Modern hot hatches are massively capable, but is that really the point? Maurice Malone drives a legend and finds that pace isn’t everything.
Just look at this thing. Has there ever been a more perfectly shaped hot hatch? Or hatchback in general? It’s best viewed in elevation, the stubby overhangs accentuating the wheel-at-each-corner stance, the wheels themselves a piddling (by today’s standards) 15 inches in diameter, yet still just the right size to fill those wheelarches with their dainty plastic extensions. It looks muscular but lithe, and very evidently a child of the 1980s, the rectangular foglamps and panel gaps harking back to when men used to roll their suit jacket sleeves up and Prince hadn’t yet turned himself into a symbol. Modern small cars look flabby and wasteful by comparison.
If you never got to experience the 1980s in person (if, like me, because you hadn’t been born yet), then driving a car from back then gives an impression of what things might have been like. I am more than a little enamoured with that decade, especially when it comes to music and cars. Now, this particular 1.9 car that I’m driving was actually registered in 1994, so I’m cheating a little. Never mind. The 205 GTI is a genre-defining automobile, and this last-of-the-line example retains all the excitement and verve of the first 1984 1.6-litre cars.
Volkswagen popularised hot hatch ideals a few years earlier with the seminal Golf GTI, proving that the simple formula of endowing humdrum shopping cars with more power, better brakes and some handling would draw punters in their droves. The 1980s was a glorious era for practical performance, with every manufacturer latching on to the concept and producing their own take, though arguably none nailed it quite as well as Peugeot.
The 205 as a whole was a hugely important car for the French manufacturer, coming as it did during a time of major financial upheaval within the halls of Sochaux. It faced major competition from others in the market, with the Mk2 Ford Fiesta, Opel Corsa/Vauxhall Nova and the Fiat Uno all being launched around the same time. In fact, the Uno beat the 205 to become 1984 European Car of the Year, though a quick glance through winners of that title throughout the decades shows that a gong is no guarantee of sales success…
There was another thing that helped the 205’s reputation in its formative years, and that was Peugeot’s domination of the final years of Group B rallying. Never mind that the flame-spitting 205 T16 bore only a superficial resemblance to its road-going relatives – it was still recognisably a 205, and that’s all that really mattered. Marketing campaigns in period took full advantage of this, and cars got sold. Pointing your GTI down a country road and pretending you were Ari Vatanen or Timo Salonen occupied many a youngster’s evening, Salonen presumably number one for librarians and chain-smokers.
Owner Adrian’s name has appeared on the logbook of this car twice, and he was lucky to be able to find it and buy it back years after selling it on. “One of the biggest mistakes of my life, but having it back is just as good as the first time round.” It’s been treated to a restoration of sorts over the last couple of years, and in Cherry Red it looks simply glorious. Despite well over 300,000 GTIs being produced from 1984-1994, good ones are few and far between these days, and those that are genuinely good are commanding big money.
Being one of the last of the “Phase Two” 1.9 cars, it comes with a decent amount of kit for a car of its time. Electric windows are a surprising find, Bendix ABS was an option and the seats and steering wheel seem to display some approximation of leather. It’s got a catalytic converter which strangles a few of the horses (the 1.6 was killed off when regulations mandated a cat to be fitted), but with less than 900kg to move around and the extra torque over the smaller engine that’s no real issue. Visibility is excellent, the driving position surprisingly comfortable and the long lever that commands the BE3 gearbox has a shift action that’s satisfying even with the car at a halt and switched off.
Now, reading any number of road tests from back in the day will convince you that a 205 GTI’s sole purpose is to move you into a field at high speed, so I must confess to feeling a little apprehensive upon getting behind the wheel. No need. On modern tyres there is no indication that the rear-end will kill you, merely a sensation of it helping you around a corner without you having to trouble the steering for more lock. What a balance. Beautifully-communicative steering, willing brakes (for their time, at least) and the 1.9’s torque allow you to get comfortable with the car almost immediately. Five minutes later you feel like you’re carrying lots of speed and the car is dancing beneath you. You feel like a hero.
However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s still the giant-killer it once was. A Mk7 Fiesta van will run rings around it. Most things will. Does that matter? Of course not. Its pace relative to modern superhatches like the Honda Civic Type-R is as irrelevant as the pace of Ayrton Senna’s Lotus 98T to Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG W09. I know which I’d rather drive, and I know which I’d rather watch.
Photos by Cian Donnellan, and thanks to Adrian and Cormac for providing the immaculate GTI