On the 30th anniversary marking the arrival of the Peugeot 205 GTi, Donn recalls one that had a special place in his garage

Oscar Wilde wrote about a bloke called Dorian Gray, who never grew old and always retained his good looks, and surely the same applies to the Peugeot 205 GTi. Indeed, several of Wilde’s wonderful quotes in his book The Picture of Dorian Gray are applicable to this legendary French hatchback.

In the book, the brilliant English writer, who reckoned he could resist everything except temptation, has Gray say, “it is better to be beautiful than to be good. But … it is better to be good than to be ugly.” And in yet another line from the fictitious Gray story, a character quips, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

We will talk about the 205 GTi for years and forgive it for its sins because it is the original hot-hatch hero car — a landmark design. The little Peugeot must be accorded classic car status simply because of what it was and still is. That it failed to make the same impression in New Zealand as it did in Britain was purely because it was outrageously expensive.

This was the car that changed Peugeot’s conservative, somewhat boring image.

High-Price Hatch

When the first examples trickled onto our market in 1986, they cost $36,500. Little more than a year later, they had soared to an eye-watering $48,567 at a time when you could buy a new Holden Commodore for $32K or a Ford Sierra station wagon for $28K. Clearly, Peugeot’s pricing was uncompetitive, prompting a realignment soon after New Zealand Forest Products sold the local distribution franchise to John Wood, Colin Giltrap, and Hugh Berry.

Peugeot had formerly been under the wing of Todd Motors, which also held the Chrysler and Mitsubishi brands, but total annual sales of the French marque during the early ’80s ranged between a modest 65 and 145. They jumped to 214 in 1987 and, due to the drive of John Wood, Peugeot would soon become the top-selling European import, racing to 1157 units in 1989.

The specialist 205 GTi was never going to be cheap, but when I took delivery of a new example in May 1988, the retail price had at least eased to $39,995, and was further reduced to $37,450 and then $36,990 with the arrival, in 1989, of the 1.9-litre version, which was only $1500 more expensive. When the last of the 1.9 GTi cars arrived here in 1991, they listed at $41,750.

In 1988, I tested our 1.6 GTi against the then-new Toyota Corolla GTi, with the slightly larger and better-built Japanese-manufactured hatch boasting a $31,995 price tag — 20 per cent less than the French challenger. Yet the Peugeot had heaps of that indefinable character, and, while the Corolla was a superb machine with perhaps more finesse than the Peugeot and a brilliant engine, it was never as memorable.

When the 1.6 twin-cam 4A-GE Toyota engine was happy spinning like a top to 7000rpm, the 205 power unit began to sound harsh at anything over 5000rpm. The Peugeot produced slightly less power than the Corolla, but, by dint of its lower weight, it accelerated faster, had a higher top speed, and was more economical. In the final analysis, while the two cars were closely matched, it was the French model that emerged the winner.

This was the car that appealed to those who couldn’t afford a Volkswagen Golf GTi or a BMW 3 Series. It looks best in white or red but, frankly, is great in any colour. Right from day one, I warmed to the subtle exterior details distinguishing the GTi from lesser 205s. The urgent red detailing within the bumpers, side strips, and badging is carried through to the interior door trims, carpeting and seat material, and the upholstery stitching. The bare painted metal on the door sills could be overlooked in favour of the excellent instrumentation and simple controls. The car may not employ the technology or safety of the 21st century, but it certainly all works well. 

There are no seat-height adjusters, but the low waistline and airy cabin afford great visibility, and the front seats are hugely supportive. There’s character in this cabin, even if it tends to be low rent. 

Hotter Hatches

Peugeot made a staggering 5.3 million 205s between 1983 and 1999, including 333,000 GTi models, 6.5 per cent of the total. In 1988, 205 GTi sales reached a peak in Britain, accounting for 20 per cent of all 205 demand. It is 30 years since the arrival of the 1.6 GTi in 1984 and the last of the 1.9 versions was built in 1994, two years after the 1.6 ceased. Early 1.6 models were powered by the single-overhead-cam, two-valves-per-cylinder XU5J engine producing 77kW (103bhp), followed by an upgraded version with the bigger-valve XU5JA power unit of identical capacity and a power output of 85kW (114bhp).

The revised 1580cc motor’s modified cylinder head had a new camshaft, with increased valve lift and overlap. Numerous modifications were made to the power unit to cope with the additional power, including thicker cylinder block lines, strengthened connecting rods, an improved big end and main bearings, and new valve guides and springs. A rev limiter cut the fuel flow into the engine at 6900rpm and also on deceleration below 1600rpm.

The jury is still out on whether the 1.6 is the variant to have because of its raw nature, yet the added refinements and improvements in trim quality make the 1.9 just as enticing. With 23 per cent more torque, the 1.9 storms to a top speed of 206kph, 10kph higher than the 1.6, and reaches 100kph in 7.8 seconds against 9.1 seconds for the smaller-engined GTi. 

The XU9JA motor in the 1.9 GTi had an oil cooler and improvements to the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection, boosting power to 94kW (126bhp), yet near the end of the model’s life, a catalytic converter strangled power slightly to 91kW (122bhp). There’s nothing outstanding about these all-alloy power units, with their fluffy idling that often requires adjustment, but they are willing and flexible and boast great low-end torque.

Both engines share a bore of 83mm, but with the 1905cc motor, the stroke is 88mm instead of 73. Peak power with the larger motor is achieved at slightly lower revs. Meanwhile, the first and second gear ratios on the 1.9 GTi are higher, and the taller final drive means the larger-engined Peugeot is a more comfortable cruiser. The short-throw BE-1-5 five-speed gearbox in all versions is still one of the fastest, lightest changes in the business — a real delight that does justice to the rest of the car’s mechanicals. It snicks from gear to gear with ease, and the clutch has a good feel. A tendency to hunt or stall at idle has long been a characteristic of the car.

Historians usually rate the shorter-stroke 1.6 as the best of the Peugeot 205 GTi versions, because it is slightly lighter and possibly a fraction more nimble. Yet the 1.9 is more refined, with stylish 15-inch alloys instead of 14-inch drilled alloys shod with 185/60 rubber, the addition of rear disc brakes, optional power-assisted steering, and leather-trimmed side cushions for the seats. The heavy manual steering on the 1.6 model at city and urban speeds was a clear negative.

Build quality was never a strong point, and, while the handling and roadholding impressed any caring driver, lift-off oversteer caught the unwary and sent many a 205 GTi into the bushes, down a bank, or worse. The steering is, in fact, sharp, sensitive, and it’s a delight the way the car’s direction can be varied on the throttle, although the steering loads up during heavy cornering.

This car shines because of its grip, balance, minimal body roll, drivability, and bump absorption, even if the firm-ish ride can be tiring on long journeys. Push the 205, and its poise is impressive, with a lack of torque steer and only gentle understeer in cornering extremes. The steering is quick on the move, and response is cat-like.

Game Changer

It’s easy to enthuse over the sublime steering on the move and minimal body roll, with the clever independent rear suspension with trailing arms and torsion bars doing its job so well, even if ride comfort becomes an issue as road surface deteriorates. Ride quality improved with the 1.9 models, with their pretty alloy wheels and reduced offset, which necessitated a 10-per-cent increase in wheel-bearing diameter and a fatter front anti-roll bar. Peugeot and Citroën have long been masters of compliant suspensions, evidenced by the 405 that won two major New Zealand awards in 1989, but you will need to look elsewhere from the 205 GTi if a smooth ride is your preference. Accepting the brilliant handling and roadability, the poor ride is partly, but not wholly, excusable, given the expertise of its creator.

Hydro-elastic engine mounts combine the benefits of rubber and hydraulic damping to reduce vibration, and the ingenious and compact rear suspension frees up space for passengers and luggage. The transverse-mounted engine is canted 30 degrees to the rear to lower the bonnet height and improve weight distribution. 

So, we have a small French hatchback that cost too much, had lower-than-average build and paint quality, was hampered by heavy steering at pottering speeds (unless fitted with the optional power steer), and possessed an engine that was liable to have an erratic idle. Unlike the Ford Model T, the Mini, or even the Range Rover, the 205 failed to break new ground. What, then, made it a game changer, a milestone in automotive terms?

This can be explained by its looks, huge driver appeal, and the fact that it took a proven formula and made it work better than almost any other car. Pininfarina worked with Peugeot’s in-house stylists to design a car with a body shape that is nearly impossible to fault. Four years after the model’s launch, Peugeot left the pert exterior virtually unaltered in its facelift version, because it said it could not be bettered.

Fifteen years ago, the pundits were picking the 205 GTi would become a classic car. It is still too early to know the outcome, but mint, low-mileage examples in Britain are already attracting price tags equivalent to $30K, whereas, in the late ’90s, you could pick up a tidy used example for $6K. Merely finding a 205 GTi on offer in New Zealand is difficult enough. At the time this article was researched, only one was for sale. Local prices are determined by simply as much as someone wishes to pay.

Do not expect Germanic-like build quality when searching out a 205 GTi, and bear in mind that any example will be more than 20 years old. Paintwork is likely to be mediocre, and the finish inside the front guards will probably be scrappy. Worn synchromesh on third and fourth gears is common, but don’t worry about a whine in the gearbox as long as the change is good. Beware of camshaft wear, brake shudder, and dodgy head gaskets. Check for blue smoke on start-up and overrun, which could denote worn valve stems, but this isn’t a major problem. If possible, avoid sunroof examples, since this option sometimes didn’t fit well and leaked.

At idle, these engines always sounded as though they had rattling tappets, so this shouldn’t be a worry. The engines have alloy pistons, forged steel conrods, and wet cylinder sleeves. Probably the main concern, at least in our country, will be finding one in reasonable shape because of their sheer scarcity, since owners tend to be enthusiastic and keep their cars. 

Worth Preserving

Noted Australian journalist Peter Robinson wrote in 1989 that the high initial price and low-volume sales would be enough to ensure the car became the Mini Cooper S of the day. As in New Zealand, the model was rare in Australia, although common in Europe, and was craved by many who couldn’t afford the initial purchase price. Regardless of its many other qualities, this alone would keep used values high and guarantee the GTi would be a rewarding investment by 1998, Robinson said.

Demands for increasing safety and equipment mean the 205 GTi would never be a production reality today, but this, of course, applies to any older car. However, critics wonder why Peugeot has never been able to replicate the magic of this car in  its current models.

Today’s equivalent Peugeot 208 GTi weighs close to 1300kg compared with the mere 890kg of the 1.6 205 GTi. What you see here is a special driver’s car that in its day was top of the class for its handling, brakes, and acceleration; a no-compromise performance hatchback that is worth preserving. In a nutshell, this was not only the prettiest sports hatchback of the ’80s but also the best.