Peugeot: always on the cusp of greatness

| 5 Mar 2013

Few manufacturers cross the line between mediocrity and excellence with quite the regularity of Peugeot.

The French company has teased me for most of my life with angelic models topped by the 205GTI, while summarily disappointing with machines such as its replacement, the 206.

While the 205 was, and always will be, one of the most engaging cars on the planet, its younger brother was little more than a pile of insignificance wheeled for your convenience.

Talk of its latest GTI, the 208, has already drawn obvious comparisons to the 205, but then motoring hacks are a wistful, eternally optimistic bunch. You need only read the pre-drive review for any Alfa Romeo to see that.

But we’re dealing with the French for now. So what happened? Could it have been a changing attitude to cars? It’s possible I suppose.

While we car people like the idea of lift-off oversteer and the like, its safe to assume it’s not at the top of a ‘normal’ person’s shopping list. Especially not when it concerns the car carrying their nearest and dearest. So, while some manufacturers spend effort and time to make their cars a pleasure to drive, others just want them to be safe.

Peugeot throws a spanner into the works of this theory, though, because just a decade after producing the 205, it came up with the 306.

Was it as spicy as the 205? ‘No’ is the answer after a quick poll of my colleagues, but it was an easily controllable hoot. Even, apparently, the 1.4-litre, flea-bitten example Elliott sampled.

I’d never profess to be the most mechanically minded in the office, but I do take more than a fleeting interest in the oily-bit explanations for why things happen, and the 306 being such a driver’s car looks like no accident to me.

That’s because it (as I’m sure you know) had passive rear-wheel steering that can, correct me if I’m wrong, exist for only one reason – driver enjoyment.

The 306 wasn’t the only gem in the firm 1990s arsenal. The Phase I 106 was a car fan’s favourite, too, and attributing that to a combination of accident and (pre-safety conscious) lightweight seems easy enough until we deal with the Rallye.

Far from a mishap, it was built specifically so that our continental cousins could compete in Group N and A rallying. It featured a rev-hungry, charismatic 1.3-litre engine with a pokey 100bhp and came complete with competition-style decals, white-painted steel wheels and uprated suspension.

The spring mounts were strengthened for rally use, while, what sound deadening there was, could easily be removed for even less weight. What Autocar described as  “the most throttle adjustable front-wheel drive car currently made couldn’t have occurred by fluke. Could it?

But, if that’s the case, what’s happened to all that expertise?

Look at anything post 306 (with the possible exception of the RCZ coupé) and it’s clear something’s gone wrong.

Maybe Peugeot decided that good-looking excellent-handling cars weren’t what the public wanted, maybe workers took one of their well-advertised long lunch breaks and simply forgot, or could Peugeot’s most sublime cars have been no more than luck?

Whatever the explanation is, I hope it happens again. And soon.