Peugeot 205 GTi vs Renault Clio Williams | Top Gear
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Sunday 2nd April

Peugeot 205 GTi vs Renault Clio Williams

Time for a history lesson in the shape of two French hot hatch legends. Pick your favourite

  • Uh-oh. I’m approaching a cliche at 52mph. Could be more, but the speedo needle has got the shakes. Eyes back on the road. A greasy roundabout, lined with hedgerows, is imminent. Shortly, the Peugeot 205 GTi will nonchalantly ping off into an unsalvageable heap of lift-off oversteer, landing in its preferred habitat on the set of Autumnwatch.

    But, somehow, the accident, insurance claim and awkward phone call to this 1991 1.6 GTi’s trusting owner never comes. The 205 responds eagerly to its up-in-my-chest, thin-rimmed steering wheel, buffed to a sheen through 115,000 miles of grinning. It just flits across the slippery chicane and bwaaarrrp… it’s off again.

    Photography: Simon Thompson

    This feature was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Top Gear magazine.

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  • Today is the first time I’ve ever driven a Peugeot 205 GTi. This car is the same age as I am, and for as long as I’ve been looking at pics of cars, or reading what they’re like to drive, this pretty, geometric little Pug has been one of the ‘must-drives’. It’s the eagerness of its nat-asp engine (and the rumblings whether the snappier 1.6 really is sweeter than the torquier 1.9), its short-wheelbase agility, and the rose-tinted yearnings for a sub-900kg kerbweight, finally here for the taking. And yes, the reputation for spending more time going unintentionally backwards than Pastor Maldonado.

    Peugeot didn’t invent the hot hatch, but even if you were still in nappies when our Gallic friends were at the apex of their car-building powers, you’re half-aware they’re responsible for at least half of the truly great ones ever made.

  • Never meet your heroes? Cobblers. This little firecracker crystallises what made France the go-to nation for small, cheap, fast stuff in the Eighties and Nineties. You’ve got to work for its meagre performance, but it rewards with the most delightfully delicate gearshift, an engine rasp that demands to be wrung out to the 7,000rpm cut-out, and that ever-present knowledge that plenty of these things have come a cropper. Which is why good ones are now creeping towards five figures in value.

    Along with another 12bhp, the 1.9 GTis had disc brakes on the rear, a set of the best-looking 15in rims ever fitted to a car, and part-leather seats that were so poorly cured that unlucky batches started sprouting coarse, cow-like hair after delivery to customers. Humble 1.6s like this wear the less sexy 14in pepper pots, and you perch on fabric seats that are wonderfully comfy and surprisingly supportive. Even the pedals are nicely laid out. It’s not at all idiosyncratic inside.

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  • I’d like the middle pedal to actually be connected to something, because the sit-up-and-beg styling slows the GTi long before mashing the half-disc/half-drum brakes does. This, ultimately, is what reins you in as you zip cross-country. How can something that weighs less than a wiper blade take this long to stop? On the way to an obstacle, you’ve plenty of time to consider that wafer-thin steel panels and pillars you could remodel with your hands are going to do you little good. At one point, I whip past an HGV making heavy progress in the opposite direction. The resultant turbulence damn near swats the 205 into the foliage it avoided on the roundabout. So you have to concentrate. It’s closer in dainty character, in electric feel, to an Elise or a Caterham than any modern hot hatch, even something as chuckable as a Fiesta ST.

  • By the time the Renault Clio Williams’s box-arched stance swaggered onto the scene in 1993, the 205 GTi 1.6 was dead, a casualty of the swelling pressure on tailpipe emissions. Sounds familiar. The 1.9 was still hanging on in there – it probably yearned for the fresher Clio’s F1 pedigree as, with Group B also long buried, the 205 somewhat lacked motorsport kudos.

    Thing is, so did the Clio. The achingly right colour scheme, the stickers, the ‘W’-logo chairs – it’s all marketing froth. Really, the hard yards were put in by the forebears of modern-day RenaultSport who, not so much with the current Clio, but certainly with the Megane, are still right in the sharp end of driver-gratifying hot hatches.

  • All the clues are here. Mainly, roaming around under the front-hinged, NACA-ducted bonnet (just so cool), in the form of a 2.0-litre, nat-asp engine that doesn’t just kick the 205’s backside but drop-kicks it back to the Nineties. You’re not set up to control it – I’m splayed around the canted, XL steering wheel, and treading the tiny, stiff pedals is like tap-dancing on Lego. I also can’t work out how to hold the squirming gearknob – Coke-can grasp or cricket-ball grip?

    Floor it in second, and the layabout lever shoots back in the gate as the whole drivetrain tenses. It’s a much angrier sound than the Pug, and while it doesn’t rev out as hard, it’s got more pace, even quicker reflexes and enough poke to light the tyres in second. The Peugeot can’t manage that uphill, in the wet, in first.

  • You’ve got a considerably more, er, pugnacious character here. Less delicate – it’s heavier, with more play in the steering – but still manages to feel more serious. It tucks an inside rear wheel before it understeers, and is far less deflected than the beautifully damped but flyweight 205.

    Anyone familiar with the old Clio 200 would be right at home among the gauges and modern, decked dash of the Williams. When I finally summon the courage to agitate the 205, its rear wheels may as well be castors. The more frenetic Renault takes the same bend 10mph faster, on three wheels, and shrugs. Pas de problème.

    Fine by me. Number 421 here, of the initial run of 500, is TG colleague Stephen Dobie’s prized possession. Not bringing it home intact is more dangerous than Scandi-flicking the 205 opposite a clifftop minefield. As is admitting I prefer driving the Pug, but would rather daily-drive the Renault. Ideally, I’d like both. Most of life’s best things were born in the Nineties, right?

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