The challenge of small, efficient and clever hatchbacks catching on with the American masses is a long story that shows infrequent signs of becoming less challenging. The bottom line is that most U.S. consumers feel such vehicles are simply too small for our wide-open-spaces sensibilities. This smallness is only enhanced when one looks around while stopped at American intersections, only to see big and tall sheetmetal in all directions. There are admittedly serious strides being made in this segment in various U.S. markets, usually of the urban variety and on the coasts, but it will always be a struggle.
The last time Peugeot tried directly communicating in American English with imported product was back in 1991 with its 505 and 405 ranges that unceremoniously flopped. There was ongoing talk at that time of bringing over the 205 hatchback to try and improve things, but we missed out and Peugeot was gone. Perhaps the seven percent of PSA Peugeot-Citroën now owned by General Motors will someday result in the importing of the solid hatchback tested here, but I won't hold my breath.
Recently, the new Peugeot 208 was all over the French giant's show stand at the Geneva Motor Show, together with its legendary GTi trim and new XY upmarket trim. Back in 1984, it was the 105-horsepower 205 GTi that established the legend of the French hot hatch. While the 206 was then a smash hit with buyers between 1998 and 2006, the subsequently larger 207 has been far less popular in the face of much improved competitors – a group that blossomed from just 16 different models on the European market in 1998 to now 27 separate hatches today. In its prime, the 206 outsold even the mighty Volkswagen Golf and stayed at the top of Europe's sales charts for a time. The outgoing 207, however, has routinely lingered behind the Volkswagen Golf and Polo, Renault Clio, Opel Astra and Corsa, not to mention the Ford Focus and Fiesta.
This 208 probably won't roar back to the top of the sales heap, but it should keep Peugeot's B-segment fighter in the top five for a while. At the center of the new "200 Series" strategy is making the 208 smaller and lighter than its predecessor while preserving interior space and improving the experience. The 208 is nearly two inches shorter in length at 156.9 inches – that's one inch longer than a Mini Clubman and two inches shorter than a Chevy Sonic hatch. At the same time, the 208 maintains the 100-inch wheelbase of the 207, about a half inch more than on the Sonic. Keeping the B segment length below four meters (157.5 inches) is actually a big deal to Europeans who can save money by staying below this size when they need to take a car ferry or park in certain congested city centers.
As to the car's weight, it has lost 120 pounds versus the 207. My choice for a day of driving around central Portugal was the very top-of-the-line 208 five-door in Allure trim with its 113-horsepower eight-valve 1.6-liter e-HDI diesel and new six-speed manual gearbox, a combo weighing in at 2,535 pounds. It's about as nice as the typical French hatch gets, and it possesses good spirit with 210 pound-feet of torque from 1,750 rpm. Of the more horse- and torque-rich engines on hand, this diesel was easily the best setup for the sort of driving enjoyment that goes beyond everyday comings and goings. At this point, it is the most expensive proposition, and it would sell in the States for around $19,500 if it were ever offered here. A basic 208 with its 80-hp, 1.2-liter three-cylinder gas engine in Access trim would start at around $12,500.
Aside from shrinking the 208 back into more of an acceptable B segment player and shedding a good amount of weight, the 208's marquee feature is its diminutive 13.8-inch wide and 12.9-inch tall go-kart-like steering wheel. It is as close as I've come on a mainstream car to a video arcade wheel and I have to say I really like it. After all, the 208 is small and offers really good handling characteristics thanks to its new front axle and steering rack, and the small steering wheel felt great in my hands. At lower speeds it takes three turns lock-to-lock, but at higher speeds, the weighting of the action gets heavier and feels right on target more than the old 207 ever could.
Another reason I had to go for the 1.6 e-HDI in this horsepower rating (it also comes in a version with 91 hp) is that this was the only model on this testing day that carried Pug's new six-speed manual. All of the other trims on hand were saddled with an old long-throw five-speed manual gearbox that is really pretty terrible, hampering efforts at both driving enjoyment and optimal fuel efficiency. With this far better six-speed box and standard stop-start system plus particulate filter, I actually managed to get close to the average estimated efficiency of 62 miles per U.S. gallon on the European cycle, which means my CO2 rating was also close to the 159 grams per mile claimed for this powertrain.
While the interior in the top Allure trim is pretty nice – and a big improvement over any previous 200-series Peugeot – it still falls short of anything Volkswagen does in terms of comfort and plastics quality. I'd put it squarely on the level of Ford's smaller cars today, which isn't too shabby. The interior is quite flexible with cargo space in the five-door ranging from 11.0 cubic feet up to 40.7 cu ft. Room in the back has been improved by having front chairs with slimmer seatbacks that yield two more inches of back seat knee room.
As an option, Peugeot offers its very good touchscreen Peugeot Connect sat-nav system for what would amount to around $600 if sold in the States. A new initiative launching with the 208 is the very iTunes-like Peugeot Connect Apps Service which runs buyers a daunting $400 for the first year and then $200 each year thereafter. What software was on the car I tested seemed to work well, especially the music functions and social networking apps, but that's a lot of cash, particularly for buyers of inexpensive motors. Either way, the service is a chief player in finally making all Peugeots more interconnected through cloud-based technologies.
It's hard not to like the more compact and cleaner exterior look of the 208, plus it's really nice that Peugeot is finally getting away from its massive goofy smile grilles. The 17-inch wheelset sits nicely here as well wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza rubber. This optional larger size wheel/tire was just the right balance between Euro road noise, good handling and comfort.
French suspension and steering combos are traditionally very soft and vague, but this 208 behaved itself well, with some decent bite in all corners, much like a Ford Focus or Fiesta. Consider it a welcome change of pace, which somewhat follows up on what PSA has done with the thorough transformation of the Citroën brand and its premium DS lineup. This top diesel 208 can accelerate to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds and motor on to a perfectly adequate top speed of 118 mph.
Whether anything subcompact like this 208 ever makes its way to the United States remains to be seen, but don't bet the farm; PSA would need a major alliance like that between Fiat and Chrysler to make the business case more likely. But if the need for another small good car to slip in alongside the Chevy Sonic ever occurred, this Peugeot 208 would be awfully sweet for a lot of people. And it would go a long way toward making up for Peugeot never giving us the legendary 205.