CAR's first review of the new 2012 Peugeot 208 comes at a crucial time in the French company's history. For much of the past decade, the something-oh-seven cars have failed to excite us, or many other enthusiasts. Blame the big-mouthed, slabby designs, the so-so dynamics or the caught-up competition – but stuff like the 207 and 307 just haven't kindled our imagination in the way their forebears did.
Peugeot hopes the new 208 supermini will continue the good work done by the swoopy RCZ coupe and taut 508 family car. And with the company jumping into bed with GM Europe's car division, it needs bread-and-butter cars like the 208 to be a hit.
What's new on the 2012 Peugeot 208?
It's back to the inspiration of the seminal 205 and even greater selling 206 with this supermini. Peugeot acknowledges that its small cars have got too big and has put its new small car through the hot wash to come out 7cm shorter and 115kg lighter on average with pleasing results.
The diet, combined with standard stop-start and clever tweaked-up powertrains and transmissions, means that the 208 range falls an average 34g/km in CO2 nasties. And as we all know, that virtuous circle should reap dividends in all key driving parameters from zippier handling to faster braking and keener corner dispatch.
The new 208 range arrives in UK dealers in June 2012, priced from around £9995. Three- and five-door hatchback bodystyles come first, although we'd guess the convertible and compact estates won't be far behind. Ditto a proper GTi, as previewed by the concept hot hatch at the 2012 Geneva motor show – fingers crossed it's a return to form to the 1980s icon.
What's the new Peugeot 208 like to drive?
Before we get to that bit, let's dwell on the exterior styling – the first thing you clock when you see a 208 on the road. We reckon Peugeot has finally cottoned on to a svelter aesthetic, with scalloped out trimness where flab used to proliferate.
The 208 isn't exactly beautiful, but it's a much more cohesive effort and looks nimbler and neater than previous generations. The surfacing is simple and clean, the car has presence and those chrome 205-alike styling flourishes aft of the C-pillar are a cool nod to the 1980s supermini this car so desperately apes.
Climb inside and you're struck by the smallest steering wheel this side of a Ferrari 458. Peugeot has deliberately made the wheel tiny in an effort to declutter the cabin; it's so small, they've had to move the instrument pack up above the wheel like in an MPV. It looks oddly small and you're not sure how it'll effect the helm.
So does the 208's tiny steering wheel matter?
Well, it kind of dominates the driving experience at first – but it only takes a few roundabouts to realise it's a good thing. It frees up loads of space and the 208 spears keenly into corners with a mere wrist flick. I liked it, and I suspect most drivers will.
The cabin is neat and uncluttered – 90% of UK models will come with a standard touchscreen, minimising the tyranny of buttons. I counted just a dozen on the dashboard in our car. Mind you, the screen fails to meet the iPad swipe expectations its graphics raise. It's more a prod and push affair.
Once underway the 208 is an accomplished drive. I'd say it won't trouble the class benchmarks – let's hear it for the Ford Fiesta and VW Polo – but it's competitive. Our 1.6 e-HDi is punchy enough with an easy 199lb ft of torque on tap from 1750rpm and it's refined too, with a more Ford-alike taut damping than Peugeot's earlier superminis. I suspect the ride on the standard 15s will be better than our slightly nuggety 17-inch shod version.
Annoyances are few and far between: reflections are manifold in the windscreen and it's hard to use the handbrake because your elbow rubs the armrest.
It's a French supermini. Is it built like a chocolate cafetiere?
Far from it. Our 208 felt well screwed together and the showroom feelgood factor is high, with that iPad-esque touchscreen, cool vodka bar lighting strips and a lovely airy glass sunroof on our model.
The plastics and finish on the dashboard is competitive, but it's still hard to avoid the polished excellence of a Polo. The French still can't manage that perception of engineering quality a Polo or Fabia manage.
The 208 is an accomplished supermini with way more appeal – cosmetic and dynamic – than previous Peugeot superminis. We'd say it's job done.
We'll probably remember the 208 more for its stylistic flourishes than its dynamism, but this car puts in a strong performance in every department.
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