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We drive a brand new old Peugeot 205

  1. I’m not sure Warwickshire contains 10,000 corners, and even if it does, I’m glad I haven’t got to deal with every one of them. Don’t get me wrong - driving this 205 GTI in Corsica would have been one of those things you tell your grandkids about, but, right now, with forearms pulsating and shoulders glowing, I’m merely content that this corner of England majors more in the fast sweeper than the tight hairpin.

    No power steering. Remember those days? If you do, there’s a fair chance you hold the Peugeot 205 GTI in as high regard as I do. Even if you never drove one, I bet you know the basics: a reputation for lift-off oversteer, a choice of fizzy 1.6 or meaty 1.9-litre engines, 105 or 126bhp (in the early days), 0-60mph in 8.7 or 7.8secs (those stats were plucked straight from their comfortable nesting spot in my head, no Wikipedia intervention necessary). Above all, there was the perfect steering and the way the little Peugeot was meant to rip and flow down a country road. That was what created the 205 legend.

    Words: Ollie Marriage
    Pics: Matt Howell

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. And that’s why we’re still getting excited about it, 23 years after this one first set 15-inch alloy to tarmac. That, and the fact it remains a devastatingly pretty little car. Now, as a rule, driving a 23-year-old hatchback is to put yourself on the fast track to disappointment. Zero to 60mph in 7.8 seconds is positively tepid these days, and isn’t it funny how so much of the fondly remembered precision has gone missing? How wayward the steering feels after all these years? How the chassis flexes and creaks in such an unfamiliar way?

    Well, not this one. This GTI feels and drives exactly like you imagine a mint 205 would. Better, in fact. But then it did cost its proud owner £20,000. And it does have 195bhp…

  3. You know what Singer does to old Porsche 911s? Well, Pug1off (I know, I know, the result of too many beers in a Thai hot tub when owner Matt Jobling was a younger man), does the same to old Peugeots. So what you’re looking at here started life in 1989 as a white 1.6 GTI, but has received a transplanted 2.0-litre engine and six-speed gearbox from a 306 GTi-6, which in addition has high-performance camshafts, a tweaked ECU and a totally different intake and exhaust system.

    Then there’s the rally engine mounts, the Quaife differential, the custom gear linkages, the Bilstein dampers, the wishbones from a Peugeot 309 for the extra camber they offer…

  4. This will make purists cross, but, you know what? I don’t care, because it still acts and behaves like a 205. Only better. And besides there are plenty of original elements to keep them happy. The paper-thin doors for example, or the sill that’s no thicker than your wrist. Protection wasn’t something cars of that era were very good at. Nor, I’m reminded, was a good driving position.

    Initial impressions? It feels like a 7/8th scale car - or maybe it’s just that roads look magically wider when A-pillars are so skeletal. Either way, you have room to play with, and that’s just as well, because the 205 likes to move around. Nothing unnerving, you understand, but where modern cars are able to brush aside cambers, dips, ruts and potholes, here they affect your trajectory.

  5. We care about this these days, because such outside influences make a car tiring - and, at times, unnerving - to drive, and we don’t like that (apparently), but back then all cars behaved like this, and Peugeot’s genius was in ensuring its car worked the road better than anyone else’s.

    So the 205 fits itself to the road as neatly as the last jigsaw piece and zips along, hyper-alert and yet too friendly to be intimidating. Until you get to a tight corner, one that requires some real lock. Because when you do, be prepared to wrench at the wheel with everything you’ve got. Part of the blame of this must be laid at the only thing I’d change about this car - the Toyo track-day tyres - but the instant weight comes as a shock given the lightness of touch that otherwise characterises the 205.

  6. So you find yourself leaning forward off the backrest, and muscling the 205 round, but still so aware of everything that’s going on that you can detect the instant the cornering forces reach the point at which it picks up an inside rear and three-wheels around, then as you let the steering unwind through your arms, you’re free to nail the throttle and scoot happily off in pursuit of the next corner. And, with 195bhp shunting 950kg around, it does scoot impressively well. Pug1off isn’t sure of performance stats, but it’s fast. Fast in an entirely modern way, fast enough for the flimsiness of the crash structure to be a near-constant concern.

    The engine’s intoxicating pursuit of its 7,800rpm limiter is addictive, but just as gigglesome is the electrifying throttle response, and the speed of the gearchange. And when an engine sounds this good (think Mk2 Escort rally car or hotshoe Caterham), you have to blip every downshift, don’t you?

  7. So, no, as Paul Horrell correctly pointed out, the 208 has little in common with the 205. Times change, and these days the 205 seems to have closer ties to a Caterham Seven or Lotus Elise than to its own flesh and blood. And yes, £20,000 is a massive sum of money for a ‘toy’ car, but ask yourself this of the 208 and 205: in another two decades’ time, which do you think will have proved the better investment? Which will have delivered the most fun? You know the answer.

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