Peugeot 208 a little light relief

Smaller on the outside, bigger inside and with new smaller engine, Peugeot is raising its game with the new 208 supermini, says Matt Kimberley, PA motoring writer.

The supermini market is big business. Since none of them are actually that mini these days they make fine all-rounders for single people and young couples, and the number sold every year reflects that.

Peugeot has renewed its assault on the sector with some fresh thinking – relatively speaking. The size and weight increases from 205 to 206 to 207 have been reversed with the new 208. The basic model at launch is just 1kg heavier than the entry-level 206 was.

It's also 7cm shorter than the 207, a little less tall and slightly narrower, but despite the extensive surgery there's more interior space. The doors have had unnecessary thickness taken out, seats have been slimmed slightly and the space has generally been used more effectively.

The 208 will bear witness to a new range of small petrol engines as Peugeot moves with the times. Initially there's a 1.6 VTi petrol, well known from other ranges, and an evolution of the brilliant 1.6 HDi diesel that has previously had 110 and 112 horsepower.

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This, though, is the 82bhp 1.2-litre VTi three-cylinder petrol – first in a new wave of efficient engines that includes a 68bhp 1.0-litre for cheaper models and turbo versions of both. For now the 1.2 forms the entry point into the 208 range, but as the car's newest engine it has some tricks up its sleeve to tempt buyers. For a start there's the noise of the triple-cylinder layout, which has the sort of off-beat thrum that gives a car a bit more character compared with a four-cylinder equivalent.

With a fairly ample output, more natural torque than a 1.2-litre four-pot and less weight to contend with versus the 207, the 1.2 is nippy in town. This is where it really belongs with its five-speed gearbox optimised so the smooth engine can cruise happily at 30mph in fifth.

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On the motorway you see the other side of the coin, with around 3,300rpm at 70mph. That's quite a lot and fuel economy will suffer with a lot of high-speed driving, but remarkably at that pace – and those revs – the engine is inaudible. Impressive stuff. But it works best in town. It has excellent visibility all round, and a tiny steering wheel adds to the nimble, small-car feel. It's not that it feels less mature than the 207, but you could say it feels a lot fresher. The only bugbear surrounding the wheel is that the instrument cluster, since the gap in the wheel is too small, has been moved up and away from the driver to a point where having the seat and wheel in the ideal places blocks part of the important dials from view. Some people might end up having to have the wheel a touch lower than they'd choose, but after a few minutes on the road it's forgotten.

The largest wheels available at launch are lovely 17in ones that are only available on the questionably-named Feline model. That's the top-of-the-range one to you and me, but the point is that they're a must to get the 208 looking its best. Thankfully they barely affect the decent ride quality afforded by the 16in wheels on Allure models downwards.

No basic-spec 208s have been registered for testing yet, but the Allure and Feline spec levels are both impressive. Quality has stepped up a large notch, materials choices are sound and the general layout looks great. The black shiny plastic areas, including on the door handles, look classy but beringed fingers will probably scratch them.

On these high-spec cars there's a touch-screen infotainment centre that gives access to sat-nav, audio and communications options and generally quite a lot of cool stuff. There's a mix of audio input sockets as well, including two USB ports – although you'll probably need someone younger than me to tell you why you'd actually need two.

Boot space is good, Feline models – not available with the 1.2 engine – have a full-size alloy spare wheel and, although the steering is a little numb and wibbly, the front end has a nice, eager feel and it corners with gusto. A GTi model is almost certainly coming at some point and there's definite potential here to be exploited.

The 208 is a very likeable car, and despite the diesel being in some ways the better choice the petrol has price and character on its side. It's a great choice, and when the small-capacity turbo petrols come along it'll be even better.

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