Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Cars: 205 GTi

My second car purchase was hailed as a star of the hot hatch world, but was it worth it?

Cars that reach iconic status tend to fall roughly into one of two categories. You get lavish offerings from people like Lamborghini with giant spoilers, huge engines and staggering performance; then you get the working class heroes of the automotive world – affordable cars with a hint of genius attached to them. The Peugeot 205 GTi is frequently banded around as an example of the latter, but is it really that good?

My 205 GTi ownership began more or less out of necessity. The Quantum was proving somewhat impractical for everyday transport and we were entering a horrendous winter, which thoroughly highlighted the shortcomings in its ageing soft top. To make life easier I decided to put the car into storage and get something more spacious … and watertight. At the time a colleague was selling his 1.9 Peugeot 205 GTi and it seemed like the ideal solution. It was a genuine four seater, a hatchback, a fixed head and reputedly good fun to drive.

The test drive was a little underwhelming. Sure, the Integrale owning car-nut who was selling it took me out to some b-roads and drove like an Italian (he was), but my own experience behind the wheel was less hair-raising. It went reasonably well and performance was probably on a par with the Quantum I'd stepped out of, but that somehow didn't live up to its legendary status. Still, it cornered smartly, everything looked tidy and it ticked all the right boxes for practicality. After a brief and not entirely successful spot of haggling I came away with the car.

I took my time getting accustomed to the 205, given its widow-maker reputation, but in honesty I think this is a little overstated. The famously mobile rear end was in most cases entertaining rather than shocking and despite letting go somewhat quicker than most hot hatches it would usually come back into line promptly given a little opposite lock. Driven with delicacy and respect it seemed to reward with the same qualities - turn in smoothly with a slight lift and the nose would tuck in without drama. The steering felt precise and beautifully linear, giving a good indication of the remaining grip. Sudden mid-corner braking may well have sent you into the undergrowth, but fortunately this was something I managed to avoid. The closest I ever came to hedge hunting was ironically whilst going in a straight line – driving down a dual carriage way one night I was about to overtake the car in front when they decided to change lanes. With traffic on one side and a substantial looking barrier on the other, my only choice was to hit the brakes. Even without locking the wheels, some minor imbalance in the car's chassis or road surface sent me into an almighty tank slapper. Luckily I had just about enough space to regain control and slow down before any lasting harm was done. My headlights made a frenzied trail in the dusk as the tail wagged from side to side and I got some very apologetic gestures from the car in front; personally I was just glad to be in one piece. There was little that could have been done to avoid the experience, but it served as a reminder that the 205 could still bare its claws.

Over the next few months the pug proved to be a very versatile car. Its taut chassis and smooth torquey engine proved entertaining over b-roads, whilst the back would seat up to three adults, or alternatively two full size mountain bike frames. The drawbacks were a hefty fuel economy penalty (struggling to make 25mpg) and a rather unpleasant resonance in the cabin that caused it to hum loudly at motorway speeds. The biggest issues however, were yet to materialise.

French cars of the 1980s do have something of a reputation for unreliability. Initially I dismissed this as the same sort of motoring stereotype that demands all Alfa Romeos must break down and all kit cars must fall apart, but bit by bit my pug started conforming to type. First the gear selector mechanism developed a habit of popping off - most notably whilst I was in the middle of a 4-lane roundabout coming off the A127. Next the alternator needed to be replaced. Shortly after that the mass airflow sensor packed in and then to compound matters it developed an intermittent immobiliser fault. By this time I was getting itchy feet and the prospect of something rear wheel drive appealed. After one grazed knuckle too many I part exchanged the car for my next purchase – a Porsche 924S.

So is the 205 GTi as good as it's made out to be? In most respects, yes. The handling and performance were a cut above its competitors, but perhaps not by as big a margin as the legends would have you believe. Its trump card was combining these attributes with a spacious, practical layout. There were no shortage of sportscars that could outperform a 205 GTi, but very few that you could truly use everyday. However, I can't help feeling that the Golf GTi of the same period may be a better solution – purists will argue that it isn't quite up to the standards of the pug dynamically, but it is undoubtedly close. Whatsmore it offers greater space, teutonic build quality and a more forgiving driving experience. The pug may be a great car, but looking at it with my head (if not my heart) I think the mk2 Golf Gti might just have been a better choice.

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