If last week was all about the technological future of our cars, this week we’ll make a trip back in time and explore less of the thrill of technology, and more of the thrill of driving in its purest sense. We’ll do so by looking a bit closer at an absolute legend among hot hatches: the Peugeot 205 GTI.
Back in 1990-1991, when the 205 was still riding high although it had alaredy been on the market for seven years, a good friend of mine had parents kind enough to offer him a brand new 205 1.9 GTI when he got his driver’s license. I remember when he showed it to me the first time, it was black and shiny with those lovely 15″ rims and the half-leather interior, and man was I jealous. Not that there was anything wrong with my parents, but the blue Golf from -75 they got me didn’t really do the trick in comparison. As it turned out though, the Golf lived far longer than the 205. You see, my friend was in love with a beautiful girl, who also had just got her license, and kind as he was (and still is), lent her the car over a weekend. If memory serves me right, she didn’t drive more than a few hundred meters before crashing it so completely that it never came back. Luckily nothing happened to her, but the two of them broke off shortly thereafter, unclear why…
Except teaching us to be careful with whom we lend our beloved cars to, the story also highlights another fact which contributed to the 205’s early demise in the above case, namely that it’s a light car with correspondingly thin and light parts. It weighed in at less than 900 kgs and as I’ve written about previously on this blog, a low weight is the best recipe for good handling and speed – but not a good one if you plan to crash.
Anyway let’s go back to the beginning, which for the 205 means the year 1983 when the GTI started off in parallel to the regular 205, initially with a 1.6 litre engine developing first 105 and later 115 hp. In 1986 the engine size was increased to 1.9 litres with more torque and between 120-130 hp depending on version. The debate still goes on among enthusiasts as to which version was the best, some claiming the 1.6 is more playful whilst others talk of more speed and torque in the 1.9 litre. I’ve only driven the 1.9 and I’ll just note that the extra power means 1.5 seconds less to a 100 (at 7.6 seconds), quite beneficial since the car is still as playful as you would expect an 80’s hot hatch to be.
The 205 was an instant success in France, and the GTI version was a success pretty much all over Europe. In France its main competitor was the Renault 5 which didn’t have the poise of the 205, and internationally it was the Golf GTI Mk2, which was somewhat roomier and probably the better car, but which design-wise was a step back as compared to both the 205 and the Golf GTI Mk1. The 205 was a stunner in comparison and if you ask me it remains so today. I think it’s still one of the best hot hatch designs ever produced and if you look at the complicated forms hatches tend to come in today, certainly one of the cleanest!
It didn’t hurt the success of the 205 GTI, that lasted for 10 years, that a car by the same name but with few parts in common was very successful both in Group B and the Paris-Dakar rally. The 205 T16 / T16 Evo 2 was a mid-engine super car with up to 500 hp, competing with the Lancia Delta Evo and the Audi Sport Quattro, that I wrote about not long ago (click here if you missed it). The 200 homologation cars have mostly gone the same way as my friend’s car and finding one today is very hard and very expensive.
That the “normal” 205 is a real feather-weight becomes clear as soon as you open the (extremely light) door, sit down and look at the likewise very thin and basic plastic dashboard. Not much here to distinguish the GTI from a regular 205, but the comfy, good-looking seats along with the red carpeting remove any doubts as to which version you’re in, and both look sensational. Visibility is tremendous even by 80’s standards and the car is roomier than you think, both in front and back.
Taking it for a short drive, the first thing you note is how much the body moves and how soft the suspension is compared to modern hot hatches. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick to the road – it very much does so, but this was how hatches were built at the time and the longer suspension travel means that it’s actually overall more comfortable than a modern hatch. Naturally a new 206 GTI, Civic Type R or any other modern hot hatch is faster, but the 205 still provides a level of speed and fun which is right up there, especially since speed itself is relative and tends to be rather limited in most places you would use a hatch today. The car is playful, both steering and gearbox are fully ok, and the four pot has just the level and type of sound you wish for. It actually felt exactly as fun as it did 30 years ago, before disaster hit the car I drove at the time in the form of a pretty girl.
Finding a 205 GTI isn’t difficult, finding one in good condition a bit more so. Firstly most cars have really been used, and who wouldn’t? This means that may will have 150.000-200.000 kms on the clock which isn’t the end of the world as long as they have been maintained well. A good car will today cost you at least EUR 15.000, a perfect one with much less kms considerably more. Running costs won’t be much to worry about and the downside risk is very limited, as especially well kept cars get increasingly rare.
So why would you? Well, except for the looks and sweet memories from younger days, which in themselves are great arguments, there are other pretty rational reasons for looking at a 205 if a hot hatch is your thing. Assuming you will use it as most people, meaning on short city drives and spells of country roads rather than for long motorway trips, then things such as sound isolation and lack of top end power become much less important and having a small practical but very cool car with great visibility more so! You don’t need giant, Type R-styled wings in the city and you don’t need park assistance systems to park a 205 as long as you can still turn your neck. And whereas a modern hot hatch costs you three times as much to buy, the pleasure you’ll derive by taking the slightly longer way home along that twisty country road won’t be much different!