The fantastic thing about my Peugeot 205 XS ownership is that I’ve driven precious few 205s. I’ve spent 22,000 km behind the wheel of mine after I bought it in 2013, and every other 205 I’ve touched has had less power. That’s why it was so interesting to sample a 205 1.9 GTi after all this time. Was my view of it correct in any way?
Mention a Peugeot 205 to anybody who knows what it is and they’ll ask if it’s a GTi. Then, as an owner of an XS, you have to launch into a spiel you give every time, about how the XS is the budget GTi, that it has bits and bobs that match the GTi like the bucket seats and front airdam but how it has the TU engine that actually has more to do with the Rallye engine, and this goes on for hours. At no point is the listener convinced you have actually struck the perfect deal, because you do not in fact have a GTi but a cheaper model. But the deal is exceptional, especially now, as the XS is worth what you would pay for a 30 year old hatchback with some dents and scrapes and a willing engine, and the GTi costs what the E30 M3 used to cost.
But while the GTi’s appreciation is worth it, because it justifies keeping them on the road and in turn justifies making parts for them, meaning you can keep a 205 on the road, it also makes them something they were not supposed to be: expensive. A 205 is a small, lightly built French hatchback. It will always occupy the same footprint, it will always have the same body shell and it will not ever feel very substantial when you touch its plastic parts. This makes it difficult to pay very much for one, no matter how rewarding it is. By remaining cheap, the 80-hp XS taps into the accessibility of the 205, especially as it is a very friendly car in terms of its power and fun delivery. The joke is there, blown wide open the moment you drive off in the car. You can’t drive one and not chuckle how ridiculously fun it is. The short gearing means you’re always in the power band, and the throttle response makes you want to blast everywhere with great fuss and nonsense. It is Plastic Bertrand.
Imagine, then, my quality time in the 130-horsepower 1.9 GTi. Starting off, the car felt heavier and more substantial I could have thought a 205 to feel. The big lump under the engine cover made itself known, and as the GTi wore heavier Speedline alloys and the steering wasn’t assisted, the leather wheel needed a more purposeful hand than the light touch the XS takes to turn –especially since my XS has those superlight Citroën aluminum steelies that weigh less than five kilos. And in town speeds, the 1.9 XU engine didn’t reveal its cards immediately, acting more muted compared to the revvy XS. There’s more torque, yes, but you have to go all out to reach the performance potential, and that has to be left to more remote routes. There are layers to the 205 GTi 1.9, like a concept album that takes the right moment to really “get”.
It’s remarkable how two cars with the same body shell overlap so little. By 100km/h, the XS has made its talent obvious. It feels really good to rev it and let the little engine roar, as there’s so little heft to haul. But the 1.9 GTi, in turn, goes to work past 80, past 100. You approach the redline and there’s good, unused power waiting for you, with the heavy-set feel giving the car solid footing. You can really drive this thing fast on some long sections of road, feeling there are still power reserves left if needs must. This is where the GTi’s ability to scare bigger cars comes from, as it can combine the inherent 205 nimbleness with a properly good power-to-weight ratio. Where the XS ends, the 1.9 GTi begins.
It takes less effort to use more of the XS’s capabilities – with 80 hp, it’s more than slow car fast. But the 1.9 GTi is fast car fast when you wring it out, as it’s still comfortably under 900kg. And, perhaps crucially, a passenger doesn’t hamper its progress. The XS has an undeniable air of “You know, it felt faster with just me here.” With the bigger engine, the 1.9 GTi can move two persons without the extra weight showing. It also feels like there’s a possibility you can actually drive cross country without the car getting on your nerves. Sure, the XS rides very well and has comfy seats, but you can only really get so far with both needles pointing upwards: the fifth gear is short and revs are high. The 1.9 GTi’s bigger lungs also mean longer legs.
Four wheel disc brakes give the 1.9 GTi added stability when it’s being driven properly, but you still get basic 205 core values like a good gearchange with excellent ratios and a honest steering feel at speed. One could ponder the merits of luxury touches like part leather seats, electric windows and sunroof forever, but they do not detract from the driving experience – except if the lower headliner touches your forehead thanks to the sunroof.
There’s no picking the better one of these two. Both can do 205 hallmark stuff, like offer great visibility, fit in a tight parking space and haul all kinds of things, but when the powertrain enters the picture, they do their respective performances separately. The winning move is to have both and use them differently. When you drive one, you do not miss the other.
Now, where can I get a Rallye to try?
[Image: Peugeot / Thanks to Snake Swamp Garage for the keys to a 1.9 GTI!]