Recently, the only saving grace for the 206's sporting credibility was a World Rally Car that, in the hands of Marcus Gronholm, has made everyone else look distinctly second rate. Well, that WRC verve and character has finally spawned a road car, the new 206 GTi 180, which is even called the WR in its homeland. At first sighting, all looks well. Peugeot has eschewed the full rally-replica look of the Ford Focus RS in favor of a subtle makeover. The most obvious change is to the alloys, which now boast a diameter of 17 inches and come wrapped in 205/40R-17W Pirelli P7000s. They've been crowbarred under the wheel arches and lend the car a hunched stance that smacks of dynamic intent. The rear tailgate spoiler perpetuates this effect and is joined by chrome-plated dual exhaust pipes and carbon- fiber-effect wing mirrors.
Inside, the rally overtones are more potent. The GTi's seats have been replaced with a quartet of dramatic-looking chairs that grip like a pole dancer's thighs. Still, they cannot solve this car's awkward driving position. Taller drivers find that if the seat is in the correct position for their legs, they're unable to reach the steering wheel. The only solution is to adopt a crab-like posture. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is also tilted awkwardly away from the driver, but at least the aluminum gear knob and pedal set are sensibly cited. The cabin also comes packed with kit, including a CD autochanger, climate control and automatic headlights/wipers. It's certainly better equipped than the rival Honda Civic Type-R, but the plethora of cheap-feeling plastics belie its budget origins.
Peugeot's reputation, though, wasn't built on the quality of its interiors. If the 206 GTi 180 is to be a winner, it must score with the strength of its dynamics. First impressions are good. The GTi 180 shares the basic architecture of its 1997cc engine with the standard GTi, but it's been extensively reworked. The cylinder head, for example, is new and the intake and exhaust flow have been modified. Equally significant is the introduction of a variable valve timing system (VVT) on the intake camshaft. The variation of the valve timing is controlled by the engine management system according to the oil temperature and the engine load and speed.
The results are dramatic. Whereas the standard GTi pumps out a meager 138 hp, the 180, as it name implies, develops a far fruitier 180 hp at 7000 rpm. The peak torque also rises by 12 lb-ft to 152 lb-ft at 4750 rpm. In response to criticisms of the base GTi's sloppy shift quality, Peugeot has modified the five-speed transmission by shortening the throw and introducing a longer first gear that can muster 41 mph at 7000 rpm. The steering modulates its assistance according to engine speed, with maximum resistance above 3800 rpm. The 180's throttle response is impressive. It's not as whip-crack as that of the seminal 306 GTi-6 - you can blame emissions legislation for that - but Peugeot claims a zero-to-62-mph time of 7.4 seconds, and a top speed of 140 mph. To harness the increased thrust, Peugeot's engineers have reworked the GTi's suspension. The MacPherson struts at the front feature stiffer springs, while at the rear, the trailing arm and torsion bar setup has been modified with the addition of a pair of tie rods in an effort to improve the axle's stability.
Together with the new tires and steering, these changes afford the car a subtly different character. The ride is firmer, particularly at low speed, but this is a small price to pay for the improvement in body control. Grip is plentiful and the 206 can be hustled along at considerable speed with complete confidence. Drive like a prat and the Peugeot flatters your ignorance.
But an enthusiast with even a modicum of driving ability will be disappointed with this car. The turn-in is soft and hesitant. The steering is muted and slow-witted. Equally disappointing is the lack of throttle adjustability. Peugeots of old could be balanced on the throttle with wonderful delicacy - to the extent that if you lifted off abruptly mid-bend, the car would need a swift dose of opposite lock to stop the rear overtaking the front. In today's politically correct world, such histrionics are deemed unseemly, but by tuning out the lift-off oversteer, Peugeot has made the car clumsy and compromises its character. Peugeot's PR moguls would accuse me of missing the point. They argue that such joys are of interest only to a small band of died-in-the-wool enthusiasts and that the company has moved on from the do-or-die attitude of the 205. They'd point to the plethora of toys, the safety kit and the price tag, which, at $24,027, seems like a good value. But we still think they're wrong. An airbag and a CD autochanger don't a dull car make. Refinement need not be the enemy of fun. Just ask that Gronholm guy.
|Engine Code:||EW10 J4 S|
|Valvetrain:||DOHC, four valves per cylinder|
|Bore x Stroke:||85.0 x 88.0mm|
|Claimed Crank Hp:||180 bhp @ 7000 rpm|
|Claimed Crank Torque:||152 lb-ft @ 4750 rpm|
Transverse, front engine, front-wheel drive
|Curb Weight :||2425 lb|
|Weight Distribution F/R :||64/36|
|Overall Length:||151.0 in.|
|Overall Width:||65.9 in. (excluding wing mirrors)|
|Front:||Independent, MacPherson struts,|
springs and dampers
|Rear:||Independent, trailing arms and|
transverse torsion bars,
springs and dampers
|Front:||283mm ventilated discs,|
11.1-in. single-piston calipers
|Rear:||247mm solid discs,|
|ABS with EBA (Electronic Brake Assist)|
and EBFD (Enhanced Stability Braking System)
and ASR (Anti-skid Function)
and ESP (Electronic Stability Programme)
|Wheels and Tires|
|Tires:||225/40R-17W Pirelli P7000|
|0-62 mph :||7.4 sec.|
|0-1000 m:||28.0 sec.|
|Max. speed (mph):||140|
|Fuel consumption Combined :||32.8 mpg|