The 208 was always intended to be the next big thing for Peugeot. Being a French mainstream car, being the next big thing automatically means that it must be quite a small thing. Superminis: they just love them over here.
We like them here as well. One in particular has been a regular visitor to the top of the passenger-car sales charts.
While Peugeot does not have ambitions of that kind for its new 208, it would certainly like the car to make an impression. There’s a lot in its favour: it embraces the French maker’s new styling philosophy, it’s the right price (starts from just $23,990) and it has a USP that’s very ‘now’: a seven-inch touch-screen in the cabin that unites media and communication features.
No, that’s not a new idea. But in the 208 the execution sets it apart form the competition because no rival has anything quite as large and, well, glamorous-looking. If you think that’s a small thing, you’re not keeping pace with the global obsession for touching screens and integrating digital media. Next year there will be the option of satellite navigation for that screen as well, which will make the 208 properly unique in the supermini class.
The 208 range also has a hero model. The Allure three-door is a bit of a GTi-lookalike (the real thing is coming next year) and is priced at $29,990, or $1000 more than the equivalent five-door. No, it won’t be a big seller: but it’s pretty striking and the hope is that it will emphasise the point that the 208 range is supposed to have some personality.
The interior is just as distinctive as the exterior. The steering wheel is tiny and not perfectly round, to better enable its placement very low – feels like it’s sitting in your lap. You look over the top of it to the instruments. And of course across to that centrally mounted screen, which looks a lot like an iPad Mini sticking out of the console. Interior quality is good: soft materials, interesting textures. Although also a couple of rattles on our car.
Here’s how forward-thinking Peugeot is trying to be: that screen is not concealing a CD player. You can play music by plugging in an iPod, any other MP3 player through the auxiliary port, via USB stick or Bluetooth streaming. But CDs? They are so 2011. You can make up your own mind about whether the time is right for that.
But it does bring me to my next point: that despite all of that high-tech interfacing, the 208 is not quite as advanced as it looks.
It rides on a redevelopment of the old 207 platform – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, it steers and rides impressively well for what is essentially a mainstream supermini. Perhaps not quite as sporty as the three-door styling suggests, but entertaining enough.
The engine is carried over: an 88kW/160Nm 1.6-litre shared with BMW-Mini. It’s energetic and performs well.
The main thing that lets the 208 down is its four-speed automatic gearbox. The French still have not twigged that there are markets in the world that favour two-pedal transmissions in small cars, and while you might admire them for that you also have to realise that it results in an automatic model somewhat lacking in engineering input.
The four-speeder lacks smoothness in low-speed gearchanges and goes into a highly aggressive shift protocol all too readily with a couple of bouts of brisk acceleration. It just gives the impression of not being terribly well developed in terms of programming.
More ratios would be nice as well, especially as the Mini with the same engine is available with a six-speed automatic. But frankly, we’d settle for a smoother, more predictable version of the existing gearbox. After all, the country’s top-selling supermini (and indeed the country’s top-selling car at times) does quite well with a four-speed automatic.
Despite the gearbox woes there’s a neat little car under there. If you doubt it, have a drive in the entry $23,990 1.2-litre three-cylinder. It’s fun, engaging, very simple and appealing. But also manual-only.
Stick with the Allure three-door for style. But I know which model shows the 208’s substance.