When the Peugeot 205 GTI was launched in 1984, it wasn’t the first hot hatch on the block. It was following in the footsteps of the equally-legendary Volkswagen Golf GTI, while competition was also in development from Renault (with its 5 GT Turbo), Ford (Fiesta XR2 and Escort XR3i) and Fiat (Uno Turbo).
The first car we’re testing is a completely standard, concours-standard 205 GTI 1.6 in immaculate condition. While a 1.9-litre followed, and many were modified, many purists think the original 1.6-litre, featured here, is the ultimate 205. Andrew found out more.
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The apprentices from the Peugeot UK Academy who created our second car felt differently. They were given a training project to die for: restore a snotty 205 GTI to concours condition. They did this, with one major tweak – swapping the standard 1.9-litre engine for something rather more special… Richard found out just what it was.
Building a hotter hatch
Early 205 GTIs had a mere 105 hp, a figure topped even by a cooking 1.0-litre Fiesta today. But then, they did also weigh less than 900 kg, a good few kilos less than the Ford. Regardless, Peugeot upped it to 115 hp a few years later, but the really exciting upgrade came in 1987: the launch of the 205 GTI 1.9.
This enlarged engine offered a thrilling 130 hp for 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds instead of 8.7. It had way more torque as well – 119 lb ft rather than a revvy 98 lb ft – so was much the more muscular car. Thank goodness Peugeot fitted rear disc brakes and bigger 15-inch wheels to handle it.
But, save for the addition of a catalyst (and a small power cut) in the early 90s, that was it for 205 GTI evolution. Wouldn’t happen today: Peugeot would look to what else was in the range to create a swansong sell-out special. Such as, fitting the 16v version of the 205’s XU engine…
Yes, this very unit was freely available in the range, sported by the Peugeot 405 Mi16 and Citroen BX GTI 16v. Boasting 160hp, the all-aluminium 1.9-litre had a motorsport-spec head, could rev to 7,200rpm and, even in the 1,100kg 405, did 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds. In the 205 GTI, it could have been heroic.
And for years, that’s just what the 205 tuning scene has been doing – creating the 205 GTI 16v, the hot hatch that never was. It’s an easy swap if you know what you’re doing, a Peugeot veteran told us, adding weight to the logic of what could have been. When tuners tell you it will do sub-6.5secs to 60mph with ease, you can only conclude Peugeot might have dropped the ball by not making it…
Peugeot 205 1.6 GTI: the original and best
While values of hot 1.9 205 GTIs are soaring (one example has just sold for an incredible £30,938 at auction), the lesser 1.6-litre is still relatively attainable – despite enthusiasts reporting that the 1.6 is actually the model to have.
To find out just what the fuss around a bog-standard 205 GTI is all about, we borrowed a show-winning example from enthusiast Chris Hughes.
Built in 1991, this 205 GTI has covered 116,000 miles and has been owned by Chris since 2000. It’s not led a sheltered life, it’s been on numerous Euro road trips – but despite this, it’s been meticulously cared for, and regularly picks up gongs at classic car shows.
We spent a day with a car on rural Dorset roads, and what a car for summer’s day B-road blat. It’s such a pure, mechanical experience – the heavy clutch takes a minute or two to get used to, while the unassisted steering takes a bit of muscle around town.
But once you get into the 205 GTI’s groove, it’s an absolute joy. Work your way towards the 6,000rpm redline (“I rarely go over 5,000,” Chris gently nudges me), with the car’s Milltek exhaust (its only modification) providing a pleasurable soundtrack, it makes us genuinely sad that modern hot hatches just can’t come close.
And the best thing? It’s all happening at low speeds. Take a roundabout a similar speed to your average Audi A4 driver and you’ll be having infinite fun, while even ragging it down dual carriageways won’t get close to licence-losing territory.
Peugeot 205 Mi16: modified magic
Can you improve on perfection? The Peugeot Academy apprentices certainly thought so: It’s as tacit an ‘OE approved’ admission as could be. Using the same engine mounts as the regular 1.9 motor, all that’s needed is a bit of tweakery to clear the inlet and exhaust manifolds. Peugeot’s car has a 205 Automatic bonnet, to give extra clearance over the engine, but it’s not really necessary – and, installed, the engine looks fully factory-spec.
It in no way feels modified. It rumbles, vibrates and hums at tickover like a regular retro car, has the same impossibly direct and rifle-bolt gearshift as all 205 GTI, has similar ultra-heavy non-PAS steering until you’re moving and pulls at lower speeds with the same free-breathing vim as all non-emissions-conscious 80s cars.
Heavens, though, it’s fast. It’s still barely 900kg so pickup is always instant and effortless, but the way it powers forward as the revs rise is staggering. It gets on cam and comes alive above 4,500rpm – the kick is VTEC-like – and, with a heavenly throaty induction roar and cam yowl, explodes towards the redline. A few seamless-shift gearchanges later and you’re quickly backing off to regain legality.
This is no shabby conversion special that feels ready to fall apart. It’s the mighty GTI to sucker every other GTI on the planet, an engaging speed demon that even today feels sensational. Particularly as all the effervescence of the 205 GTI chassis remains in tact: the grippier 1.9 GTI wheels means more planted handling, stacks of front end grip, a more trustworthy rear end yet still the blindingly well-telegraphed on- and over-limit exploitability so many love.
The firm, ever-varying weight of the steering is to die for, body control is exemplary and the free-flowing connectivity to the road surface on winding roads is Lotus-like. Because it’s so light, it doesn’t need to be over-stiff – suspension is softer than you may expect, meaning the ride is better than you’d ever believe – which enhances its mighty fast-road ground-covering ability. With a revvy 160 hp ever at hand, it’s incendiary.
Lion kings: choosing a winner
Both of these cars would be lovely things to keep in your garage, ready to enjoy on sunny days but also increasing in value with every bit of TLC you give them. The Mi16 is a tantalising glimpse of what could have been… the world’s most iconic hot hatch could have been a true performance icon with that wonderful Mi16 engine.
But as a car to truly enjoy, the light and nimble 1.6-litre 205 GTI is hard to beat. Peugeot got it spot on, and will provide maximum thrills for minimal outlay. As 1.9 values soar, the lesser model is sure to follow in its footsteps.
I was amazed. In my youth, an Mi16 205 was an ultimate, right up there with a red-top Nova for teenage desirability. But with age came the love of originality– what did modders know that the car manufacturer didn’t? In this case, plenty. Because the 205 GTI Mi16 – the 205 GTI 16v – is sublime. It’s the greatest GTI that never was.
It takes all that’s wonderful about the regular car and builds upon it with a searing, exotic, race-bred engine that, because the car itself is so light and pure, you interact with so tremendously vividly. It feels OE, it drives brilliantly and it’s simply thrilling to experience. I surprised myself with how much I loved this car: find one done right and so too might you.