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|The main instrument cluster is in a line of sight above rather than through the steering wheel.|
The Peugeot 205 and 306 were two of the most charismatic hatchbacks of the past 25 years.
The first I admired as a highly modified Group B rally car, competed in as a less-modified club rally car, and drove - in classic road-going GTi form - on numerous occasions in the 1980s; he second - in 1995 turbo-diesel guise - served as my everyday transport for close on a decade.
Since then, at least until the arrival of the current 308, there has been little in the small hatch line from Peugeot to excite. Just a string of models - 206, 207 and 307 - that, through seeking to be more mainstream than their predecessors, lost the ability to stir the soul.
If the 308 represented a welcome return to form, what is one to make of the new 208?
Ostensibly, it is an all-new car. Certainly, there's fresh metal on the outside, and with it Peugeot has carved a distinctive and highly appealing small-car look.
Shod with 195/55 R16 yres and finished in an appealing deep red, the test car, the $29,995 flagship 208 Allure 1.6, came up a treat. As well as being cute and coherent from a distance, it looked great up close, ith the strongly shaped tail lights and the chromed Peugeot badge tucked under the leading edge of the bonnet two examples of the neat detailing that abounds.
Elements of the interior signal a concerted bid by Peugeot to look to the future, and do things differently from the mainstream.
Viewed from the driver's seat, the most obvious of these new elements are the positioning of the main instrument cluster in a line of sight above rather than through the steering wheel, and the large central display touchscreen that juts out from the centre console.
In order to accommodate the first of these features, Peugeot has fitted the 208 with an unusually small steering wheel, slightly oval in shape, and mounted lower than the norm. This affects the driving position, though not, in my view, adversely; indeed, if anything, the small size of the wheel adds a greater sense of immediacy to the steering. The seats of the test car scored ell for comfort and support. too. The key control fell nicely to hand, and visibility was fine.
The touchscreen, meantime, is adequate in terms of functionality, but more striking is that its inclusion comes in tandem with a decision not to provide a disc player for the 208. Instead, Peugeot is banking on all owners of the 208 who wish to play their own music having an iPod,
iPhone, or other portable multimedia device. These can be connected either in the old-fashioned way (plugged in) or by using Bluetooth.
Controls for the dual-zone air-conditioning are mounted under the display screen and air vents. Despite its compact dimensions the steering wheel includes key function buttons for the audio system and phone. Cruise control and auto lights and wipers are other key items of
standard equipment in the 208 Allure.
One element of the interior design that does not work particularly well is the twin cup holders. These are tucked awkwardly forward of the gear lever, at the base of the centre console. While they are fine for cans of soft drink, there is not enough space either between them or around them to accommodate two standard-sized take-away coffee cups side by side.
There is better news aft in the cabin where legroom is superior to that available in the outgoing 207. Boot space is decent, too, and though there is none of the obvious load-carrying cleverness you will find in the likes of a Honda Jazz, the split rear seats fold forward and, with the rear squabs pulled up, create a flat, extended boot floor.
The space gains over the 207 have been achieved by careful attention to design, for while the 208 is presented as a new car, it uses the same underpinning chassis structure as its predecessor.
That chassis and suspension have been extensively reworked to improve the car's driving dynamics. Peugeot is a past master in this game of incremental improvement, and succeeds this time round, too: compared with its predecessor, the 208 rides better, handles with greater aplomb, and is an all-round more engaging prospect for the keen driver.
So while the new 208 is still shaded for handling prowess by the Fiesta, and for dynamic maturity by the VW Polo, it is fully competitive when judged as an all-rounder.
Mechanically, the story is a mixed one. There is a smooth and decently peppy 88kW/160Nm 1.6-litre engine under the bonnet, but its ability to deliver its best is compromised by being matched to a four-speed automatic transmission.
The inevitably obvious gaps between those four forward ratios see the gearbox left wanting at times, even when the driver makes liberal use of the Tiptronic shift gates. The bouts of responsive torpor that result would not be apparent, for example, on a 208 that spends most of
its life in a relatively flat town, such as Christchurch or Invercargill.
But Otago in general and Dunedin in particular have steep hills and it is here that the benefits of a couple more ratios, or even a CVT variable transmission, would be felt.
Until such time as a more advanced auto or CVT is made available, the 208 will lag behind the best of its rivals in this important area.
Even so, there is much more to like about this latest addition to the Peugeot range than to dislike. Sassy, sharp-handling small hatchbacks have long been a specialty of the French manufacturer and while this latest addition to the line-up falls short of perfection, it is a far more interesting and attractive proposition than the vehicle it replaces.