Ford has certainly spoiled us when it comes to hot hatchbacks, with its pocket-rocket ST delivering just about everything you could want at an affordable price. Peugeot had a good go at knocking the Ford off its podium with the 208 GTi, but didn't come close. Can its new 30th Anniversary edition finally topple the imperious Ford?
Ford Fiesta ST-3
The current benchmark, and one of the best hot hatches ever. Will be tough to beat
Peugeot 208 GTi 30th Anniversary
Stiffer and more powerful than the regular GTi, which should address some of our criticisms
It was 30 years ago that Peugeot launched what many consider to be the finest hot hatch ever: the legendary 205 GTi. It was quick and grippy, as you’d expect, but what set it apart from its rivals was how tremendously good fun it was to drive. However, Peugeot’s more recent hot hatch offerings have struggled to deliver.
So, in a bid to recapture some of that lost greatness, as well as celebrating former glories, Peugeot has launched a more hardcore version of its sharp-suited 208 GTi. The 30th Edition has more power than the regular GTi, along with stiffer suspension, a wider track and a limited-slip differential, the last of which should give it an edge over its similarly priced rivals.
It’ll need every advantage it can get, because one of those rivals is the brilliant Fiesta ST. Our two-time Hot Hatch of the Year can’t match the power of its French rival, but it’s one of the finest-driving cars around. It’s also a lot cheaper to buy, even in range-topping ST-3 trim.
What are they like to drive?
Both cars have turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engines, but the Peugeot’s kicks out an extra 25bhp so it’s unsurprisingly the faster car in a straight drag race. Not by much, mind, because the Fiesta takes less than half a second longer to crack 60mph and its engine is just as willing to rev towards and past its 6250rpm redline. What’s more, the Fiesta’s clutch and gearbox are a joy to use; they’re both positively weighted with a super-precise action, whereas the Peugeot’s are rather vague and woolly.
There’s no doubting the Peugeot’s ability to corner quickly, though. Its body leans a bit when you turn in to bends, but once settled the 208 sticks hard and that clever limited-slip differential allows you to feed the power back in without the front tyres running wide of your chosen line. The problem is the steering leaves you somewhat uninvolved in the action; it’s quick to respond but is short on feedback – particularly when you’re winding lock off on the way out of corners.
In some respects, the Fiesta isn’t as capable. It doesn’t grip as hard, for example, and it can’t get its power down as effectively when exiting bends. However, that doesn’t really matter because it stays perfectly flat and balanced round corners, with steering that streams information to your fingertips. Put simply, everything about the Fiesta feels like it’s working with you to make driving more enjoyable.
We’ve criticised the standard 208 GTi for being a bit soft and uninspiring to drive, but the one positive of that relaxed demeanour is a comfortable ride. However, the 30th Edition’s greater emphasis on handling means it’s much firmer; you feel every little ripple in the road and potholes send nasty jolts through the cabin. The Fiesta is similarly unforgiving over bigger bumps, but its more effective damping keeps the things better controlled over scarred surfaces. Rarely does the Ford skip sideways over mid-corner bumps, whereas the Peugeot is a lot less planted along beaten up B-roads.
You wouldn’t expect a hot hatch to be the final word in cruising refinement, and neither car is the ideal tool for a long motorway journey. The Fiesta is marginally quieter at a 70mph cruise, mainly because its exhaust note settles at a more relaxed hum, but there’s also less road noise.
What are they like inside?
Hot hatches need to be exciting to drive, but they should make you feel special before you’ve even turned the key. The Peugeot certainly does that, with a stylish and swanky cabin that lives up to that £22k price tag. From a leather-wrapped dashboard to the red stripes running down the centre of the seatbelts, everything on show is dripping with flair.
Meanwhile, the ST’s cabin isn’t much different from a run-of-the-mill Fiesta’s, save for its heavily bolstered Recaro sports seats and a red ‘ST’ badge on the steering wheel. You can’t help but feel the entire budget went into making the car as good to drive as it could possibly be, leaving next to nothing for the interior.
The Fiesta has the better all-round driving position, though, because although its seats aren’t quite as supportive as the Peugeot’s – particularly in the lower back region – you’re unlikely to have any problem setting everything up just how you like it. Meanwhile, the 208 has an unusually small steering wheel that you’re supposed to look over (rather than through) to see the instruments. This is fine if you’re tall in the body, but if you’re not you’ll probably find the wheel blocks your view of the dials.
The GTi’s touchscreen infotainment system is another example of style over functionality. Sharp, vibrant graphics and lots of features – including standard sat-nav and a DAB radio – give it plenty of showroom appeal, but the system is difficult to use. The menus are complicated and there are no shortcut buttons to take you to individual functions.
Not that the Ford’s system is much simpler. The screen is smaller and the controls – although physical rather than on a touchscreen – are confusing and poorly labelled. As with the Peugeot, standard sat-nav and a DAB radio goes some way to making amends.
Both cars are just as practical as their three-door supermini equivalents. In the case of the Ford that means there’s plenty of space in the front for tall adults, and enough room in the back for
a couple of six-footers. If you’re very tall you might struggle for headroom in the front of the Peugeot, while those in the rear seats will find it claustrophobic because there’s less space than
in the Fiesta.
There’s little to split the two on boot space, although again the Ford has the edge, thanks to its longer and taller load bay.
Should I buy one?
The Fiesta costs £2600 less to start with and that gap grows to more than £3000 when you factor in the bigger discounts Ford dealers are prepared to offer. Despite the 208’s relative exclusivity (just 100 are destined for the UK), the Fiesta is also predicted to hold on to its value for slightly longer, although that’s mostly negated by the 208’s better real-world fuel economy. Buy now and sell after three years and you can expect to spend £2700 around more to own the Peugeot.
There’s barely anything in it for company car drivers, with the 208’s lower CO2 output largely offsetting its higher price but for anyone planning to lease, the Ford is the much cheaper option; you’ll pay £251 a month compared with £341 for the Peugeot.
Both cars are very well equipped by supermini standards, with climate control, alloys, sat-nav, Bluetooth, a DAB radio, automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers fitted as standard. The Fiesta even adds heated front seats and keyless entry and start, although somewhat bizarrely Ford charges an extra £50 for a head restraint for the middle rear passenger.
Peugeot counters with rear parking sensors (a £200 option on the Ford), although that striking two-tone paint is £800.
It’s an easy win for the Fiesta ST. Not only is it heaps more fun to drive, it’s considerably cheaper to buy and to own, too. Yes, it’s not quite as quick and it doesn’t grip as hard through fast corners, but it’s more agile through tighter twists and turns, and easier to live with the rest of the time, thanks to its more comfortable ride.
Ford Fiesta ST-3
For **Awesome handling; sweet engine note; surprisingly cheap to buy
Against Fiddly infotainment system; low-rent cabin
Verdict The most fun you can have for £20k
Peugeot 208 GTi 30th Anniversary
For** Strong engine; grippy handling; smart cabin; real-world economy
Against Steering; sloppy controls; crashy ride; poor ergonomics
Verdict Not without merit, but should be more fun
Ford Fiesta ST
Peugeot 208 GTi 30th