Hot and hotter - Driven: Peugeot 205 GTI and T16

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Peugeot’s 205GTI is now the hot hatchback by which modern hatches are judged. But the 205 also has a mad, bad, mid-engined brother...

Look, the front half of the roof is the same. So are the doors and the windscreen frame and the front grille and the lights. And – you might be surprised by this – so is the aluminium engine block, approximately, even if it is mounted at the wrong end of the car.

So the metallic grey mutant you see here is a Peugeot 205. Not only that, it was the first example of the 205 breed to be revealed to the public. That happened on February 23, 1983, the day before the humbler five-door hatchbacks were in turn revealed. From 205 Turbo 16, the template for a World Rally Championship star, to the 205GLs and GRs that would become France’s favourite do-it-all cars. All in the space of 24 hours.

Just over a quarter of a century later we’re in Sochaux, Peugeot’s heartland in eastern France. And it’s also a quarter of a century since the launch the following year of the car that showed why the T16 had those squared-off rear side windows and long doors relative to the cooking 205s. That’s when the most inspirational hot hatchback in the history of the world to date zoomed and darted onto the roads, the 205GTI.

A bold claim? Well, no other hot hatchback from the era of the breed’s emergence made more impact while – crucial, this – remaining a genre-defining drive today. An original Golf GTI was a great and influential car, but drive one now and it feels its age. Not so the 205. That’s why I have one, thought to be the oldest surviving 1.9-litre example still functioning in the UK. I drive it to remind myself how a hot hatchback should be.

My 205 has done 110,000 miles and the engine is very fit. Here in Sochaux, however, outside the workshop of Peugeot’s museum, time seems to have juddered to a halt. The T16 has covered just 1763km since it was built in 1986.

Now the spool of history spins up again, then shudders to another stop in 1994 as I climb inside a red 205GTI 1.9, 1165km recorded. Yes, this 205, one of the very last GTIs made (and therefore made not in Mulhouse, France, but in Spain), has just 724 miles under its original and now rather hard Michelin MXVs. First and last hot 205s together. It’s a magical moment.

I road-tested one of the very first 205 1.9s for Motor magazine in January 1987, and I remember the smell and the texture of soft, semi-matt, un-sat-upon leather, long departed from my car. Spookily re-stimulated senses of sight, touch and smell are wallowing happily in the mental archive today. This GTI is like mine once was, colour and detail evolution apart. Some protective wax here, unremoved barcode labels from the factory there; nothing has faded and the rubber parts still have that fresh-from-the-mould look.

It’s a reminder that those who restore mass-production cars need to achieve the right degree of imperfection to make their cars perfect. They need to be a bit splattery with the seam-sealer, a bit cavalier with the suspension paint and its gloss level, and they most definitely must not polish any aluminium castings.

Meanwhile, the Turbo 16 has just fired up and we’re about to go for a drive. The process has not been instant. It doesn’t believe in simply starting and settling to a happy idle. Instead it takes two or three goes, fuel pump re-priming with a distant, high-pitched whine before fading as delivery pressure is reached, before the engine stays running.

When it starts, the sound is surprising for its underlying normality. Of course there’s a 16-valve cylinder head and a hefty turbocharger blowing through a similarly hefty intercooler to the left of the heavily offset (but still transverse) engine, but the mechanical noise is the light, slightly hammery, aluminium-metallic sound typical of a Peugeot XU-series engine. Just like the GTI.

The T16 is an outlandish sight. Its wheelarches seem far too big, its ride-height ludicrously lofty, but that’s how the 200 road cars – this one is number 25 – had to be homologated: lots of room for big wheels to soak up big special-stage bumps.

A quick guided tour before the off. What’s under the bonnet? Not much more than a radiator, some structural tubes, the fuel filler, the spare wheel and the visible tops of a suspension system consisting not of struts but double wishbones.

Moving back, we find a pair of fuel tanks under the front seats. Immediately behind the seats is a vertical window which attempts to separate office from engine room, and on the far side – the wrong side – of that is a shelf. Beneath this shelf are the engine and four-wheel-drive transmission, the intercooler, the battery far out to the left in an attempt to counterbalance the engine’s weight, and a lot of pipework. There’s no room for luggage beyond what you can lash to the rear shelf with the three straps provided. It will be nicely cooked by journey’s end.

The engine sits some way ahead of the back wheels, sending its outputs into a conventional end-on gearbox, but there conventionality ends. A short right-angle drive transmits a nominal 66% of the output, via an epicyclic ‘centre’ differential and a viscous coupling able to alter that torque split as needed, to a rear differential jutting aft from this whole assembly. Also from the centre diff runs a propeller shaft to the front differential, a friction LSD like the rear one.

You can see most of this in among the tubular cradle that forms much of the T16’s rear structure, along with part of the double-wishbone rear suspension and an intriguing pair of different-sized exhaust pipes, one very large, one normal-size to bypass the turbo before both enter a generous transverse silencer. Then the giant clamshell tail is shut, but you can still spy some of the componentry within through the slats in the tail panel or the air-scoops behind the rear side windows.

Inside, homologation rally car components overlay familiar 205ness. Take the dashboard: the bottom half is standard, the top is a curve of grey leather age-fading to green, in-between is a kit-car-like panel containing generic round dials and accessory-shop warning lights. Take note of the oil temperament gauge, the handbook warns. As with the doors and the rear side-window shape, there’s a GTI preview in the gearlever knob. It’s the strange, hook-like shape found in the first GTI, although covered here in leather.

Into gear, noting a shift meatily precise given the lengthy linkage. What to expect now? After all, this is the road-mannered incarnation of a car that won two World Rally Championships for Peugeot (in 1985 and 1986) plus the Drivers’ Championship for Timo Salonen in the same years.

Ari Vatanen legendarily had a monumental crash in one on the 1986 Argentinian Rally, but he was fit enough to win the next year’s Paris-Dakar in a long-wheelbase 205 Turbo 16 Grand Raid. In fact the T16 was pretty effective from the start, finishing second in its first, unofficial event (the Sarlat rally in October 1983) and spinning out of the lead, Vatanen driving, on its WRC debut, the May 1984 Tour de Corse. Peugeot entered five WRC rounds in 1984 and won three, which set the tone nicely for the domination to come.

The rally cars had 450bhp in their peak Evolution 2 form, up from 320 at the start. The road car is tame by comparison, its 200bhp a healthy figure for the time but routine today. The figure sounds disappointing until you remember a quarter of a century has since passed. Time to feel it for real.

Clutch up, throttle open, off we bound. The sound certainly isn’t normal now as the turbo lag passes and the 200bhp, yawning completed, flexes its muscles. Rather it’s the sound of a 205GTI Max Powered with a ludicrous exhaust and overlaid with the breathy flutter of a wastegate with every throttle-lift.

Further aural overlay comes from a percussion orchestra of rattles and whines and creaks, the sounds of dedicated competition components at work and which no noise, vibration and harshness engineer has hunted down and killed. It sounds like it has covered 176,300km, not a hundredth of that distance.

Does that matter? It does not, because the T16 isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is.

With a white-and-stripes paint job and the boost turned up it would be right back in its rally-stage comfort zone. Besides, your attention is focused more on the kinetic intrigue of four-wheel drive, that trio of limited-slip diffs and just how far up into the caverns of the wheelarches the fat wheels (the style inspiration for the original, 1.6-litre 205GTI’s signature alloys) will venture.

This is not a car that flows through bends, subtle wrist-flex and gentle throttle-massage fine-tuning the line. It’s a battle, actually. The steering stiffens and eases as the torque comes and goes; lots of torque and a tight corner push the nose wide unless you pile in on the brakes and then apply a footful of accelerator in time for the boost to arrive when you want it. Then the rearward torque bias makes itself felt and suddenly you’re unwinding the steering, in your mind a fuzzy vignette of Salonen powering through a snow-covered curve with the nose pointing 45 degrees from the direction of travel.

This tetchiness of balance, the turbo lag and the slipperiness of ancient Michelins (these, too, are the originals) keep you on edge, but after a while you relax and let the T16 get on with its dances while making sure it knows you’re the boss. It will give you a work-out but the engine never feels fierce enough to frighten. The rally-spec version is another matter, I’m sure, but I suspect it too would ride with the long-travel suppleness of its gentler sibling.

Now to a yet-gentler one. Relatively speaking, anyway: the GTI 1.9 still has 130bhp (or, in this case, 122bhp because it is catalytically converted) and it weighs just 880kg. The engine of this cryogenically preserved example sounds super-smooth. And it feels great. The gear lever’s travel is long but the movements are as liquid and the engagement is as instant as they were in the first GTI that blew me away back in 1984. The engine is torquey and creamy; the ride, considered firm back in the day, is a supple delight by the standards of most modern hot hatchbacks.

Some corners. People often used to place ‘205 GTI’ and ‘lift-off oversteer’ in the same sentence, but on decent modern tyres they don’t really do it any more. But on 15-year-old MXVs it most definitely does, exacerbated by this example’s high rear ride height (it has covered too few miles for the torsion bars to have settled). It’s mighty entertaining but a bit precarious; however, to change the rubber would be to break the time-spell. Tires notwithstanding, this 205GTI, with its fantastically accurate and feelsome steering and total dynamic precision, shows again why it remains the definition of the hot hatchback breed.

Back at Heathrow, I get back into mine. It’s quicker, grippier and feels more planted on the road, but in essence it’s the same despite its years of use. That’s pleasing. And mine is metallic grey rather than red. Does that make it just a little bit more like a T16? I think I’ll just fire it up, head to the lanes and indulge in a few rally fantasies…


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