Welcome to an MR Retro Road Test special: a face-off between two very different examples of an icon.
When the Peugeot 205 GTI was launched in 1984, it wasn’t the first hot hatchback on the block. It followed in the tyre tracks of the equally legendary Volkswagen Golf GTI, while further competition came from the Renault 5 GT Turbo, Fiat Uno Turbo and Ford Fiesta XR2.
The first car we’re testing is an original 205 GTI 1.6 in concours condition. While a more powerful 1.9-litre version followed, many purists rate the revvier 1.6 as the ultimate 205.
The apprentices from the Peugeot Performance Academy, who created the black car here, felt differently. They were given a training project to die for: restore a snotty 205 GTI to perfect condition. They did this with one major tweak – swapping the standard 1.9-litre engine for something more special…
Building a hotter hatch
Early 205 GTIs mustered a mere 105hp, a figure topped by even a 1.0-litre Fiesta today. But they did also weigh less than 900kg. Peugeot upped output to 115hp 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 130hp for 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds (the 1.6 needed 8.7 seconds). It had way more torque as well – 119lb ft rather than 98lb ft – so felt much more muscular. Thank goodness Peugeot fitted rear disc brakes and bigger 15-inch alloy wheels.
However, save for the addition of a catalytic converter in the early 1990s, that was it for 205 GTI evolution. It wouldn’t happen today: Peugeot would surely create a swansong special edition – fitting the 16v version of the 205’s XU engine, for example.
Yes, this 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 engine had a motorsport-spec head, revved to 7,200rpm and, even in the 1,100kg 405, managed 0-60mph in 7.8 seconds. In the 205 GTI, it could have been heroic.
And for years, that’s just what the 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-6.5 seconds to 60mph with ease, you can only conclude Peugeot might have dropped the ball by not making it.
Peugeot 205 1.6 GTI: original and best?
While values of 205 GTI 1.9s have soared (the best examples sell for £30,000+ at auction), the lesser 1.6-litre is still relatively affordable. That’s despite enthusiasts reporting this is the one to have.
To find out what the fuss around a standard 205 is all about, we borrowed a show-winning example from motoring journalist and well-known GTI enthusiast Chris Hughes.
Built in 1991, this 205 GTI has been owned by Chris since 2000. It’s not led a sheltered life – it’s been on numerous European road trips – but it’s been meticulously cared for, and regularly picks up gongs at classic car shows.
Thinking of doing one of those live ask me anything videos on here one evening bout my @peugeot #205GTI. Would that be something you lot would want to see? Would you ask questions? Is there bits you would like to see? Would you lot do the same with your cars? #lockdownuk pic.twitter.com/7qH3LNtOxX
— Chris Hughes (@ChrisHughe) March 24, 2020
We spent a day with a car on rural Dorset roads, and what a car for summer 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 requires muscle around town.
Once you get into the 205 GTI’s groove, though, it’s an absolute joy. Working towards 6,000rpm (“I rarely go over 5,000rpm,” Chris nudges me), with the car’s Milltek exhaust (its only modification) providing a rorty soundtrack, it makes us genuinely sad that modern hot hatches can’t come close.
And the best thing? It’s all happening at sensible speeds. Take a roundabout a similar pace to your average Audi A4 driver and you’ll be having infinite fun, while even ragging it down dual carriageways won’t get you into licence-losing territory.
Peugeot 205 Mi16: modified magic
Can you improve on an icon? The Peugeot Performance 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 once installed, the engine looks factory-spec.
It doesn’t feel modified either. It rumbles, vibrates and hums at tickover like a regular retro car, has the same impossibly direct and rifle-bolt gearshift as all 205 GTIs, has similarly 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.
Arrived in the New Forest for tomorrow’s SGMW Heritage Day.
This will be top of my list to drive: the Mi16-engined 205 GTI built by Peugeot’s Performance Academy. pic.twitter.com/Mkn5AI7rOj
— Tim Pitt (@timpitt100) August 14, 2018
Heavens, though, it’s fast. It still weighs barely 900kg, so pick-up is 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 induction roar and cam yowl, explodes towards the redline. A few seamless gearchanges later and you’re quickly backing off to regain legality.
This is no shabby conversion 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 intact: the grippier 1.9 GTI wheels mean more planted handling, stacks of front grip and a more trustworthy rear end – yet still the blindingly well-telegraphed on- and over-the-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 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 160hp always 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 while also increasing in value with every bit of TLC you give them. The Mi16 is a tantalising glimpse of what might have been: the world’s finest 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 such a car offers maximum thrills for the least outlay. Buy one while you still can.
I was amazed. In my youth, a 205 Mi16 was an ultimate, right up there with a red-top Vauxhall Nova for teenage desirability. But with age came the love of originality– what could 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 will you.