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Peugeot 208 takes on the Ford Fiesta

  1. In a world of designer hatches and posh everything, plain old superminis might seem a bit dreary. But these aren’t fillers for cracks in a carmaker’s range. For the last 30-odd years, the Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 205/6/7 have been two of Britain’s best-selling cars, and regular sales-chart-toppers. They’re as familiar as Mars bars. And no matter how much advertising drivel is poured over these workaday hatches, there’s no hiding what’s really underneath: honest, real-world transport. From a teen’s first wheels to a gran’s last, they have universal pull, which makes their job way more difficult than some low-volume showpiece designed for a specific audience.

    We’ve always preferred the Fiesta here at TopGear. There’s something magical about the way it goes down the road, and proof that basic stuff can be just as satisfying to drive as the most lavishly engineered things out there. You have to go back a few generations before feeling similar affection for the Peugeot. All the way to the mid-Eighties and the 205. Sure, it was flimsy, but it was cute and practical and redefined how we viewed small cars. Plus, it spawned the GTI. After that, the 206 felt far too cheap next to pretty much all of its rivals, and the GTI version never reprised the charisma of the quick 205s. And let’s be honest: the 207 was a proper gurning fatty.

    This feature first appeared in the September issue of Top Gear magazine

    Words: Dan Read
    Pics: Lee Brimble

  2. And so it falls to the new 208 to change our mind. It’s both visually and literally lighter than the 207, with around 107kg trimmed off the weight, 6cm shaved off the previously absurd face, and 1cm off the rump. A good start. Despite being 10kg lighter, it still looks bigger than the Fiesta - especially in five-door flavour - but it disguises this visual mass with all sorts of dimples and incisions. Look at the depression on the nose of the bonnet, and the way the foglight surround slices into the bumper. Neat stylistic tricks that give it a lean, but still shapely appearance. It’s enough to make the Ford look a touch understyled, which isn’t something we thought we’d ever say. In fairness, this Fiesta is on apologetic 14-inch alloys versus the 208’s smart 16s, but there’s a flipside to that, which we’ll come to shortly.

  3. The cars we have here share the same 92bhp, 1.6-litre ‘Dagenham diesel’ engine, designed in Essex and shared around various Fords and Peugeots. They’re almost inseparable on price: £15,595 for the Fiesta in Econetic trim; £15,845 for the 208 in Allure trim. Even with similar options, they’re only £90 apart, a difference that could be wiped out by haggling at the dealership. They need your business. Both have metallic paint, parking sensors and auto wipers, and both have infotainment upgrades: a Sony stereo with digi radio for the Ford, satnav for the 208.

  4. With a smaller petrol engine, each would be cheaper. But having a decent diesel adds to a supermini’s repertoire. Rather than being solely suited to zippy town work, both of these cars can hoover up longer journeys without being bullied out of the fast lane. Both pull strongly at motorway speeds, feeling easygoing and just torquey enough, even uphill. But the Fiesta manages better economy, even with an extra bloke and much equipment on board. We’ll put that down to the Econetic tech (less friction, stop/start). Even so, on this test - a trip from London to Liverpool and back - both did over 500 miles on a tank, sitting just either side of 50mpg. That’s some way off the official claims of mid-to-high 70s, but we drove like normal humans, not the lab-bots who test the official cycles.

  5. The Ford is more comfortable. There’s a lovely fluency to the way it rides, dispersing lumps and divots through the suspension, not through your bottom. The 208 is a good deal better than the 207, but its damping is more obstinate, and a touch too clumpy at slow speed. It’s not stiff, exactly, but it never quite shakes off bumps, and drops into potholes more obviously. Put it this way: if you’re using the touchscreen display, your finger jumps around and you’ll often press the wrong bit. We can put some of that down to the 2in difference in these alloys, but generally the Fiesta is less disturbed by the road.

  6. It’s also more involving. Here’s a chassis that could take a lot more power, and soon will, when the ST version arrives. There’s something cheeky about the way it scampers through corners, skinny-ish tyres offering just enough grip before gently breaking away. Neither of these cars will be driven this way all the time, but were you to choose one for the dynamics alone, go for the Ford. Again, the 208 isn’t miles behind, but seems generally more surprised by late braking or particularly ambitious manoeuvres. Its gearchange is slightly clunky, the steering’s a bit too slow, and the brakes are jumpy. The Ford always seems to have the edge.

    This is the sort of stuff we care about. Many buyers won’t. Lovely steering feel? Fine. But where do I plug in my iPod? These are the people Peugeot has looked after most with the 208. The cabin is smart and minimalist, with a whacking great tablet-style touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard, standard on all but the most basic models. There’s no CD player. But you get two USB slots and Bluetooth streaming. Unless you’re a stubborn Luddite, this is a good thing and allows for a cleaner cabin than the Ford.

  7. Which would be fine, if it all worked properly. Unfortunately, the touchscreen processes too slowly, like an iPhone in the first throes of digital meltdown. And on the journey up to Liverpool, it crashed. Eight times. It restarted just outside Birmingham, but the nav had us sailing through Chelsea at 70mph. It took a few minutes to reboot, but we had to reset the nav and sound settings. None of which was particularly amusing. The Fiesta’s dash might not be as smart - the screen is tiny and graphics old-fashioned - but it works. Plus, you get DAB in this spec, and a much deeper sound through the Sony system.

  8. And another thing. The 208’s steering wheel has been shrunk to Tonka proportions. Usually we’d be into this; small wheels are generally attached to something racy. The idea here is to lower the top of the rim so you see the dials over it, rather than through it. Except it doesn’t work - not for me, anyway. In my driving position (and I’m average height), the rim slices through your eyeline to the dials. So you have to jack up the seat and drop the wheel into your lap to see the instruments clearly. If this or the tablet screen worked well, they’d be commendably inventive. Right now, they’re gimmicks. Perhaps this particular car had a gadget demon, so, later this year, we’ll be living with one for a few months in the TopGear garage. Maybe it’ll prove more reliable.

  9. Slight redemption comes in the form of practicality. The 208 might have the smaller boot, by 10 litres, but it’s deeper than the Fiesta’s, which gains its extra space by being 2cm taller. So the Peugeot’s boot is actually more useful, especially as it’s a considerably wider car, so the aperture is broader. Rear legroom is good enough for sub-six-footers in each car, but the 208 has a longer wheelbase by nearly 5cm, so there’s a bit more freedom for legs and knees. And because of that greater width, there’s also more elbow room.

    Is that enough to save the 208? Probably not. This is a respectable comeback by Peugeot and - despite being on essentially the same platform as the 207 - the 208 feels like a significant reinvention. Many people will go for it on looks alone. Perhaps its greatest success is to make the Fiesta look a bit… dated. But the Ford’s mid-generation refresh, which we’ll see in September, should give it more sparkle. For now, though, and for our money, it still deserves to be a chart-topper. Go tell your friends.

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