-cyl. engine, which itself is used in the Peugeot 107/Citroen C1/Toyota Aygo, as well as the base Toyota Yaris. These 1,0 engines are VERY light, and the 1,2 version developed by Toyota/PSA is 95kg lighter compared to the basic 1,4 PSA 4-cyl. petrol engine in the 208, not to mention compared to the 1,4 HDI I test-drove.
Being very light, the 3-cyl. petrol 208 should be very interesting to drive, as the almost 100kg weight difference (!) compared to the 1,4 petrol (and almost 150 kg (!!) weight difference compared to the diesels), is entirely over the front axle, which means that, combined with the 208's revolutionary 27cm-diameter ultra-small steering wheel (and the RATHER direct steering-rack ratio), should make for one VERY VERY fun-steering little car.
Anyway, I will start with the general, "not-steering/dynamics-related" aspects of the review, for which extensive comments follow lower in the text.
The 208 seems to be a very unusual proposition sizing-wise: it IS definitely somewhat smaller than the 207, yet the internal space (and luggage space volume) is noticeably better than in the 207 - both objectively, and as a feel/convenience for the passengers. This is especially so at the rear bench, where legroom, headroom and general thigh-support is FAR above average (this is almost always a weak point on this category of cars, meaning that when grown-ups are seated on the back seat, they sit literally on their behinds… instead of having a proper thigh support). The 208 is rather good in this aspect, although at the expense of having a somewhat too vertical upper part of rear seat.
Generally speaking, there is some innovative approach in the design of the seats: the upper parts of the seats (both front and rear), are VERY thin so as to save space, yet this is very hard to spot as they are very creatively designed. Furthermore, the seats are unusually soft for a 2012 vehicle, even verging on the very-old-french-school of VERY soft seating (and this is showroom-new, imagine how soft they'll be after 30-40 K miles…). This is the first pleasant surprise when seated in the 208. There are more to come.
Up front, the cabin space is somewhat smaller (subjectively) compared to the 207, although one hardly feels cramped or tight – it is just "cozier" and "sportier", in a BMW-like sort of way. The seating position (although it is hard to notice on first sight, because the driver is initially "shocked" by the revolutionary, extremely small steering-wheel / dash layout), is actually very reasonable and comfortable, with the pedals vs. seat height almost spot-on, and definitely not too "sky-high" as is on most newer cars (this is at lowest seat setting, of course, the reviewer being a 5ft 9' male specimen).
The only real remark regarding the seating position (and it can actually be considered as a serious design flaw) is that the gearshift lever, although on first sight it seems ideally placed, has SUCH LONG throws (at least the 1,4 HDI I tested), that, when in 2nd and 4th gears, it is MUCH MORE rearwards than it should ideally be, making the gear-shifting a somewhat too "logistical" operation for the hand. Let's hope that the gear-shift throws are somewhat shorter on the 3-cyl. versions (as I recall from the 107, the shifter there was extremely short-throw, almost sports-car like, so perhaps the 3-cyl. 208 will be like that as well).
The dashboard materials, in the "base" versions, are somewhat contrasted (in the negative connotation) with the shiny and good quality plastics on some parts of the dash/centre console, verging on looking cheap. Not really, but JUST avoiding to. On the more upmarket trim versions of the 208, the presence of leather on the VERY NOTICEABLE steering wheel (being that revolutionary, one's eyes are always aimed at it at first) and the generally softer materials used throughout, make the 208 cabin actually feel almost premium, and are additionally elevated with the extreme, playful and INNOVATIVE design of the 208 dash/cabin. Actually, the design of the 208 dashboard/cabin is one topic where one can freely use that I-word.
The overall fit and finish of the interior seems very good, especially having in mind that this test-car was an early-production-run version – for sure it will be a very decent interior once the production plants are run-in properly.
The body itself gives a much more solid "feel" compared to the 207, and seems to be generally at least on-par with the Spanish-built VW Polo, if not exactly with the Golf/508. The way the doors close, windows open, and the general panel gaps and finish gives a very solid impression. In comparison, the 207 / 308 feel downright flimsy. The new wave of "imitating-Audi" that Peugeot started with the 508 (by "imitating-Audi" I mean mostly in the precision of assembly), seems to continue with the new C3 and now the 208, although this time it comes in a very fresh and exciting packaging (as opposed to the dull 508, which, as good as it is fit & finish-wise, is very boring, especially as the exterior design is clearly "Avensis-inspired"...).
The 208's innovative, high-mounted instrument binnacle (almost in line with the eyesight during driving) is very natural to use, especially after the eyes learn to adapt to the smaller-than-usual deviations in the vertical plane. It is another story whether these very slight movements of the eyes that the 208 needs can be perhaps tiresome on longer runs, but on this short test-ride, the instrument binnacle was a delight to use. On first sight, when adjusting the steering wheel and seating positions, one can clearly see that some positions can mask certain surfaces of the instruments, but if the driver follows basic logic during adjustment, the binnacle remains 100% visible nevertheless. Good job, Peugeot.
What amazed me on the first several hundred yards of driving, though, is the sheer refinement of this car, especially with it being a… diesel. This goes both for the primary commands and the general NVH-levels. This refined feel seems as if it was literally "lifted" from several classes above. Actually, after feeling the level of refinement that's available in the 208, I am almost sure that some particular components of the 208 are constructed in the same (or almost same) level as on the 508. Which is promising. For example, the way the diesel-engine is perfectly "cushioned" and silent on shut-off. Furthermore, the aircon operation was practically impossible to detect, although the ambient temperature during this test-drive was literally scorching (38 deg. C meltdown…). It is things like this that are totally out of proportion with the 208's price tag, and clearly indicate how PSA has learned good lessons from its Citroen "DS" range of luxury vehicles, and learned how to implement them in its "mass-market" products. It might also mean that PSA has integrated some methods of platform-thinking in the volume-ordering / pricing of some crucial, NVH-related items (making further economies of scale).
Before I report on the driving feel, I feel obliged to mention some distinct things that are related to the driving dynamics, that drew my attention before the test-drive, while I was thoroughly looking at the car from all angles. These are facts that are good to keep in mind before assessing/commenting on the way the 208 drives/rides/steers/brakes:
1. The rear axle is a semi-rigid axle with conventional springs, with a very pronounced static negative camber, meaning that PSA has obviously decided to follow Renault in the layout of rear axle design. Actually, the rear axle of the 208 is rather robust and simple, and very similar to the Clio/Logan platform, meaning that there is no trace of reverting to the torsion-spring layout of some previous Peugeots/Citroens. Which is both good and bad.
2. The wheelbase/track ratio of the 208 is VERY square (it is 1,723, actually almost same as the legendary sports car Renault Megane RS Ph.1…), meaning that, for what its wheelbase is worth, the tracks front and rear are proportionally very wide, and also the ratio of length/width of the 208's body is also rather unusual for a small car. It is WIDE, and rather short as well. The wheels are right there at the very outer edges (almost no overhangs), which obviously helped a lot in attaining the cabin space targets, and promises very competent chassis behaviour / dynamics (read below on that). This "extremely-short-overhangs" layout, however, has a distinct disadvantage in terms of vulnerability of axles to small urban accidents – even a very small front- or rear-end collision, will probably damage the front or rear axle (s) as well. So there is a price for the 208's very convenient "urban" sizing (BTW., it is tremendously easy to park/maneuver, as well!).
3. Again that SMALL steering-wheel & direct steering-rack ratio (CCA. 2,4 circles lock-to-lock)
4. The stock wheels come with the 'meaty' tyre size 185/65-15, meaning that PSA has once again followed Renault in the choice of tyres for its base-model, standard versions. This tyre size probably offers the best compromise between "manners" (road noise, ride comfort) and grip vs. rolling-resistance.
OK, so how does it drive/ride/steer/brake?
Ride: unfortunately I could not assess the ride quality, as the Peugeot dealer where I test-drove the 208 didn't bother to adjust the tyre-pressures from the transport-mode (high values) to the optimum values, so the ride was obviously unsettled. Still, even with the over-pumped tyres, the ride was fluent and had an overall feeling of good-damping and "good-hearted" spirit over unevenly paved roads. The overall refinement, coupled with good secondary ride, however, made for a very upmarket-feel ride, which is especially rewarding having in mind the diminutive sizing of the 208.
Steering: the concept of introducing direct-steering + ultra-small steering wheel offers really a massive potential for sky-high "smile-per-mile" values. The 208 also delivered on the expectations for "fun" - the car is simply very easy & "vivid" to drive. Still, this short test-drive revealed something weird; it seems that the diesel-engined versions are flawed in this respect, because the steering-ratio is simply too high for such a heavy weight engine over the front axle -- the front end of the car heaved and rocked a little on every steering input, showing the excessive relative weight of the diesel engine. This requires that driver's inputs on the steering wheel are kept very smooth & slow, which is not always possible in real-life driving.
Although the above "clumsiness" might be also a matter of getting used to, or perhaps the tyre pressures on the test example were the culprit, I still fear that the diesel versions of the 208 need a slightly more conventional steering-ratio setup. On the other hand, this "vivid" concept promises LOTS of fun with the lighter petrol engines, ESPECIALLY the 3-cyl. 1.0 (68 HP) and 1.2 (82 HP) versions – those are apparently almost 150 kg (!) lighter on the front axle, and should be indeed massively fun to drive.
Handling / Dynamics: again I cannot make a very referent statement on this, as the test-drive was rather short, the tyre pressures were off the mark, plus the tyres themselves were not scrubbed-in (the car had only 400 miles on the odometer) so they felt greasy, which is normal for brand-new tyres. Still, initial impressions are as follows:
- Turn-in is very "live", and the secondary turn-in (once the car is initially settled in the corner-entry), is immensely sharp, almost race-car like (and this is with the heavier diesel engine, meaning that the lighter 3-cyl. versions will have clearly a built-in "spiritual reminder" of the legendary Peugeot cult-product – the "driver's icon" called 205 GTI). Moreover, this amazing steering sharpness was delivered on the base, 185/65-15 tyre size (!), which tells a LOT of the 208's chassis competence & potential. It is, quite simply, one of the best-turning little cars out there.
- Steering feel was way worse than what this sweet chassis deserves, although it was not so bad as on some other PSA cars, and generally acceptable – as it is not a sports car after all. Anyway, the steering feel is definitely of the dreaded "digital", and not the preferred "analogue" type. It remains to be seen whether PSA will make efforts to create a "live", pleasant steering feel in the upcoming "warm" and "hot" versions of the 208. Now that would be a decent competition to the Renault's RS models.
- Dynamic feel: the wheelbase/track ratio of 1,72 can be felt in the ways this car moves in corners – it feels just ideally balanced between a "long-wheelbase-feel" and "short-wheelbase-feel" car. The subjective point where the car pivots around is somewhere around the driver's feet, so it has a distinctive 205-flavour in this "department", that also hints at possible good times with the hotter versions to come. The oversteer/understeer balance was not possible to assess at all speeds, apparently, but on first sight this car promises zero-understeer to provoked-oversteer, which, for a base-model with 185/65 tyres is VERY PROMISING. Of course, the notion of oversteer is very slight, as it is within the working scope of the ESP. It is good to report that the ESP seems not so intrusive in 9,5/10s driving, and even allows for some "play", so maybe PSA has for once "hit the proper nail" in this department, after a long while… Whether the ESP will be switchable in the hotter versions is yet to be seen.
- Brakes: on this 1,4 HDi (diesel) powered car, the brakes were absolutely perfectly judged between relaxed but eager (not too-eager) reaction at low speeds, and good, grabby and very sovereign "emergency" braking from CCA. 70-80 mph (without the overly sensitive, nervous reaction from the servo, that mars so many new cars these days). Besides, during this "emergency" braking test, the car's rear end gave ”clues" that it can be made to assist with fast driving (conveying very controlled messages to the driver, of the type "I'm here and I can dance if you need…"), so the good news is that FINALLY we have a Peugeot that knows how to dance! This was actually one of the parts of the test-drive that impressed me the most (have in mind that the brakes were obviously not run-in yet, so the real-life braking performance will probably be very impressive in my opinion). Pedal feel was total class, superior both in feel, hardness, travel and modulation - Peugeot at their best!
- Almost perfect NVH & refinement.
- Almost perfect, but still flawed seating position (the legacy of very long throws of the gear lever, making it very rearward in 2nd & 4th gear).
- Perfect brakes and perfect on-brake-adjustability of the rear-end (amazing for an ESP-equipped car!).
- Seductive, fun-fun-fun steering, yet somewhat flawed on the diesel-versions (too "clumsy" due to engine weight vs. steering-rack ratio).
- Very sharp handling, astonishing secondary turn-in, promising a possible return of Peugeot as one of the legendary "chassis magicians" out there?
- Ride seems to be very fluent & comfortable, especially having in mind the chassis potential when "pushed" hard (with some limitations as we didn't experience the car with proper tyre pressures, and the tyres were not scrubbed-in obviously).
- Fun-factor is very high, especially triggered by the distinctively different dash-layout and the go-kart-like steering wheel sizing.
- It is one of the easiest cars out there to park and manoeuvre; perhaps even better than the Fiat Panda.
Conclusion: the version I tested lacked just the right amount of "character" in the engine department (the HDi-diesel is just TOO efficient, silent and linear (read: boring)), in order to make it a really "vivid", happy and smile-inducing car. The punch of the 68 HP 1,4 HDi was also somewhat meager with the air-con on, but this was also due to the engine being brand-new and very tight.
Still, the conclusion would be that, given a light, sprightly and buzzy engine with good sounds (such as the new 1,2 VTi 3-cyl. unit), the Peugeot 208 might be exactly the Peugeot we have all been waiting so long - a good blend of irresistible driver appeal with practicality, refinement and style.
With the diesel engines, it just misses the point on two fronts:
1. The serious, humourless competence, muffled sound and "flatline" character of the diesels ruins the 208's initial purpose – to put a smile on your face.
2. As mentioned above, the diesels would require a more "conservative" steering setup - the result is somewhat confused - the front end of the car heaves a lot on small steering inputs (straight line corrections / lane changes), although once in a corner, everything is tight and fun.
In spite of this, I see enough potential in the 208 to probably make it THE big Peugeot comeback. Besides, we all have to thank PSA for being brave to make such a neat and "juicy" little car, that promises to reintroduce DRIVING, as opposed to "passengering" that most of the mainstream cars offer (Renault and Ford excluded, of course).
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Don't Know
Review Date: 13th June, 2012