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Special edition turns up the heat on the GTi to celebrate a milestone

When Peugeot drew attention last year to the 30th birthday of its seminal 205 GTi hot hatchback, performance car fans all over Europe suddenly felt that little bit older.

You needn’t have been a teenager in the early 1980s to know the sporting legend that this front-wheel-drive phenomenon created – or to have added your own ownership story to it. The 205’s superbly engaging handling, combined with typical hot hatch usability and value, have made it arguably the most affectionately remembered French performance car yet made.

The Peugeot 208 GTi 30th is capable of 0-62mph in a suitably swift 6.5sec

The company’s latest inheritor of that legacy, the 208 GTi, was a more serious attempt than we’ve seen in a long time to return the Peugeot brand to the kind of reverence in which it began to be held two or three decades ago.

But although it was a simpler and more willing entertainer than many a hot supermini, it had the misfortune of arriving at the same time as the very good Renault Clio RS 200 Turbo and outstanding Ford Fiesta ST.

Peugeot’s response – almost two years later and delivered with some celebratory largesse – would seem to be ‘upstage this’: the limited-edition 208 GTi 30th. Departing from the usual paint-job-and-alloy-wheels recipe of special-edition hot hatchery, its engine, transmission, suspension, brakes and steering have all been uprated or retuned, and its outward appearance and interior have been updated.

The net result, says Peugeot, is a car of not just greater performance capability than the standard 208 GTi but also more radical character and “extra soul”. If true, such added flair will distinguish the car from its rivals better than a class-leading 0-60mph showing.

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It doesn’t come cheap, though. Peugeot’s £21,995 asking price for the 208 GTi 30th makes it 10 percent more expensive than a fully loaded, Mountune-kitted Fiesta ST, so it needs to be every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be.

DESIGN & STYLING

Peugeot badging

After the impressive job that it made of the RCZ R, Peugeot Sport’s attention was seconded from making Dakar Rally and European Rally Championship competition cars for this project. And its work started by updating the standard GTi’s 197bhp 1.6-litre turbo four-pot engine for greater potency to make it comply with Euro 6 emissions regulations.

Its makeover has done more for torque (up 18lb ft to 221lb ft) than power (up 7bhp to 205bhp), but it has also brought CO2 emissions down by 14g/km and two company car tax percentage points and boosted claimed combined fuel economy up beyond 50mpg.

The Peugeot's grille design is supposed to ape a chequered flag. It works with limited success

As crazy at it sounds, you now have to descend through the Peugeot 208’s petrol engine range all the way to the 81bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder version to find a more economical motor. That will probably be of more significance to buyers of the 2015-model-year regular 208 GTi (which is next in line for this engine) than for owners of the 30th anniversary special, but it’s a remarkable claim in any case.

Downstream of that engine, Peugeot Sport beefed up the GTi’s transmission by transplanting the six-speed, close-ratio manual gearbox and Torsen limited-slip differential directly from the RCZ R. Standard 18in alloy wheels with half an inch of extra rim width contribute to an improvement in the claimed 0-62mph acceleration to 6.5sec from the standard GTi’s 6.8sec.

You’d expect an equally thorough chassis makeover and, sure enough, you get one. The 208 GTi 30th’s suspension has been completely recommissioned compared with the normal GTi’s. Firmer springs, uprated dampers and new anti-roll bars feature, as well as wider tracks front (an extra 22mm) and rear (16mm), a 10mm reduction in ride height and more negative wheel camber.

The front brake discs have been enlarged to 323mm and its electro-mechanical power steering, traction control and ESP systems have been recalibrated to derive maximum benefit from the mechanical locking diff.

Exterior styling changes are limited mainly to matt black alloy wheels and body trim additions, although the two-tone, diagonally split paint scheme is eye-catching. Peugeot calls it ‘Coupé Franche’. For those who’d prefer it, conventional Satin White or Rioja Red paint is available.

INTERIOR

Peugeot 208 GTi 30th interior

Peugeot has resisted the urge to tamper much with the appearance of the 208 GTi’s cabin for the 30th. To all intents and purposes, this is a 208 GTi as we currently know it. Which is to say decent enough, despite the showboating shiny plastic and mildly perplexing nature of the layout.

Characterised by the high-mounted touchscreen and now infamous floating dials, the layout is a familiar theme of the French manufacturer’s interior design language, although that has hardly altered the slightly discombobulated feel of sitting behind the wheel for the first time.

The seats are a special design and are very good up to a point, falling short only in the kind of support that we'd expect on a track

Much has been written on the subject of the dashboard, which we won’t repeat here, but suffice it to say that short drivers who prefer to sit low will probably not be able to see the 208’s redline – and in a hot hatch, that seems like a shame. We’re not huge fans of the downsized steering wheel blocking the view, either, and the manual gearbox could do with its unnecessarily long throw being an inch or two shorter.

Getting comfortable isn’t a problem, thanks to the new, figure-hugging Peugeot Sport-branded seats, although the squidginess of the bolsters means they’re hardly vice-like in the support department.

The 30th gets a bit more lacquered black trim, Alcantara, leather, red piping and some very scarlet floor mats – plus a numbered plaque – to mark it out as special, but it’s unlikely that Peugeot’s customers will feel inclined to pay the model’s premium on account of the spec.

That said, there’s enough standard kit thrown in, including a DAB tuner, dual-zone air-con and sat-nav, to make it a convincing enough range-topper – especially given that the satellite navigation system was previously only standard on the GTi Prestige trim level.

Everything functions well enough, even if the map display does resemble a line drawing from an early 1990s flight simulator. The niggles lie deeper and most notably in a general lack of intuitiveness. There is rather too much screen stabbing to be done at a plethora of buttons and boxes — a criticism easily levelled at half a dozen such systems, but not any less bothersome for that fact.

The lack of any real sense of fluid usability is a shame, because it means that the lofty positioning of the screen never seems like much of a virtue. It just feels like you’re continually having to lift your hand up very high to access the feature you want, rather than keeping your eye on the road.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Peugeot 208 GTi 30th rear

The current 208 GTi, although never road tested, was not lacking in gusto – a good thing when you consider the marginal nature of the power increase enacted here.

Nevertheless, Peugeot claims a respectable 0.3sec reduction in 0-62mph time, and, two up, we corroborated it at Millbrook. The previous car’s problem was in the hooves rather than the horses, so it seems fair to credit the revised suspension geometry, new limited-slip differential and stickier tyres with the slightly better level of traction required to enable the 30th to cover the 0-60mph sprint in 6.5sec.

The new limited-slip differential stands out as the key mechanical change, but otherwise this is a hefty tweak of the 208 GTi's blueprint

That puts it in very good stead compared with the competition, making it almost a full second quicker than the spiritless Clio 200 and half a second up on the Fiesta ST. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Fiesta ST, powered by Ford’s similar-sized Ecoboost engine, remains the more characterful and responsive unit from low revs.

Peugeot’s own turbocharged four-cylinder motor, although as thrusting as ever from shorter gear ratios, still suffers from a brief contemplative moment of lag that just isn’t as noticeable in the ST. It isn’t irksome enough to be a serious demerit, but it does make the 30th’s undoubted liveliness harder to get at than it might otherwise have been.

Once on stream, the engine’s willingness to rev is undeniably contagious, especially given the enthusiasm with which it careens into its 6500rpm limiter. It isn’t a particularly stirring experience, though, the classic hard-edged four-pot thrash being a strain on the ears compared with the bass-noted melody of the Fiesta’s symposer system.

Throw it all together – the peaky din, the throttle delay, the long-throw gearshift – and the Peugeot 208’s performance can seem a little disjointed compared with better-rounded rivals. Nevertheless, the 208’s brio – that scurrying exuberance which makes a supermini seem convincingly hot – is never in question.

RIDE & HANDLING

Peugeot 208 GTi 30th cornering

Right out of the box, the 30th feels like a different prospect from the flawed but likeable 208 GTi. In standard fettle, the car complements its over-engined silliness with a benignly sprung, amenable attitude to ride comfort. The special-edition model jettisons the compromise, adopting instead the uncannily hard-bodied rebound of a much more single-minded product.

Keeping you stapled to the road surface is the old-fashioned name of the game here, no matter what rippling after-effects are felt in the cabin. There’s plenty of road noise to go with it, too. This is a car capable of making the Fiesta ST seem well isolated. Of course, Peugeot is reasoning that the enthusiast niche of potential buyers won’t bristle at such treatment as long as the results tell.

The GTi 30th's tight body control comes at the expense of comfort

That these hardy souls will find the car an improvement is testament enough to the diff and wider tracks that it probably should have had in the first place. Where the standard model is a primitive, unruly steer to be cajoled around the place like a stroppy toddler, the GTi 30th is more appreciably in command of its faculties.

The diff itself (a looser affair than was applied to the RCZ R) doesn’t overawe the front end. It just competently permits the application of more power from much earlier in a corner. And given that there’s usually a surfeit of power, and now considerably more grip, it makes the 208 a plainly quicker prospect.

That’s as advertised, and as you might expect. However, unfiltered entertainment on the public road, of the kind meted out so effusively by the Ford, is in shorter supply than we’d hoped. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one, and the most familiar, is the 208’s steering, which continues to be a bugbear.

As with the standard car, the rack’s electric assistance is a muddle. The overly light off-centre haziness introduced to make that small wheel manageable at low and medium speeds deprives the set-up of any linearity when it suddenly wants to be all viscous and reactive at a gallop.

Too often you find yourself sawing away at it, discontentedly. The 30th’s purchase (in the dry) is appreciable enough to drive through the shortfall, but unquestionably some of the new-found perkiness and precision delivered by the chassis is needlessly frittered away.

The 30th works somewhat better on the track than it does on the road. Primarily, that’s because the point of most of the upgrades — improved characteristics at nine-tenths — comes to the fore more consistently and compellingly when the bends are empty and mostly well sighted.

Drive with enough persistence and the GTi 30th’s aptitude for tarmac rally stage-style tenaciousness bubbles quickly to the surface. It is capable of carrying huge speed through fast corners — more so even than the Ford Fiesta ST, which, during informal testing on Millbrook’s compact outer handling circuit, was 1.5sec off the pace set by the 208.

Even here, though, the Ford’s superior adjustability makes it the more compelling steer. Unlike the diff-sharing RCZ R, which indulges in exuberant lift-off oversteer, the 208’s stability bias means that it requires a dab of the brakes to do significantly more than simply tighten its line.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Peugeot 208 GTi 30th
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Peugeot’s pricing for the 208 GTi 30th may be ambitious, but it isn’t exorbitant for a big-hitting supermini in 2015. The Fiesta ST, which is on offer for less than £18k, continues to make every rival look expensive as things stand, but that kind of value is the exception, not the rule.

Nissan’s Juke Nismo RS is barely any cheaper than this 208, for example. Both the Audi S1 and the upcoming Mini JCW are considerably more expensive. And although they’re premium-brand offerings, neither the Audi nor the Mini has the advantage of limited-run supply to bolster residual values.

You get sat-nav and DAB radio as standard, so there's no need to add much

Just 300 examples of the 30th anniversary 208 GTi will be made, 100 of which are coming to the UK and a decent number of which have already been sold. Our market sources are understandably conservative about the car’s likely residual values.

If it becomes collectable, the GTi 30th could retain its financial worth better than anyone expects – although there’s no sign yet of the kind of demand that would be required to make that happen.

Otherwise, costs of ownership on the 208 GTi 30th promise to be quite low. Rated in group 30 for insurance, it’s in the same classification as the normal 208 GTi and the equivalent Ford Fiesta ST. A Clio RS 200 is only one group lower.

On fuel economy, the car’s performance is laudable. Our True MPG recorded 41.2mpg as a test average, more than 10 percent better than the Fiesta ST returned.

VERDICT

3.5 star Peugeot 208 GTi 30th

This is a quicker, more capable and more exciting 208 GTi than the one that first emerged a couple of years ago. Its improvements are bullishly obvious.

Which is appropriate, because to get the best out of them, you must continually and unmercifully examine its limits. So it’s apparent just how much of a committed enthusiast you’d have to be to live with this 208 in the long term.

Fast and appropriately furious but, in truth, the 208 is only the best of the rest

Its faults notwithstanding, we were modestly fond of the standard car’s bed-ruffled way of doing things, and it’s inevitably that easy-going edge which has had to go.

Making the 208 GTi ostensibly better hasn’t necessarily made it any more likeable. This 30th birthday version has become a better hot hatch than its competition from Renaultsport, sure – but we’ll take a more communicative hot hatch over a brutish one most of the time.

That explains the Fiesta ST’s monopoly of the hot supermini top spot, and the 30th’s distance from it.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Peugeot 208 GTi 30th 2014-2015 First drives