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The new French supermini turns on the style, but how much substance lies behind that?

What’s the difference between a small hatchback built by Peugeot and one built by Volkswagen?

One unappreciated distinction is that the Volkswagen will retain its name when a new generation is introduced whereas the Peugeot won’t. The first Polo arrived in 1975 and you can still buy ‘a Polo’ today. Peugeot gave us the tiny 104 hatch in 1976 but, since then, the same basic recipe has variously gone by the numbers 205, 206, 207 and, most recently, 208. For the casual observer, that’s a bit confusing, and if you’re Peugeot, it’s not great for brand building.

revised three-cylinder petrol is polite, but Ford’s equivalent Ecoboost unit has it licked for character and feels livelier, even if the Peugeot is quicker on paper

That’s why we now have another 208. Peugeot thinks continuity and familiarity might help its supermini better challenge the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and Polo, so the 208 moniker gets an encore, even though the car itself is almost entirely new, or at least heavily refreshed.

There’s a lot to get stuck into. The design is radically different from that of the outgoing model, which now looks meek by comparison. The new car is fractionally longer and wider but lower than before. It also gets aggressive-looking lighting cues and the windscreen has been slid back to create a longer snout and better-defined proportions. Higher-trim levels are then fitted with sleek, gloss-black wheel-arch extensions that tie in with a tail-light graphic stretching the entire width of the bootlid.

From the front, you might argue there’s a touch of Audi A1 going on but, from behind, the 208 looks like a masked superhero come to vanquish boring design in the B-segment. In the metal, it’s a very good-looking car, even though there’s no three-door option.

The engine line-up is less exciting but arguably more interesting. The overhauled 208 is the first supermini to offer petrol, diesel and pure-electric powertrain options all under one bodyshell – something enabled by the PSA Group’s new modular CMP platform for small cars.

Peugeot’s 1.2-litre Puretech three-cylinder petrol engine is offered in a trio of tunes ranging from 75bhp to 128bhp and you can also get an economical 99bhp 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel or the 134bhp all-electric e-208 with its 211 miles of WLTP-certified range.

The platform is clever because whichever the engine or motor, it slots into the same structural nook, so all three versions can be built on the same production line. That matters because while only one in 20 buyers will go for diesel, Peugeot expects as many as one in five UK buyers to pick the electric e-208.

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Unsurprisingly, it’s the e-208 that costs the most. The most basic 208, Active trim with the 74bhp engine, costs £16,250 while our test car, a 99bhp model in well-equipped mid-ranking Allure guise, costs just under £19,000. Even after a £3500 government grant, the least you’ll pay for the e-208 is £25,050. The best option for those who undertake longer drives is the diesel, rated at up to 71.4mpg combined compared with around 50mpg for the petrols.

Whichever 208 you’re driving, it’ll play its trump card early. The interior is very strong. In fact, this is arguably the most attractive driving environment in the segment and sits near the top for comfort and certainly in the top half for perceived quality.

At its extremities, the new two-tier dashboard curls around the edges of the cabin, and at its centre, the digital display (7.0in as standard, 10.0in optionally or with GT trim) tilts towards the driver with a row of toggle switches nestled below. The division of labour between the physical controls and those on the touchscreen display still isn’t perfect and VW Group products are generally more intuitive, but there’s little else to frustrate and the layout is very neat and feels mature.

Peugeot’s i-Cockpit (where you view the dials over the top of the wheel, remember, rather than through it) is also reprised, this time with a steering wheel fit for a concept car and a 3D digital instrument panel that did in fact originate from Peugeot’s Quartz concept. Although it seems like a gimmick, the idea is that information is split between two panels, one of which sits a few centimetres closer to the driver and displays more urgent information, such as speed and various alerts.

Like the new Clio, the 208 is now generously equipped with electronic safety systems, although you’ll still pay extra for adaptive cruise control. Elsewhere, the 208 is competitive for cabin and boot space, but avoid the panoramic roof if you don’t want rear passengers to feel too enclosed.

Dynamically, the outlook is mixed. This revised three-cylinder petrol is polite, burbling gently at idle, pulling cleanly and operating in barely audible fashion at cruising speeds, despite the fact that wind noise isn’t something from which the 208 obviously suffers. For all this, Ford’s equivalent Ecoboost unit has it licked for character and feels livelier, even if the Peugeot is quicker on paper.

On smoother roads, the new chassis, with its torsion beam rear and passive suspension, rides mainly with impressive ease, although some of the rougher Portuguese surfaces on our test route raise concerns about its UK B-road credentials. At times, the damping can seem brittle, as if the car is sitting on overly short springs and very low-profile tyres. This is an odd discovery because body control is generally, if anything, on the loose side. Further testing, on UK roads, is needed before we can make any conclusive assessment.

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Elsewhere, there are times when the new-found weight in the direct steering (still slightly elastic off centre and still light) and the free-moving rear axle can make for entertaining progress. Again, the Fiesta is better balanced and more linear in its controls, and a Seat Ibiza more alert in its handling, but the benign Peugeot never springs any unpleasant surprises and grips well.

Ultimately, Peugeot has picked its battles and invested accordingly: the 208’s appeal continues to lie mainly in its design. The big difference is that perceived quality now lives up to the ambitious interior styling and it all sits inside a tremendously attractive body.

With strong residuals forecast, it’s a likeable package, if not the most engaging in the close-fought supermini class.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Peugeot 208

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