Dear Signor Agnelli,
We have just compared two machines we now believe to be the first genuine small supercars, and we must say, immediately, that the Fiat Uno Turbo lost decisively to the Peugeot 205 GTi; not because the Uno is a bad car, but because the 205 GTi is so good. In fact, after the Peugeot, we rate the Fiat as easily the most exhilarating machine in its class: sharp in its handling and very responsive. The decision can be blamed, partly, on our prejudice against turbocharged systems. We dislike the two-stage power application, but even discounting this prejudice, the Peugeot would still have won. Its handling is in a different class.
Dear M Boillot,
Having just completed a comparison test on your 205 GTi and the Fiat Uno Turbo, let us say that the Peugeot is, quite simply, the finest-handling front-drive sports hatchback we have ever driven. It has exceptional manoeuvrability and response, a lovely steering and chassis sharpness, and, now that the dampers have been changed, a competent ride. Although lacking the overall engine flexibility of the 1.8-litre Golf GTi, it is not far behind and compensates for slightly inferior urge by being substantially lighter. Overall, the 205 GTi is probably the Golf’s equal, but the fact that, in this country, the Peugeot sells for more than £1000 less, must make it a better buy.
It took about 10 laps to get Old Paddock corner right. But once the Peugeot 205 GTi was coaxed through the corner, flat out, in fifth gear, at what must have been about 100mph, the little French machine achieved what we thought it would: lap the Castle Combe circuit faster than most medium-sized hatchbacks and bigger-engined quick hatchbacks (matching the times of the Golf Gti) and comprehensively thrash anything else in its class, bar the Uno Turbo. Earlier laps, as we warmed the tyres, and familiarised ourselves with the twists and turns of the Wiltshire track, had convinced us that the 205’s handling was nothing short of sensational. And now that Old Paddock – a fast and difficult right hander that calls on your throttle pedal foot to ignore every sensible message fed to it from your brain (namely, to back off and slow down) – was mastered, the Peugeot raced nonchalantly and effortlessly around the circuit, executing four-wheel drifts at speeds that would send most front-driven fast hatchbacks understeering off ignominiously.
It was an impressive performance. But, moments later, the Fiat Uno was strapped under us and proceeded to show real flair and speed, too, as it raced over the brows, around the fast corners, and along the straights. What’s more, with turbocharged power, it was recording speeds at the end of the main Castle Combe straight as good as those of any car – including the Toyota MR2,. Capri 2.8i and Alfa GTV6 – we’ve ever had at Castle Combe: 115mph.
Already the suspicion we had had before we left London that morning, was being borne out: the Fiat Uno Turbo and Peugeot 205 GTi are not only the best value-for-money performance cars around (both have top speeds of near-on 120mph, and can race to 60mph from rest in well under 9.0sec) but they give almost nothing away to the bigger Golf GTi-class hatchbacks. Previous experience in both Uno Turbo and 205 GTi has also shown us that, for sheer driving enjoyment, their smaller size is a boon.
Not that, in the case of the Peugeot, there is quite as much straight-line poke as the larger Wolfsburg-made GTi offers. Half a lap of Castle Combe was enough to prove that. The Peugeot is a fraction slower to 60mph from rest, and lacks the top-end punch of the Volkswagen. But where the Peugeot scores, compared with any hatchback, is in its handling balance, its extraordinary roadholding, and its ability to execute the finest and most controlled of drifts. You can enter corners at impossibly high speeds in the Peugeot, throw the car into the bend using its amazingly responsive steering, and then balance the car using the throttle and steering, in the slightest of understeer drifts. The 205 may lack the punch of some larger-engined sports hatchbacks, but it makes up for it by being able to exit corners faster. There’s a real track car feel about the way the French car can be hustled around bends. And the throttle response is such that, if you have entered a bend to hard, you back off the accelerator and the nose reacts obediently, by tightening its line. The Michelin MXV tyres - 185/60s on 14in diameter alloy wheels – are a wonderful complement to the 205’s well-sorted chassis. They are the right size (there’s absolutely no need for wider rubber) and tend not to squeal and screech very much, even when pushed to their limit. Nor do they tend to get shouldered or dog-eared when punished for any length of time. The lack of roll is clearly a major factor in this handling neatness; so is the wheel-at-each-corner stance.
Although the 205’s steering is delightfully responsive, so that mere wrist flicks are repaid with sharp, obedient weaving, the amount of effort needed to steer the car through bends is not so satisfactory. The 205 Gti has always suffered –as do more mundane 205s, - from an overly strong steering self-centring. Take your hands off the wheel, when on the move, and the front wheels snap back into in as two slovenly marching soldiers being lacerated by the tongue of their sergeant major. Even at high speed – when most steering systems begin greatly to lighten, the 205 needs shoulder and arms strength to hustle it around the corners – on the road as well as the track. The extra effort necessary to spin the little dinner-plate-sized wheel through its lock means the car has to be man-handled in a way not normally expected of a small performance car. It partly upsets your empathy with the car – so important for quick, fluid driving. Mind you, the steering’s responsiveness and verve go a long way to compensating for this drawback.
The steering wheel itself is a small, go-kart-like device, cited in an unusually low position, almost between your knees. Its small size is fine, although, as a result, the steering is also very heavy at parking speeds. Less satisfactory is the nasty feel of the rim, which is plasticky and firm. The small wheel lies in front of a cockpit fascia, where all the instruments are gathered in the binnacle. All the gauges necessary for communicating the car’s mechanical state to the driver are there, including oil temperature. The dashboard itself is made of a textured plastic which isn’t particularly attractive. A large amount of painted metal is visible in the interior, normally a sign of cheapness. The seats, though, are nicely upholstered and have a rally-style shape that grips the hips well. Access to the back seat is excellent, owing to front seats which pivot forward, and once in the rear, passengers will have little to complain about.
The Uno beckoned. The driver’s door opens much less widely than the Peugeot’s, which swings out to almost right angles with the body. The seats look cheaper, because of their vinyl side trim, and offer less lateral support than the overtly sport chairs fitted to the 205. There’s the same full panoramic view offered from behind the wheel thanks to the relatively high seating position, big glass area, short bonnet and vertical tail. As with the 205, here is a 120mph sports car which can be parked easily at Sainsbury’s as well as be punted quickly around Silverstone.
Like the 205’s, the Uno’s instruments are all grouped into the main binnacle, and, again the same, the tachometer redline is at 6500rpm. The Uno has all the main instruments the 205 has, as well as a turbo boost pressure gauge, and they’re directly in the driver’s line of sight. The steering wheel is attractive for a four-spoke, with a nice-to-touch soft plastic rim. It is not mounted quite as low in the Uno as in the 205, but its larger diameter means your knees are more likely to touch it when you work the pedals. Both cars have well-grouped pedals, which facilitates heel-and-toe gearchanging. Neither has a left foot rest, although both have plenty of room to the left of clutch pedal where your boot can find the space to brace you solidly when the cornering gets dramatic.
Summon the 1.3litre turbocharged engine – with its electronic fuel injection and ignition and other high tech turbo addenda – into life, and there isn’t very much aural pleasure to set your heart racing. There’s none of the rasp that so distinguishes the music of the Uno’s big brother, the Strada Abarth 130TC, and none of the suggestion of awakening muscle that promises action, even when you’re stationary. There’s only a hollow Dachshund-sized bark, no different from the noise you hear when the cars in your street are first started each morning. The Uno’s long stalk gear lever – a necessary consequence of the seating position and the lack of a centre console – feels rubbery when you first jiggle it around the neutral gate, and goes into first gear with some difficulty. Thus far, the Turbo model feels pure shopping trolley Uno, but start exercising the throttle pedal and the similarity between the normal Uno and this machine quickly disappears. There’s a faint whistle under the bonnet, and you feel the car gaining momentum as through propelled-by some hurricane-like following wind, as the tachometer needle races around the dial. When the turbocharger starts to give its helping hand, this Uno feels a very brisk car: faster, so it seems, than the 205 GTi. It’s a well integrated turbo too, without the Gosh, where’s the power?! Christ, hold-on transformation which makes many turbo models such unpleasant driving machines. The turbo comes in with a helping hand before it gradually goers on to deliver its full-blooded right jab. Drive the Uno Turbo and the 205 GTi back-to-back and it’s impossible not to be impressed with the extra power apparently on offer with the Uno. Yet, in the same way, it’s difficult not to be impressed with the greater drivetrain refinement of the French car. For here is an example, yet again, of how a well-designed normally aspirated engine, augmented by sensible gear ratios and a strong torque spread, is always superior to a turbo transformation, no matter how expert the turbo installation. How advanced the ancillaries and how massive the power jump. Although the Fiat’s increased in impetus, thanks to that turbo thrust, will send your pulse racing at first, and is good for an ephemeral thrill, the Peugeot’s wider spread of power and torque – which can allow snappy acceleration no matter how low the revs – makes for far more enjoyable day-to-day motoring. It also loses surprisingly little in straight-line performance to the Fiat. The Uno is quicker to 60mph by just over half a second (8.1sec-v-8.7sec), and is quicker in top-end acceleration when the turbo is really pumping some muscle into those 1.3 litres. But in practical all-round performance, there is precious little difference. The Fiat was marginally quicker at the end of Castle Combe’s main straight than the Peugeot, and seemed to barrel out of corners with more accelerative urge. But the way in which the car would always come off boost immediately after gearchanges – and the overall lack of tractability compared with the amazing any-speed alacrity of the Peugeot – put its powertrain easily into second place in this comparison.
Its lap times around Castle Combe were slower, too, although this is a result of the car’s inferior roadholding, not of any drivetrain deficiency. The Uno rolls far more than the Peugeot, has a much stronger tendency to understeer, and, owing partly to its skinnier tyres (175/60 R13 Pirelli P6s), lacks the sheer traction which is so important an ingredient in the Peugeot’s entertainment package. Not that the Fiat is poor with dispensing the corners. It can storm through most turns with speed and is a safe and neat handler. But it lacks the track car-like edge of the 205: its capacity to be steering partly on the throttle without having to worry about excessive front tyre scrub; its cornering flatness; its ability to execute beautifully controlled drifts rather than plough off the road nose first, and the wonderful steering response. The Peugeot retains its high-speed shoebox charms when you punt it hard, whereas the Uno starts to feel sloppy, and starts to wallow. A best time of 1min 23.3sec is not to be sneezed at, though. The 205 GTi, by comparison, managed 1min 22.9sec, identical with the best lap we recorded in a Golf GTi six months earlier. Vauxhall’s Astra GTE, on the same day, managed a beast of 1min 23.2sec, while the limp-wristed Escort XR3i (with an identical engine size to the Peugeot’s) could only manage 1min 25.2sec. It’s also worth noting that both Peugeot and Fiat recorded better times than we managed in a Capri 2.8i a year earlier. But there is more to owning a high-speed tiny tot than exploiting its abilities to put away the miles on a racing track. Road miles were needed. So we left the gently sloping countryside of Castle Combe, after lunching in the eponymous village which was once voted Britain’s most beautiful, and headed for the more rugged countryside of south Wales, where the Brecon Beacons rise and the roads that cut through them can test the most competent of cars.
The run westwards confirmed the excellence of both hatches on the M4, although the greater mechanical quietness of the 205 puts it slightly in front as a motorway car. Once off the motorway, and climbing into the clouds which hung low over Wales that day, the superior ride of the 205 became more of a boon. Anyone who drove earlier 205 GTis, and who still has the bruises to prove it will be delighted to know that the Parisian engineers have changed the suspension. Earlier this year, the dampers on Peugeot’s sporty baby were softened, which went part of the way to improving the situation. A few months ago, the stroke of the dampers was increased, further improving the GTi’s suppleness.
No longer is the car constantly restless on journeys, like a hyperactive child. You can feel the firmness of the suspension in the way the car’s tyres climb in and out of bumps, and follow the camber of the road. But the 205’s ride rarely feels uncomfortable, firm although it undeniably is. The Uno’s suspension is softer and more supple than the 205’s (even with the Peugeot’s improvements). The springs feel more compliant, both in the way the car dives its nose under braking, rolls on corners, and supresses certain bumps. The reasons the Uno loses the ride comfort race are the way in which it attacks ridges with an unpleasant jar (accompanied by scuttle and fascia shake), and the fact that it loses its suspension composure more easily: a series of bumps and ridges can easily make the little Fiat quite skittish.
After an overnight stop, we were up early, both to savour the roads which cut across the Brecon Beacons before too much traffic appeared, and to give ourselves as much time as possible for hard driving before the run back to London. I began the day in the Peugeot. Its 1.6litre engine fired instantly after its overnight rest – the temperature did drop quite low that evening – and soon settled down to idle. Like the Uno, the 205 does not have a particularly endearing engine note. Rev it hard and there’s only a rather timid growl. By the time we were in the foothills of the south Wales hill, the sky was brightening as the sun’s rays cut tentatively through the morning mist.
On the winding roads the 205 GTi further proved its superiority. When you’re 205 mounted, you can slice through the hairpin bends the sharp corners, the fast sweeps and cross blind brows with great security, and you can go fast very easily. Try going the same speed in the Uno and you’ll be aware of the body roll as the car is thrown to the right and the left in succeeding corners, and you’ll be wary of its inferior traction – due partly to its smaller rubber. The greater changes in body attitude, and the tendency for the tyres to slide more, mean life in the Uno Turbo’s driver’s seat is far more frenetic than in the 205’s. The inferior lateral support of the Uno Turbo’s seats exacerbates the problem. On a winding stretch of cross-country moorland, the inherent problems of the turbocharged engine also manifested themselves again. If you know where the road goes, and know what gear to select for every corner, you have a reasonable chance of always keeping the engine on boost. But, when you’re driving an unknown course, invariably some bends are tighter than you’d expect. As a result you’re sometimes stuck in too high a gear for the corner – and the engine will be sauntering at a pace more suited to a Sunday stroll than a high-speed dash. Accelerate hard and the boost will build, the car will start to accelerate – and once the little turbo boost pressure needle has rushed around to the right of its arc, indicating full boost, the turbocharged car will spear forward with tremendous alacrity. Meanwhile, the 205 GTi will have disappeared…
Once the turbocharger is properly delivering its muscle, the steering also starts to suffer from excessive torque steer – something from which the 205 GTi is free. The Uno’s four-spoke wheel writhes in your hands as it manfully – but hopelessly – tries to control the horsepower and torque fed through the front driveshafts. In normal use, though, the steering of the Uno is good. It is light yet still direct at low speed, and has a lovely fluidity once you’re on the move. With the Fiat you can sit back in your seat and work the wheel with your wrists; with the heavier Peugeot system you have to put your back into it.
Back on the motorway, for the long boring stretch home, we came to appreciate the better ventilation in the Uno, which unlike the Peugeot, has the ability to supply cool air to your face while heating your feet or the windscreen. And once back in London, with the priority on toting people rather than tearing across the wilderness, we came to appreciate the slightly superior rear seat accommodation of the Uno. Mind you, the Peugeot’s advantage in boot space – with the 205’s clever and compact torsion bar rear suspension removing the need for intrusive turrets – is probably more significant. And so is the Peugeot’s fuel economy advantage – 29.7mpg against the Uno Turbo’s 25.8.
What is even more important is that our original premise – that these two hatchbacks offer almost as much all-round competence as the Golf, and rather more than all of the Golf’s rivals – while still costing sensible money, was fully vindicated. At £6899, the Uno Turbo is almost £1400 less than the (more basically equipped) Golf GTi, while the £7145 Peugeot is more than £1000 cheaper. In addition to running the best of the medium sized hatchbacks close in all-round ability, the 205 GTi and Uno Turbo beat any larger hatchback for sheer entertainment value, by dint of their modest exterior dimensions and handling sharpness. Both have a sort of agility that bigger cars – including the mid-engined exotics – lack. Both cars are tremendous fun to drive. Both also greatly raise the standards in the supermini fast car class, once dominated by indifferent machines such as the MG Metro turbo and Fiesta XR2. They lead a new generation of value-for-money supercar.