First Drive: The new Peugeot 208 proves there’s substance behind its obvious style

What is it?

(Peugeot)

You might think this is just another supermini, but Peugeot sees it as something much bigger. At the car’s launch event near Lisbon, big boss Carlos Tavares told us not to think about this as just one car, but how it fits into the bigger picture of future mobility.

Sure, it’s his job to think about the bigger picture, but it all seems a bit extreme for what is essentially just a damn good looking Ford Fiesta rival. It shows how important this car is for Peugeot, though, in a huge segment of the market, and being “totally representative of the technology available within the company”.

The question is, is there enough substance beneath all that style to tempt buyers away from other rivals in the UK, where Peugeot itself admits its brand image still needs work. “When we get customers into our cars, they’re immediately sold – it’s just getting them into the cars in the first place”, we’re told. So should you go take a look?

What’s new?

(Peugeot)

As this is an all-new model, there are plenty of new features to discuss. The most obvious place to start is the exterior, which gets a fantastic design that manages to be fun and sophisticated in equal measure, with bold choices such as the vertical LED running lights in the front bumper making it really stand out.

The interior’s new too. With a premium look and feel it’s sure to grab the attention of customers in dealer showrooms. The materials largely feel as good as they look, even in lower-specification trim levels, while the new 3D i-Cockpit is a cool upgrade to the traditional instrument binnacle.

What’s under the bonnet?

(Peugeot)

Peugeot talks about the ‘freedom of choice’, which is why it’s offering the new 208 with petrol, diesel and all-electric powertrains, with manual and automatic transmissions available depending on which engine you go for.

The 100bhp, 1.2-litre PureTech petrol is expected to be the best-seller, though we didn’t get to test it. Instead, we spent most of our time driving the 129bhp version of that engine, complete with an eight-speed automatic. It’s perfectly suited to the car, picking up quickly and quietly around town while having enough legs to get up to motorway speeds with ease. Once there, that eighth gear means it’s quiet and economical.

The same can’t be said of the entry-level 74bhp unit, which after a brief stint proved frustratingly slow. However, at city speeds it’s perfectly adequate and would make an ideal first car – just don’t expect to pull off too many overtaking manoeuvres without plenty of forward planning.

What’s it like to drive?

(Peugeot)

Being a supermini, it’s likely the 208 will spend most of its time in towns. It’s perfectly suited to city life, feeling small and nimble to drive without being too claustrophobic in the cabin.

At motorway speeds the 208 performs remarkably well, feeling impressively smooth and stable for such a small car, though wind noise does become an issue on blustery days, which is a small negative note against its refinement. The suspension on the petrol and diesel models is a touch stiff but not enough to be annoying, with bumps in the road noticeable without unsettling the car too much.

To be hyper critical would be to say that it’s not quite as well-judged as the class-leading Fiesta, instead feeling like the steering, ride quality and pedal inputs could do with a bit of fine tuning to better match each other for a more natural feel. However, for the vast majority of buyers, its looks will likely make up for this minor shortcoming.

How does it look?

Here's the new Peugeot 208. Best-looking supermini? Probs. pic.twitter.com/sd1JYZhwWs

— Darren Cassey (@darrencassey) October 10, 2019

Peugeot is clearly using style as its unique selling point. While the Fiesta looks good and wows with the way it drives, its French rival is trying to tempt buyers behind the wheel with bold and brilliant styling.

It’s particularly appealing from the front end, with its signature ‘three-claw’ headlight design and large grille, while the black bar at the rear and LED taillights contribute to a cute but muscular appearance.

Testament to the success of the design is the fact it looks at its best in bright colours, with the yellow working particularly well with the gloss black trim of the high-specification GT models. The blue and red options look much punchier in the sun than they do in the brochures, too.

What’s it like inside?

(Peugeot)

Peugeot has been nailing interiors in recent years, with smart designs that ooze premium appeal. The new 208 is no different.

The firm’s signature small steering is present and correct, with the angular instrument binnacle sat behind and smart centre console design utilising toggle switches beneath the infotainment screen.

However, it’s not the most spacious cabin, with taller drivers perhaps finding the space below the wheel a bit cramped for leg room, while rear passengers larger than a young child will likely not want to spend too much time back there. The instrument binnacle can be blocked by the steering wheel depending on your driving position, too.

What’s the spec like?

There are four trim levels to choose from: Active, Allure, GT Line and GT (the latter only available on the EV). Starting at £16,250, Active models come with decent equipment as standard, even if the glossy tech in the cabin is somewhat lacking at this price point.

There are driver aids such as lane keeping assist, cruise control and speed limit recognition, as well as a leather steering wheel, gloss black switches, smartphone connectivity, and air conditioning. However, the non-digital instrument binnacle and different touchscreen make it feel a little less special.

Upgrade to Allure, which, starting from £18,850, feels like the best value for money. You get 17-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights and automatic windscreen wipers on the outside, while on the inside there’s leather-effect upholstery and the 3D i-Cockpit. Meanwhile, the GT Line, from £20,700, gets parking sensors, GT-specific styling features, more leather inside and the active safety brake driver aid.

On the e-208 there’s one more trim level above this, starting at £29,650 and adding more kit such as Alcantara upholstery, heated front seats and adaptive cruise control.

Verdict

(Peugeot)

There’s no getting away from the fact Peugeot has its work cut out with the new 208. The Ford Fiesta is a behemoth, and the mechanically similar Vauxhall Corsa, soon to be updated, is another best-seller in the UK.

However, the French firm has given itself a fantastic chance of eating into the sales of its rivals with this handsome and well-appointed supermini. Sure, it lacks the driving prowess of a Fiesta, but those looking for something with sophisticated looks and a bit more character, all while feeling plenty premium inside, will be well-served.

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