Remember the Eighties? Ah, but those were simpler times, when hair was always big, Howard Jones could have a hit and all you needed to do to enhance a car’s performance in all the key areas was to stick a striped transfer down its side. Times, too, when the Peugeot 205 GTI not only roamed the streets but — many of us would argue — ruled them.
True, if we’re ranking game-changing, market-altering hot hatches, the Volkswagen Golf GTI was more solidly built and almost certainly came off better than the 205 in the event of a collision with someone wearing power shoulders. But the 205 GTI was where the real era-defining fun was, and even now just the mention of its name is enough to make men of a certain age grow a mohair jumper on the spot.
The world moved on, of course. Hair eventually shrank (along with mohair) and the 205’s boxy, tight-edged simplicity couldn’t survive a raft of new regulations intended to make cars softer in their regrettable interactions with pedestrians and one another.
And it definitely couldn’t outlast the ensuing cult of blobbiness that infected car design in the 1990s — not just at Peugeot but far beyond — with the result that any small hatchback ended up with the chief linear characteristics of a partly sucked Werther’s Original and a baby’s shoe.
GTI versions of the subsequent, dismal-looking Peugeot 206 and 207 contained such spirit-sapping unthinkables as baggy handling and soppy brakes. Why, if memory serves, some of them didn’t even go in for red stitching. Can you imagine? They might just as well have not bothered to put in an engine.
Still, in a graphic attempt to reclaim the legacy in all its original, bright-eyed glory, Peugeot offers the GTi version of the already pleasantly frisky 208 with a slightly lower ride and a slightly wider track than when it was launched last summer.
And, for a start, it looks pretty fresh. Quite gone is the weirdly amphibian, gaping grille from the 207 that made the car appear permanently to be in the middle of gulping down a supermarket trolley. The Peugeot lion, which has shown worrying aspirations to become life-size in recent iterations — converting the bonnet into the mount for a hunting trophy — now settles for a modest, slimline appearance on the car’s nose.
All in all, the fun is back. But fun for whom? Hovering inescapably around the project is the sense of a good time — but a good time recalled some 30 years later, slightly ruefully, from middle age.
Best of all, a strip of chrome trim continues back past the rear windows before splaying out to form a passing allusion to the old 205’s twin plastic go-faster inserts — as vulnerable to removal in urban areas as the Golf’s VW badge back in the day, although I don’t recall seeing anyone wearing the 205’s plastic around their necks, as people did the VW medallion.
As it happens, the serrated grille on the new GTi (intended to make a racy, three-dimensional reference to the chequered flag) has just the hint of a rapper’s watchstrap about it, though perhaps we should keep that quiet, lest we give anybody ideas.
Red stitching? It’s here — copious trails of it. It’s like a map of Yosemite in there. And the redness continues. The fabric in the cloth-and-leather-combo seats is franked with a line of it. The dashboard fascia glows red around the middle. The sunburst-red grab handles could well have been ripped off an electric guitar. There’s a red mark on the squat leather steering wheel, so you know which way up you are, and a red inset in the gearlever knob. The word Peugeot is picked out in the same colour above the radiator grille, where a single cross-piece also glows red like a bruised lip.
Last week I passed three perfectly happy hours alone with the car in the hills above Nice in a variety of weather, including, for a couple of alarming miles, fog so thick I could barely see the speedo. The 197bhp 1.6-litre engine had a taut rasp to it, the steering was firm and quick-witted and the car’s stability was immensely reassuring in a way that caused you to force it onwards for the sheer pleasure of it.
Furthermore, the trip briefly threatened to turn surreal, or worse, when five goats of assorted colours and sizes were startled into the carriageway by a low-flying fighter jet. I am thus in a position to report that the new GTi has the opposite of soppy brakes. Also, that if you stamp down hard enough on them, you will automatically bring the hazard lights on, thereby alerting the jet behind you of your intention to stop.
So, all in all, the fun is back. But fun for whom? Hovering inescapably around the project is the sense of a good time — but a good time recalled some 30 years later, slightly ruefully, from middle age. Were any actual young people consulted during the designing of this car? Was it they who suggested the deluxe upholstery, the child-friendly rear seats, the dual-zone air-conditioning, the Peugeot Connect emergency call button?
Something — and not just the price and the upmarket comforts and trimmings — suggests that the 208 GTi is going to exert its hardest pull not on today’s tearaways but on yesterday’s. Nostalgic former 205 owners will see this 208 and feel a quickening in their hearts, as they might upon catching the sound on a passing radio of Howard Jones asking, “What is lo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ove, anyway?” What indeed, Howard? What indeed?
Come back, Nik Kershaw – all is well
2013 Peugeot 208 GTI specifications
Peugeot 208 GTI rivals
Clio Renaultsport 200 Turbo, £18,995
For Sharp handling; grown-up and comfortable to live with Against Comes only as a five-door with an automatic gearbox
Mini Cooper S, £18,180
For A hoot to drive; stands out from the crowd of hatchbacks Against Tiny back seats and boot