What do you consider to be the most significant car of the 1980s? Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan? Renault Espace? Mercedes-Benz 190E? GM J-car or X-car? Chrysler K-car? The first FWD Ford Escort? BMW M3? Audi 100 C3? Mazda MX-5? Paul Niedermeyer might suggest (and make an eloquent case for) the Mercedes-Benz 300E, but have you considered the Peugeot 205?
To mark the 30th anniversary of one of Europe’s best-ever cars, here are five reasons it might have been the most significant car of the 1980s.
1 – A supermini that looked so good it couldn’t be face lifted
In retrospect, few cars look better after a facelift, which didn’t matter in the case of the 205 – it was effectively never facelifted beyond changing the colors of the front indicators and rear light clusters, and giving it different wheel trims. It didn’t need anything more, simple as that.
Exhibit A: Good looks
Until 1983, there had not been a good looking supermini–at least, not a really good looking one. That was dictated by size and budget constraints–there was not sufficient length for elegant proportions, and the accountants insisted on flat-glass rear screens. The 205 was the first good looking, almost elegant supermini, one you could buy instead of the next larger-size car whilst not signalling you were constrained by budget. Compare it to any supermini that preceded it–not to mention many that came later–and you’ll see what I mean.
Exhibit B: Good to drive
In the 1970s, you didn’t really want to drive a supermini very far. Some, such as the Renault 5 and Fiat 127, were good for short urban jaunts, and obviously handy in tight spaces–but you weren’t terribly keen on a motorway run. The 205 changed that – it was just as good as always in the urban environment, but was also motorway capable. Better still, it was adept, agile and enjoyable on open roads whilst boasting a comfortable ride (it was French, of course). It was good to drive, and be to be driven in, at a level that was another first for the size.
Exhibit C: It brought diesel power to the mainstream
Before the mid 1980s, diesel engines were the preserve of taxi drivers, delivery men and those for whom longevity heavily outweighed performance and noise issues. The 205, along with other such Peugeot-Citroen cars as the BX and the later 405, led the change in perception that eventually resulted in diesel power becoming the preference of most of Europe–including the UK, where diesel fuel costs more than petrol (gas). The keys to change included (of course) improved fuel economy, but also the surprising performance from the greater torque of the diesel engines.
Exhibit D: It was the best hot hatch of all time.
There are two outstanding candidates for the best hot hatchback of all time: the VW Golf GTi, and the Peugeot 205GTi. The Golf came first, and thus is considered to have defined the breed. But, as is often true, the second interpretation was better, in this case being the 205GTi. It had a 107 HP, 1.6-liter engine, five-speed gearbox, wider wheels and tires, lowered and tautened suspension and the usual sport trim. The key distinction was that it was more compact than the Golf, especially in its later, larger Mk2 form, and was possessed of a more immediate, more communicative chassis and lighter weight (well under a ton). All these combined for one of the greatest driving enjoyment experiences of the time–and one that remains a benchmark, not necessarily for outright performance or grip, but for the combination of performance, communication and pure entertainment. You had to watch it at the limit, though. The GTi was the basis for a Championship-winning World Rally Car and the Pikes Peak cars.
Exhibit E: It set the size template for the modern supermini.
In 1983, the then-current Ford Fiesta had a wheelbase of 90″ but the 205 came in at 96″ –even longer than a contemporary Escort. Today’s Fiesta has a wheelbase of 98″; the 208, the 205′s successor three times over, has a wheelbase of 99″. The Supermini has grown up in the last 30 years, following and hewing closely to the formula that started with the 205. Incidentally, the 1988 Fiesta aped the styling of the 205, but only closely enough to make you you realize how “right” the 205 was visually. There’s no question which design has better stood the test of time.
The 205 was produced from 1983 until 1996 in France, and until 1999 in Argentina. Like many Peugeots, it was not revolutionary, but featured what we might call properly thought-out competence.
Engines ranged from 954 cc to 1905 cc petrol engines: Initially, the 1984 GTi came with a 104 HP, 1.6-liter offering around 110 mph, and later as a 1.9-liter version with even stronger performance. Various models in some markets used petrol engines acquired by Peugeot in the Chrysler Europe merger in 1978. Diesel engines were the familiar Peugeot-Citroen XUD units, which were used throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the whole range of Peugeot and Citroen cars and also sold to other brands.
The 205 used MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion-bar rear suspension, as first seen on the Peugeot 305 estate in 1977. The setup was very compact, with little suspension intrusion into the boot, thus providing both a wide,flat load space and excellent ride and handling.
And how did Peugeot follow the 205? They tried a pincer movement with the smaller 106 and the larger 306, but neither of these could actually replace the 205.
Most of the cars shown on this blog were seen recently in southwest France, an area with a generally warm climate and little or no road salt, which helps with preservation. However, there are few better places for spotting such CC gems than rural France, where a car is seen as a tool to be replaced when it absolutely must be, and not when new-car advertising starts to work. And don’t worry about their body damage–light panel damage is actually part of the French vehicle registration process.
I give you the Peugeot 205, then, as a candidate for the Most Significant Car of the 1980s: a car that set class standards for size and style, was great to drive, won the World Rally Championship, climbed Pikes Peak and couldn’t be face-lifted, never mind replaced. That’s quite a list when you consider it.