Peugeot re-enters the hot hatch fray with its 208 GTI, but does the firm still understand what those three letters mean?

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The Peugeot 208 GTi is a lower, leaner, gutsier version of the Peugeot 208 supermini - keen to trade on its legendary badge, made famous by the Peugeot 205 GTi, but not particularly beholden to its spirit. 

This is a softer and subtler brand of GTi. Peugeot may roll out the memory of the 205 for these occasions, but away from the advertising campaign it readily admits that this is a much more mature model than its landmark scamp - developed to fit the broader requirements of a likely older audience. Peugeot did try to harness some of the 205's brilliance in a limited run of the 208 to mark its 30th anniversary.

The Peugeot 208 looks quite pricey next to competition from Ford and Renault

Consequently, unlike some demonically tweaked rivals, the Peugeot 208 is only gently differentiated from its lesser siblings. Whether you like it or not will therefore depend on how much you appreciated the template. But for our money the GTi would need a deeper, far costlier graft than just a new grille to make its less-than-pretty nose genuinely appealing. Peugeot has attempted to remedy this by offering a 208 GTi by Peugeot Sport, which gets a lower, wider presence than the standard car, plus the benefit of upgraded springs, dampers and wheel alignment, and a Torsten differential as found on the RCZ R.

Nevertheless its tidy profile is picked out well enough by a skinny set of arches, side skirts, and a prominent rear spoiler. Add to that a questionable splatter of chrome-effect body trim and a raft of badges, and the 208 makes it to familiar hot hatch styling territory.

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Beneath it all, swaddled in a rearranged set of ancillaries and close-fitting bodywork is the now customary four-cylinder 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine now running at 205bhp after Peugoet turned up the wick from the original 197bhp the unit used to produce. Around that Peugeot has installed the usual hot hatch accouterments: a reinforced front subframe compliments fatter struts, sports springs, tauter dampers and beefier anti-roll bars, while bigger brakes and revised steering settings help better control the show. 

As well as adding, the GTi benefits from Peugeot’s earlier decision to subtract: the car is 165kg lighter than the lardy 207 GTi at 1160kg. Not featherlight then, but an improvement - especially considering that (again, in keeping with its acknowledged target audience) it’s decently equipped too. Like the Ford Fiesta ST range, there are three trim levels to choose from each offering a smattering more equipment.

The standard GTi comes with 17in alloys, chrome dual exhaust system and rear parking sensors on top of the standard GT-Line-trimmed car, while opting for the GTi Prestige adds sat nav, heated front seats and a panoramic sunroof to the package. The Peugeot Sport tweaked GTi gains all the additions highlighted earlier plus 18in alloy wheels, round twin exhaust system and an Alcantara upholstery.

This is a car that is far better than its more humdrum donor model suggested it would be. Recent memory of the standard 208’s tin-box clunkiness is swiftly expunged once settled inside. True, the GTi is afflicted with the same dislocated interior - instrument cluster half-hidden by the steering wheel, an afterthought of an infotainment screen, glossy dashboard facia looking anything but - yet the important things ring true: the gear knob is a fistful of indented metal; its steering wheel is baby-armed in girth but petite in diameter, and the sports seats cosset and cradle superbly.

Pity the soundtrack doesn’t quite fit the same billing. While sharing the engine, the 208 doesn’t get the RCZ’s trick exhaust, meaning there’s not much to embellish the four-pot’s rather characterless drone. Out and about though (inline with the aforementioned game plan) it’s an hospitable unit. The GTi doesn’t suffer from the 208’s driveline klutziness, even if there is some low-down hesitation, and with 0-62mph in 6.8 seconds, there’s guts enough on tap.

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What there isn’t, is much in the way of fireworks. There’s a dependable rocket of 203ft lb of turbocharged torque from 1700rpm; admirable and potent, yes, but largely unwilling to deviate from its flat trajectory. Revving it out was not addictive, frenzied fun - especially when the accompaniment is a restrained babel of whistle and whine.

The emphasis on flexibility over thrill is perceptible in the chassis, too. While stiffer springs have been fitted, the ride height has only descended by 8mm; give the steering wheel a quick jiggle and the 208 bobs merrily on its travel rather than instantly hunting for a change of direction. This leeway helps give the GTi a degree of leniency: fraught road edges are nibbled away somewhat, and on the low frequency disturbances of French surfacing, it actually rides rather well.

The obvious downside is a touch more lean when you start to tie it on. But - in a way that could be almost described as quintessentially Peugeot if so many years hadn't passed between this car and the 306 GTi - it's all neatly steadied before it becomes a real problem; and the Peugeot 208 eases organically into its grip and line. The steering, it must be said, is a better rudder than it is guide - the weighting is a wee bit wooden and isn't capable of conveying much detail.

However, it’s not unduly inhibited with torque steer, and its quickness (aided by the steering wheel's dimensions) delivers enough nimbleness to keep you interested. From there the chassis takes up the reins: there’s balance and responsiveness here, and through medium fast bends, the appreciable sense that the car is pivoting at midships. Doubtless for some there won’t be enough susceptibility to wet ‘n’ wild mid corner throttle adjustments, but (in dry conditions) there’s sufficient rear-axle involvement to help trim the angle of attack.

Try harder and the 208 will cock a showboating back wheel in frowning concentration; pushing back earnestly until excess power cheerily smokes the inside front tyre. While the lack of a limited slip differential makes the latter inevitable (although the ESP has clearly been tuned to stay on top of foolhardy throttle inputs) there's adequate traction beforehand to allow the GTi to flit through an apex in satisfying style.

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In conclusion, that Peugeot has not returned to the raw freneticism of the 205 (spoiler alert: it never will) should not be greeted with much undue disappointment - it was, after all, predictable. Doubtless a further 100kg saving, zingier engine and stiffer chassis intent would have supplied a car closer to enthusiasts’ hearts but, this is, as it was meant to be, a congenial little hot hatch; easily bearable around town, usable on a commute and just enough of a giggle when the whim or right occasion arises.

Its manufacturer was once a master at balancing these attributes, and there's enough here to suggest that the 208 GTi can fight the battle against the Ford Focus STRenault Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo and its sibling the DS 3 Performance with its head held high. For its patient fans, that revelation alone is worthy of celebration. Welcome back to the ring, Peugeot.

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