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First drive: Peugeot 208 GTi
All three come to the party with stiffened suspensions, spoilers and skirts, extra jewellery, and proper sports seats. Well, if your hot hatch doesn’t have that lot it might as well pack up and go home. Ditto with the little splashes of red around the interior: as any fool knows red seatbelts are worth a second a lap.
All three are shoved along by 1.6-litre turbo engines, with direct injection and turbos and variable valve timing. There’s amazingly little to separate them, though the French cars’ power (200bhp depending how you measure it), just eclipses the Ford’s. All three come, too, with electric power steering, that notorious burglar of feedback and involvement.
The 208 doesn’t bother with too much fancy electronickery beyond that. The transmission, like the Ford’s, is a simple six-speed manual and none the worse for it, and there are no sport buttons or special programs for the engine or chassis.
Only one thing determines how aggressive the 208GTI feels: how hard you pedal it. Going gently, it’s supple and refined. The steering is accurate but a bit short of feedback. It rides forgivingly and quietly, and there’s plenty of mid-revs turbo surge to get you going. It feels eager without being manic. You can relax into the nicely finished, modern cabin.
It also feels compact. That’s handy when you’re in town - it’s shorter than the old 207, but just as roomy. It also keeps the visual flab off. It’s a nicely spare-looking machine. And out on a twisting road, the short overhangs and light weight bestow it an encouraging sense of agility.
But if you’re going flat out, you want it to feel manic. Well, though the 208’s red-line is painted at a stern 6200, I regularly took it to the 6700 cut-out because that’s where max power arrives. Hey, not my car… And in the upper reaches, this is a keen and tautly-wound little engine, taking on a cheery howl as it goes. Sharper at the top end than the Ford? I’d say so.
The chassis, too, starts to come alive as you push it, resisting understeer, feeding back what the tyres are doing. You can hurl it at a corner and it’s got an immense capacity for sorting itself out. I drove the Fiesta ST a few weeks earlier, and have a memory that the Ford was more willing to wriggle its tail entertainingly. But those roads were greasier, so I can’t be sure. It might be small but the 208 is terrifically stable - under torque, under brakes, over bumps.
In fact, let’s face it, these three little hatches are so close it’s going to take a direct face-off to sort them out. We will very much enjoy refereeing that one…