If the Peugeot 205 GTi is the ‘ultimate hot hatch of all time’, then surely a tastefully modded example must be the finest way possible to attack a ‘B’ road? Paul Cowland puts that theory to the test by sampling Milltek Sport’s immaculate example for the day.
A group of discerning enthusiasts recently crowned the Peugeot 205 GTi with the ultimate accolade, naming it the ‘Greatest Hot Hatch Ever’ at the 2016 Autosport show. Quite an honour, particularly when you glance at the list of ‘also rans’ that the little Gallic Go-kart was able to beat. With the stage-savvy Lancia Delta HF Integrale bagging second spot, and the similarly turbocharged and super-grippy Ford Escort RS Cosworth taking the final podium position, you might argue that this is a car that can really punch above its weight, both in the public’s opinion and out on the road. The car’s more realistic peers in period were the more attainably priced Golf GTI, Astra GTE and Escort XR3i, so to be able to thumb its nose at cars with more driven wheels and the steroid enhancement of forced induction tells you all you need to know. Back in the day, these cars were the absolute bomb!
Trouble is, ’back in the day’ for these cars was over 30 years ago now. The 1.6 version of the GTI first hit the road back in 1984, so surely, all of these car fans putting the GTi high on its pedestal some three decades later must have been looking back through the rose tinted spectacles of nostalgia, right? These cars have zero tech, no assistance, no go-faster gadgets, no ‘Save me!’ big brother traction controls and practically zero in the way of creature comforts. This was a time when electric windows were enough of a novelty to spark a two hour pub debate, remember,so how can a car this old still be relevant in the modern world against the ample (and easily financeable) charms of its modern day offspring like the Fiesta ST and the current 208 GTI? The only way out was to borrow one for the day to see if it really was as good as we all remembered. Thankfully, Derbyshire based Milltek Sport run this immaculate, late 1.9-engined example on their heritage fleet – and kindly offered me the keys for a day to reacquaint myself with its charms.
I’ll assume that most of you know the 205 GTI story, so we’ll skip rapidly through this bit to get to the meat of the matter. Launched as a 1.6 in 1984, it achieved immediate and rapid critical acclaim from journos of all camps as a truly affordable fizzbomb that could be pedalled flat out practically everywhere. The lazier revving, but torquier 1.9 came some two years later, and buoyed up by a successful Group B rally programme and an enthusiastic dealer network, the 205 GTI continued to fly out of the showrooms and into the ditches right up until the point insurance companies decided to kill all of its ilk off by taxing them with the kind of premiums that would make a supercar owner wince. Those ‘80s hot hatches had a short window of opportunity to shine, that’s for sure, but the legacy they left – and the market they created – can very much still be felt today.
But really, truly, objectively… was the 205 GTI THAT good? With a build quality that might most generously be described as ‘lightweight’ and cabin plastics that make the average lunchbox feel over-engineered, my overwhelming memory of driving these cars had been that they were a fun, if slightly flimsy way of covering ground quickly. As I sat back in the supportive perches of Milltek’s evidently well cared for example, it was clear that time had been kind, particularly to those crisply penned lines. The interior on this Milltek car is almost as new, and the bodywork on this car really is exceptional – the result of sympathetic restoration and good original paint, blended seamlessly together to make an extremely pretty and presentable motor. Taking a good look at the car from all angles, I was reminded what a perfect little design it is. Squat, purposeful, a wheel at each corner for perfect poise, with enough aggression to attract the chaps, but enough chic to appeal to the ladies. Under forensic examination, the 205 really is almost the perfect hatch design – and one that really suits the addition of the chunky GTI plastics around its periphery.
On looks alone then, I’ll grant it a pass on its title… but it was always the dynamics of these things that made them so popular. Problem is, back in the ‘80s, if you said you had nearly 130bhp under the hood, instant respect would be granted. But here, now in 2016, that’s the sort of output reserved for commuter vehicles and mum-busses. Light weight or not, would the little Peugeot still have the literal power to entertain? A reassuring answer came as I turned the key – thanks to the fitment of the Milltek Classic exhaust system, this particular GTi greets you with a fabulous rasp and burble that signifies fun times are ahead. As far as four-bangers go, this one really offers a great soundtrack – and one that only a fizzy NA can deliver. With the current vogue for little engines and turbochargers, it’s definitely a sound that’s ‘of its time’ – and all the better for it, I reckon!
As I bimbled around the superb Derbyshire country lanes that surround Milltek’s UK HQ, letting the engine reach optimum temperature, I was reminded of how simple and direct this car is. The steering has the perfect weight, the gear changeis light and acceptably precise, the suspension taut, yet comfortable. The car feels tiny around you, and thanks to those perfectly placed wheels, eager to turn and change direction. As the gauge nestled happily in the middle of the temperature range I cranked up the volume a little – and had something of a revelation. With the Milltek exhaust acting as the perfect aural rev-counter, this little 205 reminded me of what I had been missing for the last decade or so since I had last driven one. With only 900-odd kilos to drag around, that superb little motor is more than enough, and with the added sonic drama of the new exhaust system – and the extra ponies it doubtless brings –the GTi came alive through some sublime ‘B’ road sequences. This is a car that can be enjoyed well within the legal speed limits, making you think about your revs, your road position and how to transfer the weight around to get the best grip from those skinny Toyos.
It’s an eager terrier that’s happy to be thraped to the redline in each gear, with the kind of cornering prowess and throttle adjustability on the limit that makes it an utter delight to play with through the corners. The famed lift-off oversteer is there in spades, but it’s all so easily tamed, it becomes a handy tool to allow the car to be precisely positioned on the limit, even offering a whiff of tail-out heroism when required, that can all be easily gathered up with a swift prod of the throttle to straighten the tail in total obedience. After a couple of hours of sheer driving perfection, I was convinced. This truly is a car that’s worthy of ‘that’ accolade.
Time is running out for those looking to snap up a car this nice, as already, prices for really peachy GTIs have started to climb into the stratosphere. Having spent a day with one though, and reminding myself of how able and enjoyable a car it is, I would wager that now is the time to get your wallet out and invest – particularly as the values are doubtless only going to go one way. As modern cars become heavier and more complicated and enthusiasts yearn for a simpler, more visceral thrill, it’s cars like the 205 GTI that will fill the gap. In answer to my first question then, my answer would have to be ‘Yes! The Peugeot 205 GTI truly is the greatest hot hatch ever’. Build quality aside, it’s just sohard to fault on almost any front. And, when you find that perfect example, make sure you save a little budget for the Milltek system as the ultimate finishing touch. It looks perfect, it sounds sublime and it adds a little extra shove throughout the rev range. As an exercise in making the best even better, it’s an object lesson in good taste.
Right then, pass me the Autotrader… I think I had better find one, quick!
Milltek Classic Range
The Milltek Classic Range has been designed to bring modern day production techniques and quality standards to a range of cherished classics. Aimed squarely at the discerning enthusiast and resto market, these are exhausts that add horses, improve the note with a subtle yet sporty tone and offer the sort of aesthetics that will fit right in with your next concours outing. If you’re after something that looks like a catering-sized bean can and sounds like an angry wasp, these probably aren’t for you, but if you’re one of the ever increasing number of owners looking to tastefully augment a rapidly appreciating retro or classic car with a future-proof product, then they’ll doubtless be of interest. As well as the 205 GTI of course, they also have some superb systems for iconic cars like the Golf mk1 and 2 GTI, Audi Ur Quattro, E36 M3 and 328 and Corrado VR6 in a range that’s expanding all the time.