2015 Peugeot 108 European Review
They say simple, affordable and fun cars are not made these days, but maybe we’ve been looked for them in the wrong places. Maybe affordable fun still exists, buried under a skin not cool enough to capture petrolheads’ interests…
James Dean behind the wheel of his Porsche 356 Speedster, tearing up Mullholland Drive, a cigarette hanging coolly from the side of his mouth, his hands wrestling the unassisted steering. The air-cooled flat four barking. Tires screeching. That’s the petrolhead dream. That’s the legend.
And as an important part of this mythology, something driven by the epitomes of cool like Dean or McQueen, the 356 Speedster (or any 356, for that matter) is revered and prized. Buying a nice example requires the kind of money that would get you a brand new 911. Or three. Or a 911 and a perfectly fine aeroplane.
But you don’t want a 911 and you don’t want a Boxster because, as they say, each 911 is worse than the previous one. It’s faster. It’s more comfortable. It’s got better soundproofing. It is better at isolating you from what’s going on. And you don’t want to be isolated. You want experience.
So engineers spend months and years fine-tuning electric power steering to feel as hydraulic as possible. They play around with the suspension to make the car quick enough, but at the same time leave space for you to expend effort. They engineer the exhaust and soundproofing in just a way to get the sound you want.
And we moan about it being too artificial.
We talk about old cars from old times when everything was for real. Or, to be more precise, we dream about them. Because most of us have never even sat in a 356, let alone drive one.
So, why was the 356 so great? Or was it even so great a car?
No – it was horrible.
I know that you’re probably about to skip the rest of the article and jump right to the comments to make shreds of me. But, please, wait a moment and hear me out.
The Porsche 356 wasn’t much more than a VW Beetle, shortened a bit and fitted with a sleeker body. The Beetle was the pinnacle of automotive engineering in the Third Reich, but in 1950s America, its main virtue was it was cheap, reliable and well-built. It was something you bought for your wife for the weekly shop. Or to your teenage son as a method of birth control. It may have been a typical family car in Europe, but Europe was, at the time, poor and recovering from the war.
The Beetle was cheap. It had terrible suspension – even by the standards of the day. And it was slow.
The Porsche 356 was a bit quicker – not by much. Your grandmother’s Buick station wagon would whip its ass in a drag race.
But it became legend because of how predictable it was, how well it handled on the limits of both the driver’s and its own abilities. To make the most of it, you had to try. It gave you the feeling of being alive.
With each and every new Porsche generation, the numbers on the speedometer grow, but at the same time, the feeling on connection with the machine diminishes. The sense of being the hero taming the wild machine was getting lost. And it’s not just Porsche. First, this affected the “big sportscars“ and GTs. Later it happened with “people’s sportscars“ and hot hatches. And today, almost everything that calls itself “sporty“ is too fast for you to really make the most of its abilities on the public road.
Take the Peugeot 208 GTi I drove last year. It’s said to be a spiritual successor of the raw, exhilarating 205 GTi. But in reality, it’s more of a slick GT car, packed in a hatchback body. It’s great, if you want a damned quick car for a (relatively) modest sum of money. But, if you want to enjoy the feeling of driving like a superhero and pushing the car to its limits in everyday traffic, you’d have to be a psychopath or Ayrton Senna. The 208 GTi is too quick to really make the most of it on a public road.
Vojta looks impressed with the 2015 Peugeot 108
And that’s the reason for most of the laments today’s petrolheads throw at the current crop of sportscars. They’re too quick. They isolate you from the driving experience too well (in the words of a normal human, they’re too comfortable). They have to fake the experience with artificial exhaust sounds and similar cheats. They’re too big and heavy. They have too much grip.
But aren’t we just looking at the wrong place? What if the problem is in our fixed idea of how a fun car should look? After all, we tend to forget that some of the most famous sportscars in history had humble roots – be it the 205 GTi, the original Mini or even that 356 Speedster we mentioned in the beginning.
Which is the right time to start finally getting to the point – the Peugeot 108.
We’ll start with some boring numbers. The base 108 weighs 840 kg (1,850 lbs) and its three-cylinder engine has 69 hp. The lightest, most basic 356 Speedster did weigh 771 kg (1,700 lbs). And its flat four, in its most powerful form, offered 75 horsepower.
Replace the Speedster with a base Cabriolet or just consider the smaller of engines offered and you have almost identical power to weight ratio as today’s small city car. Of course, the numbers aren’t everything.
The three-cylinder engine has a nice, raspy sound. It’s not nearly as special as the hollow growl the boxer four made thanks to engineers of Kraft durch Freude before WWII, but it’s interesting enough to entice you into revving it up. And because you’re sitting in a small, cheap city car with little soundproofing, you can enjoy the natural engine note without having it pumped through the speakers.
The gearshift is quite light and precise (at least for a cheap French car), but its mechanical roughness reminds you that you’re driving a machine and not a video game.
The electric power steering gets no points for communication or feel, but it has a natural heft. The large, thin steering wheel feels pleasantly old-school – in fact, it’s much nicer to hold than the tiny one in the 208 GTi hot hatch.
And then there’s the suspension with tiny, narrow wheels and high-profile rubber. It’s surprisingly comfortable, even on rough roads, but as expected, it doesn’t provide much grip. In turns, the body rolls a bit more than a modern driver is used to and it definitely doesn’t invite you to test its limits. But at something like 80 percent, it’s surprisingly fun to drive.
I’m not talking pouring adrenalin and squealing tires. I’m talking a slightly spirited drive at speeds maybe not totally legal, but at least socially acceptable, which still gives you the feel that you really have to drive. You have to work the gearbox to keep the tiny engine at its best, you have to watch the braking and cornering lines to ensure you won’t loose much pace – because gaining it back won’t be easy.
You can drive as fast as you want – or as you can – without risking your driving licence. When you get to a straight, you don’t have to think about how long you can keep your foot down. Ten seconds? Twenty seconds? No, you can keep the pedal to the metal nearly all the time. Corners? Don’t worry about it. You aren’t going fast enough.
And because everything takes place at sane speeds and the hard-revving engine is a paltry one-liter four, you can do this dance all day. You won’t have to stop because your hands are shaking and your forehead is sweating, nor will you have to interrupt the fun by a trip to the gas station. Even in “spirited driving”, the 108 is quite happy with some 6.0-6.5L/100km (35-40 mpg). In normal driving, it’s to score under 5.0L/100km (over 50 mpg).
All this makes it seem that the 108 is more of a toy that you would buy for pleasure. It most certainly is not. In the first place, it’s a totally rational, practical city car, for sale less than $10,000 USD at current exchange rates. Its main virtue is not driving fun, but the fact it’s small, cheap, frugal and easy to park. It much like the original VW Beetle – just at least 1,000% better thanks to decades of development. And compared to its predecessor, the 107, it isn’t hideous to look at.
Negatives. For one, the Peugeot 108 isn’t as cheap as it probably should be. As every new PSA product, it’s slightly overpriced, just waiting for massive discounts to happen. This time, it’s even pricier than VW’s excellent Up!, while being smaller inside, less well made and probably even slower. But it does seem a bit more fun to drive.
The real trouble is the 108 and its many peers are in a similar position as Mitsubishi Mirage in America. Not the same position, of course – tiny cars are pretty much the norm in many places of Europe, and these things are much less ugly and probably much nicer to drive (I haven’t driven the Mirage, but the reviews are enough for me). But certainly not in the position of “style symbol”. You won’t look like James Dean driving one of those. Not even in a white tee and a leather jacket. On the other hand, isn’t the ability to pull off driving a tiny, cheap vehicle the ultimate sign of coolness these days?
So, our pro-tip: If you want to be as cool as James Dean, skip the old Porsche. He wouldn’t buy it today, he bought it because it made sense then. Today, it’s for old fart collectors. Buy a Peugeot 108. Three-door hatch. With a canvas roof. If possible, pick a pink one with floral stickers. This will let others know you don’t need to prove anything. And you’ll enjoy the drive, because it’s always more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz, and writes for various other Czech outlets. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a ratty Chrysler LHS. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.
Photography: David Marek
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