I’d book the new Ford Fiesta ST for the week before the launch of the Peugeot 208 GTi, so I’d be able to give you a proper verdict after driving both cars back-to-back.
How I wish I could go back in time, because this seemingly brilliant plan backfired in a big way. I’m nowhere close to a verdict, but I absolutely refuse to sell out and say both are equally brilliant. No new-age “everyone’s a winner” rubbish in this launch report.
The Peugeot 208 GTi needs no introduction. It’s small, it’s French and it has a heritage as impressive as that of the Golf GTI.
This heritage is a double-edged sword. It meant the 208 GTi already had a fan base before it turned a wheel, but it also means it has a lot to live up to. Every single 2-series GTi has been a gem and Peugeot definitely doesn’t want the 208 to be the car that breaks the cycle.
It doesn’t. It’s a proper pocket rocket for many, many reasons. It’s powerful, fun to drive and quite easy on the eyes.
On the power front, Peugeot may have actually overdone it. The main competitors all have around 135kW and 250Nm, but the 208 GTi marches into battle sporting an impressive 147kW and 275Nm of torque. What Peugeot has done here - and quite convincingly I might add - is bring a bazooka to a gunfight.
When accelerating off the line, if feels very similar to the Fiesta, but in-gear acceleration is another matter altogether. From third gear and up, the ST has nothing on the 208.
Peugeot claims a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 230km/h, but those figures are purely academic. We all know that a hot hatch means absolutely nothing if it can’t put a smile on your face when you chuck it into a corner.
To test its chuckability, we were allowed to do a lap of the famous Aldo Scribante circuit in Port Elizabeth. It’s here were the obvious differences between the ST and GTi became obvious. The GTi is properly fast around a track, but the ST is more fun because it’s more of a hooligan, if that makes sense at all.
The Peugeot, it seems, has been set up to be a foolproof hot hatch. It only understeers when you’re really being a chop, or when you lift off mid-corner. Do the same in the Fiesta and you’ll get oversteer - the thing men and motoring hacks the world over love so much.
Off the track, however, the Peugeot is simply unbeatable. Where the Fiesta is bouncy and uncomfortable at times, the 208 is composed and comfortable. That’s not always an easy trick to pull off, but it’s one Peugeot has done beautifully.
In my opinion, the Pug is also currently the best value-for-money pocket rocket out there. The base price is more than the Fiesta, but you get a lot more as standard in a cabin that’s of a better quality than the one in the Ford.
The obligatory luxury items are all included as standard (climate control, radio with various inputs, automatic lights and so on), but you also get a bunch of stuff that’s not expected in this segment.
The impressive over-and-above list includes navigation, leather seats, two USB slots, a self-parking feature and a full-colour touch-screen LCD display in the centre console.
The interior really is a thing of beauty, with red and black playing a prominent role. The perforated leather steering wheel is as lovely to look at as it is to hold, but my favourite part is the fading black-to-red colour scheme on the centre console and door handles. It makes an already well-equipped cabin feel a lot more expensive than it really is.
Peugeot’s 208 GTi retails for just under R260 000. It’s more expensive than the ST, but considering the extra power, style and kit, it’s actually the bargain proposition in its segment. It doesn’t just beat the new ST; it beats every other pocket rocket out there convincingly.
So, which one would I have? Well, this is where it gets really difficult. The Peugeot 208 is, in my opinion, the best car and a segment leader, but the ST remains my favourite because it’s magnificent around a track.
I know this verdict doesn’t make sense. How much time does one really spend at the track and is the rock-hard suspension really worth living with for those two hours a year you actually use it. I’m a man and therefore completely irrational, so I’m willing to live with the broken back.
For the rest of you, however, I recommend the Peugeot 208 GTi. It’s magnificent everywhere.