In the past 28 years, Peugeot has never quite managed to reproduce the chic and cheer of the seminal 205 hatch, and even less its driver appeal. However, the French concern appears to have finally regained its form of the 80s with the pert new 208, which not only looks and feels the part, but adds huge improvements in refinement and build quality.
The original Pininfarina- penned 205 created something of a monkey for Peugeot's back. It looked so pert and perfect, and offered such amazing handling and ride quality considering its simple underpinnings that people expected small Pugs to always be like that. While it would sometimes bite the hand that steered it, particularly if the throttle was closed too quickly mid-bend on GTi models, and its body and interior would never last as long as the engine, most of us remember the many good bits, forgetting the bad ones.
While succeeding 206 and 207 models displayed noticeably better build quality and possessed chassis with more benign habits in extremis, they were never as much fun to drive as the 205.
The new 208, launched in Europe this month and arriving in New Zealand in September, may have finally put things right for Peugeot's modern front-drive 2-series. Like the old 205, its brilliantly flexible chassis doesn't need a hot GTi power unit to give its best - even the basic 1.2-litre triple cylinder model is a hoot to drive - and thanks to some careful attention to its interior design and execution, it can be a small car for relatively large people.
It took Peugeot more than 15 million units to get its 2-series back on track after failing in varying degrees with the 206 and 207. It does so with a car that's even cuter than those models to look at, that's lighter and smaller, despite offering more interior space and the feeling that it could have been cinched together in Japan or Germany despite an average weight-loss model for model compared to the 207 of about 100 kilograms.
That loss comes about from using stronger, lighter high- tensile steel elements than before and simpler electrically assisted steering, and Peugeot says it has also managed to make the car almost a third cheaper to engineer and put together.
That sounds all very well, but news that despite offering a clever touch-screen on every model, the car will start comfortably in the mid-$20,000 bracket seems to bear out Peugeot's leaner, meaner build practises.
The nice thing is that this production frugality is not reflected in the car's perceived quality or its noise vibration and harshness suppression. The interior materials are delightful, lacking the brittle, rattlebox quality of the old 205 and using soft, pleasantly textured surfaces that feel almost luxurious.
Leg 2 Despite being driven over seriously potholed and broken- up roads on my drive in Portugal last week, the strut front, twist-beam, rear suspension transmitted so little shock to the interior that you could mistake the 208 for a much larger, more expensive car.
Considering the work being done underneath the car by suspension of uncannily long travel for a small hatch, the old habit of making every millimetre of suspension travel work for the car appears to have been regained by Peugeot.
On the few occasions the suspension topped and bottomed out - sorry Peugeot! - the car's bushings gave it all a feeling of a pleasantly firm squish, instead of a hard-edged bang, thump.
Just like Peugeots used to feel.
Like those old Pugs, the 208's body control is excellent when pressing on, and though the electric steering was a little numb compared to more conventional types, it was unerringly accurate.
When a wayward approaching vehicle crossed a bend's centreline, requiring evasive action, often with a leap off the throttle and maybe even a prod of the brakes, a suggestion of passive rear-steer replaced the old 205's snap oversteer, giving the car an implacability that I hope is included on all future small Peugeots.
Sitting inside the 208 for the first time, I found its small- diameter steering wheel a tad disarming until the car's interior designer Adam Bazydlo explained things.
Mr Bazydlo said the driver's seat had 12 ratchet points on its height adjuster.
You should start at the half- way point, adjusting the wheel for reach and height before finally popping the seat up or down for taste, having already dropped your wrists over the upper wheelrim for the best arm-bend when your hands have their thumbs over the upper spokes.
It worked for me, and the raison d'etre behind the car's small-diameter wheel made itself plain.
Set up to Mr Bazydlo's instructions, I could view the neatly binnacled instrument cluster's contents over the top of the wheel's upper rim.
A by-product of this driving position was a wonderful sense of light and air. This is helped by light, high-quality materials for the dash sweep and console, and though the standard info screen did protrude a tad, it was such an intuitive set-and-forget unit that I tended to locate its top corner button and prod the appropriate sub-menus without needing more than a peripheral sighting of them.
In the back, the front seats are shaped to allow rear passengers the kind of rear room that previous 200 users could only dream of. My 1.88-metre frame felt remarkably well-supported and comfortable there, and even afforded good access.
The number crunchers have not decided whether sat-nav will be part of the New Zealand touch- screen package. All three models intended for our market will have the screen anyway.
The entry-point car will be the Active five-door model, which, like all 208s, will have six airbags and ESP as standard, along with a manual air conditioning and a cooled glovebox, cruise control, heated electric door mirrors, power front windows and remote central locking.
The high-end Allure five-door adds LED lights and driving lamps, a glass roof and shade and automatic air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, passenger seat height adjustment and sports seats. A single Allure three-door model will also reach New Zealand, with the same specification and a set of sporty 17-inch alloys.
Peugeot New Zealand has everything almost spot on for this capable and dynamically brilliant new motor car.
There is a but, however, and that's our market's engine choice, which will be an 88-kilowatt twin- cam injected 1.6-litre petrol unit, which is certainly a willing if hardly inspiring unit. However, the three New Zealand 208s will only be supplied with a four-speed automatic transmission.
Considering Peugeot's reputation for excellent diesels, I find this puzzling. The European markets enjoy five petrol and five diesel options, with a particularly tasty 1.4-litre HDi turbodiesel version with a semi-automatic robotised transmission which has gained great accolades from journalists there.
It's what I'd buy to power "my" 208, whose chassis is more suited to the strong mid-range torque of a diesel than a busy petrol unit. Fortunately, a GTi version of the car is being developed and will please sporting drivers when it arrives next year.
For the time being, Peugeot has created a characterful newcomer to the B-plus segment hatch that goes to the top of the class.
The pity of it is that while it's best in class, it's not the best 208 you can buy, until its importers tick the "diesel" and "manual" boxes - as I would.
Drivetrain (as tested): Transverse, FWD 1598cc DOHC fuel injected 16v four. Five-speed manual transmission.
Performance: Max 88kW at 6000rpm, 160Nm at 4250rpm, 190kmh, 0-100kmh 9.9 seconds, 5.8L/100km, 134g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts; rear torsion beams; Vented front, sold rear disc brakes.
Safety: Six airbags; ABS, traction and stability control; likely 5-star Euro NCAP test result.
Dimensions: L 3962mm, W 1739mm, H 1460mm, W/base 2538mm, F/track 1475mm, R-track 1470mm, Weight 1090kg, Fuel 50L.
Price: To be announced closer to launch, but will probably start from mid to high $20k area.
Hot: Pert looks; biddable composed fine-riding chassis; clever, practical interior; standard touch screen.
Not: The absence of manuals and diesels may blunt sales. Five- door not as pretty as three-door.
Verdict: It feels like a 205 would be if it was built by BMW for the 21st century.