Peugeot 206 GTI 180

Test venues: Cheshire and Shropshire

Peugeot dominated the FIA World Rally Championship in the mid-eighties and has controlled proceedings for the last four years. The 205 GTI became the cult car of the eighties and won the 'Car of the Decade' award. 15 years on and the 206 continues to dominate market share in its category.

Peugeot recently launched the most powerful of all its hot hatchbacks - the 206 GTI 180 - and a good base car has become a very potent performance package.

The French company proudly states that it is the 'world's greatest GTi manufacturer'. There's no questioning that it set the original goal posts for others to follow, but the 206 GTi 180 is up against several competent competitors and the new model needed to stay ahead of the field. The original 206 was introduced in October 1998 and the standard model range currently holds around 9.3% of total sector sales.

New GTi is powered by a new two-litre, 180 bhp engine, which features variable valve timing. This power is transmitted to the front wheels via a close ratio five-speed gearbox and is capable of catapulting you to the legal speed limit in around 7.4 seconds. The engine revs freely up to around 7300 rpm and pulls strongly throughout thanks to impressive torque figures of 202 Nm at 4750 rpm. Peugeot claims a top speed of 143 mph.

As responsive as it feels, the engine feels very revvy and buzzy and the new 206 does cry out for a sixth gear on longer journeys and at sustained motorway speeds. The first gear ratio, meanwhile, has been modified to allow for ease of acceleration up to 40 mph.

But that doesn't detract from exhilarating performance, excellent grip, cornering and road holding capabilities. You can make very swift progress in the new GTi. Peugeot have developed the new engine's cylinder head in conjuction with Formula One supplier Mecachrome and improvements have been made to the air intake system and exhaust manifold to increase performance. It really does feel very exciting to drive hard, particularly on tight, twisty country roads where it's handling capabilities and agility come into their own.

The 206 handles like a dream. With a wheel at each corner it is synonomous of the old 205 GTi, although the new 180 has been fitted with stiffer springs which improve traction and road holding. The rear axle is stabilised with a pair of tie rods and Peugeot have eliminated the 'bounce factor' which used to plague the rear end handling of older 205 GTis and 309 GTis

Low profile 205-section Pirelli tyres are mounted on 17-inch alloy wheels and the new car is equipped with ESP (electronic stability programme), which can be switched off at any time and improves traction control.

From inside the new GTi is fitted with leather and alcantara trimmed sports seats, a functional and impressive-looking dashboard, air conditioning, aluminium pedals and gear lever knob and a standard-fit CD player. The new 180 is also equipped with automatic windscreen wipers and rain sensor, electrically-heated door mirrors and an automatic 'headlights on' facility.

There is limited rear leg room for passengers, although front seating positions are comfortable. As with other GTi models, the lack of rear doors makes it quite awkward for taller passengers to gain access, although rear head room is sufficient.

Peugeot dealers are offering the new car for an on-the-road price of 14,995. Metallic paint is a 300 optional extra, although the satellite navigation system fitted to my test car is not yet available in the UK. The GTi is available in four colours - flamenco red, aluminium, black or aegean blue.

Peugeot has left nothing to chance in the safety stakes either. The GTi is equipped with twin air bags, two side head/chest airbags and pre-tensioners and force limiters for the seat belts. The car also features automatic hazard light activation in the event of sudden braking.

I remember when I was in my late teens the 205 GTi was the cult hatchback to be seen in if you were a fashion conscious car enthusiast. This new offering from Peugeot will ensure that the French manufacturer's reputation lives on for the next generation and the 'lion' does indeed go from strength to strength....

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