► We drive the modern classic
► Produced from 1983 - 1996
► A true 1980s gamechanger
It’s funny how the passage of time can play tricks with your memory. The assumption today is that the Peugeot 205 exploded onto the new car market and blew the doors off all of its rivals. The reality is somewhat different. For instance, CAR magazine and the Peugeot 205 have enjoyed an on-off love affair. From launch in February 1983, it acquitted itself well, and was well regarded, but hardly set the world on fire – LJK Setright’s beloved Fiat Uno was the class-leading, game-changing supermini of the moment, while the 205 was good, but not exactly great.
Even as a hot hatch, its brilliance wasn’t always recognised. CAR nailed its colours to the GTI, offering readers the chance to win one of three examples in 1984. However, as you can read elsewhere he esteemed Setright, Barker and Fraser were far from completely won over by its combination of hard ride, biscuit-tin build quality, and sublime high-speed dynamics. That’s not stopped it becoming one of the all-time 1980s icons, though.
But as I stand before a line-up of pristine examples lined up for me to drive at Peugeot’s Mulhouse factory, it’s all-too easy to fall in love with the 205 all over again. It’s a visual masterpiece – pert, curvaceous, and delicately proportioned. Designed by a new in-house team led by Gérard Welter (with an interior by Paul Bracq), the 205 cast aside the conservatism of the company’s previous small car designs, embracing a bold new design language that would serve the company well until the arrival of the 206 in 1998. But the 205’s eventual replacement is something I choose not to consider. I don’t want to spoil the moment.
From Mulhouse to Geneva by 205 - the perfect day
In 1983, the automotive world was undergoing a revolution. Lightness, efficiency, aerodynamics and decent build quality were beginning to filter their way into the mainstream and wash away the lumpen and unrefined. Between the end of 1982 and the beginning of ’84 was a particularly fertile period for design, and the debuts read like a who’s who of all that’s great and good in the industry: Ford Sierra, Citroen BX, Audi 100 C3, BMW 3-Series (E30), Mercedes-Benz 190, Fiat Uno, Volkswagen Golf Mk2 to name but a few…
So, it’s understandable that the 205 might have made less cut-through than it might, say, in a more fallow year. Be that as it may, its impact on the automotive landscape, and for Peugeot in particular, has been astonishing. It was a little larger (3705mm) than the supermini norm, so epitomised by the Ford Fiesta (3648mm) and Renault 5 (3540mm), which made it hard for car reviewers to place in the order of things – but buyers soon fell for the 205’s big style. In a 13-year production run, Peugeot went on to sell 5,278,000 205s, and the profits from this small car’s success would go on to fund a generation of substantial growth for the French company. Today, you still see loads going about their daily duties in France.
And that’s why Peugeot have invited a select bunch of journalists to drive some of the finest examples from its Mulhouse base to Geneva to view the new 208, and understand how important the 35-year continuity that book-ends these two cars really is.
The inside story – brittle, but masterful
I start with the humblest 205 in our line-up. It’s a 1983 1.1 GL, and although it’s probably hard for some of our younger readers to comprehend given the lack of performance and equipment that this car has, this would actually be a mid-range 205 when new. But there’s enough for any 1980s city slicker - so you get a radio, adjustable seats, and two door mirrors. As you’d expect, the interior is light and airy – and a real pleasure in terms of visibility, thanks to its high seating position and slim pillars. Cars back then weren’t small tanks in which you protected yourself from the harsh world outside. Sigh…
The interesting aspect of the 205’s interior is that it’s far from cheap. The seat material is tough and pleasant to sit on, while the intricately-designed dashboard is a two-tone, multi-piece affair that must have been a nightmare for engineers to eradicate the rattles and squeaks from. That might explain why they only partially managed it. The problem is that the plastics in our early example just don’t feel in any way rugged enough. And yes, I know this is a product of the 1980s, so slush-moulded soft-feel interior plastics were the stuff of dreams. But even compared with an Austin Metro or Volkswagen Polo, the 205 feels lightweight and unpleasant to touch.
Moving on, the interior room is particularly impressive, with decent head and legroom in the front – while for rear-seat passengers, there’s enough room for two adults to not feel hemmed in. The boot - complete with plenty of painted metal inside in lieu of trim panels - is also big enough to swallow a decent amount of luggage. That’s not strictly the case in the current 208.
What’s it like to drive?
In short, an absolute delight. Our example is powered by the 1124cc Douvrin ‘suitcase’ engine, which develops 50bhp and 62lb ft, and is good for a 0-60mph time of 17 seconds and a maximum speed of 88mph. That’s more than quick enough, and no doubt aided by its sylph-like 780kg kerbweight. In today’s world, that’s probably not enough to stop you getting in the way of other people, but on the empty roads of France’s Alsace region, it feels more than lively enough to keep you amused, and a reminder of just how fun low-powered cars that you can keep your foot flat to the floor most of the time can be.
The transmission-in-sump engine revs willingly - and with ample noise to keep you company - but feels like it could be driven flat out all day without raising a sweat. There’s lots of gear whine accompanying the tappety-sounding power unit, and I can’t help love it for that, as it’s the soundtrack that powered my youth.
Handling is roly-poly, as you’d expect in a car with long-travel suspension and no anti-roll bars. But it’s tied down pretty well, with controlled damping that contains the 205’s desire to heel over quickly in bends, making it an elegant corner taker in the right hands. The steering is weighty, but full of feel, and the long-throw gearchange is sublime, and utterly mechanical to use. But for such a lightweight car, the ride is astonishing – it lops along beautifully, soaking up all the negative cambers, undulations and broken surfaces that rural France throws at it. In many ways, it reminds me of my Citroen GS - praise indeed, given how complex that car is in comparison.
What about the faster 205s along for the ride?
I managed to bag decent stints in a 205 XS and GT, as well as a 1.6-litre CTI Cabriolet. There were some GTIs, too, but - well - you’ve already read enough about those. As you’d expect, the XS and GT were an absolute delight, thanks to their additional power and firmer suspension set-up. I’ve long held the belief that the 1360cc XS/GT is actually the best 205 of them all given that they’re fast enough to entertain, but comfortable and usable in every day driving. Driving them today, serves to reinforce that opinion,
The five-door 205 GT with 80bhp is more than enough to answer any criticisms you might have of the 1.1 GL’s lack of performance. The 0-60mph time is slashed to 11.0 seconds and maximum speed rises to 106mph – more than enough to worry larger, grander cars. As an all-rounder, the GT is absolutely brilliant, and whereas the 1.1 GL feels like a fragile classic car from a bygone era, it still feels comparatively modern and usable, thanks to its willing performance and fabulous handling.
The 115bhp CTI is a little more flawed, but nowhere near as floppy as I was expecting it to be. Perhaps the joy of driving it top-down through the mountains was enough to stop me noticing the scuttle shake and less precise dynamics. Maybe it was the straight-through exhaust, which buzzed, popped and banged off tunnel walls like a small armed conflict that won me over. Who knows - but the way I loved the CTI is proof enough that cars are bought with the head and not the heart - if they were, then cabriolets like this wouldn’t have been as popular as they were in the 1980s. Would I have one over a similarly-engined 205 GTI tin-top? Of course not. But I understand anyone who would.
Peugeot 205: verdict
After spending a day in various 205s, the obvious conclusion is that those early lukewarm road tests really were an anomaly – a case that sometimes customers know far more than road testers. Here’s a car that grew into its skin to become of one the best superminis ever made. Rather like Alec Issigonis’s original Mini of 1959, the Peugeot 205’s significance and sheer brilliance took time for us all to appreciate. Yes, the 205 really is that good.
But once it was up to speed, there was nothing stopping the 205 – it came a range of engines that spanned 954cc-1905cc, were fueled by petrol, diesel or electric (yes, there was an electric 205), and power outputs right up to 130bhp for the legendary 1.9 GTI. You could get it in three- and five-door forms, as well as in two flavours of vans. It ended up being spun into the larger 309 (it even shared its side doors), and then went on to inspire a generation of svelte-looking Pugs – large and small.
Today, it’s rightfully celebrated as a classic, and Peugeot is right to trumpet the 205’s achievements. But more than that, the 205 was the true 1980s gamechanger – as it predicted a move to larger, more sophisticated superminis. It also proved that a car doesn’t need to be expensive or exclusive to be truly classless and accepted anywhere – just stylish and utterly fit for purpose. Let’s hope that PSA has learned these lessons for the upcoming 208 and e-208.