Proclaimed the greatest hot hatch ever, the 205 GTI has been put on a pedestal for decades. Has it stood the test of time?
Throughout the automotive landscape, there are many benchmark cars against which ‘the next best thing’ must be measured. However, the laws of nature dictate that once the king is toppled, it’s replaced by a new victor on a regular basis. That said, there’s one car that has bucked the trend and is still used as a point of reference today, over three decades after its launch. Yes, the latest batch of hot hatchbacks must frequently meet the high bar set by the Peugeot 205 GTI in 1984.
Today a 205 GTI is worth a fortune, with ratty cars, once fetching £900 as a trade-in, being valued at thousands. A quick search in the classifieds for an immaculate example will see prices from $32,000-$44,000. This car’s reputation precedes it, but can this little French hatch really be worth that sort of money? We procured a GTI to find out.
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Slight admission to make… This is not a totally standard 205 GTI. This particular model has received a few enhancements over the years, many of which are commonplace for this car. New and improved suspension has been added to replace the frequently rotten original components, as well as a quick-shift five-speed manual transmission.
Most substantial is the MI16 engine swap. The new motor is from a 1.9-litre Peugeot 405, and it replaces the original engine of the same capacity. That equates to a 160bhp output in a car that weighs under a tonne. Interestingly, the hood from a diesel 205 has been fitted to allow space for the larger engine block. While not totally original, this very car is valued at around $32k.
The interior is totally standard, meaning that its only real luxury is those sought-after half-leather seats. It carries much of the standard 205’s utilitarian feel, with chunky switchgear and flat fascias. This Peugeot’s boxy proportions means there’s a good amount of space in the boot, and rear seating for three if you squash onto the bench. It’s a simple and honest cabin.
Turning this GTI’s key brings to life its donor engine, which has a wonderfully burbly idle. However, the added vibrations make it a less civilised experience than standard. Engage first gear with a positive clunk from the transmission, and you’re in motion.
En route to an entertaining stretch of tarmac that is sure to reveal the GTI as a total myth or a true legend, we encounter some of the UK’s famously terrible surfaces. Potholes, cracks and other flotsam scar the road, yet the 205 remains composed. While this suspension is a little more taut than standard, the ride is surprisingly good and perfectly suitable for daily driving. Less accommodating is the engine noise that penetrates the cabin at all speeds, although the ruckus is at least tuneful.
The 205 ticks the boxes for a practical everyday hatchback, but push on and the car really comes to life. The MI16 engine is responsive with a strong torque delivery even at low revs. Hard acceleration has this hot hatch squatting back on its rear suspension as a purposeful grunt climbs in pitch inline with acceleration.
Grab second gear, the tires chirp and soon this little car is haring along at quite a rate of knots. It feels brisk even by today’s standards, with the volume of road and engine noise further amplifying the sensation of speed.
By this point the increase in momentum means that its heavy steering has dissipated, now replaced by a reassuringly precise motion. You still need to be deliberate with your inputs, but you no longer have to wrestle the wheel. Charging into a quick left-right-left sequence demonstrates this car’s agility. There is some body roll, but after an initial lean the chassis is keen to follow the nose toward an apex.
The combination of light footedness, direct steering and easily modulated brakes makes this GTI an utter joy. There’s lots of feedback from the steering and chassis informing the driver of exactly what is going on, thus promoting a real sense of confidence in the car. Obviously it has its limits, but it’s easy to gauge adhesion to the road and trim the car with the throttle accordingly.
In all honesty, we were expecting the 205 GTI not to live up to expectations. How could it, with over 30 years of hype? But even without the rose-tinted glasses of fans and fossilised road tests that exclaimed it to be the best thing since sliced bread, this car can truly stand on its own two feet. It really is one of the greatest hot hatchbacks of all time.
That leads us back to our original question regarding its value today — is a 205 GTI really worth over $32k? The simple answer is no. While a totally unblemished car is hard to come by, such a 205 is more museum piece than a car. Those examples will live in heated garages in the hope that their values continue to increase, but doesn’t that undermine the real value in a GTI? The thing that makes it so great is the way it drives, and if you take that out of the equation you’re simply left with an ornament in the shape of an old Peugeot.
Our advice to anyone buying a 205 GTI would be to purchase at the lower end of the price spectrum and go enjoy the brilliant little car you’ve just scored. Find a set of challenging roads, and relish that man-and-machine connection that’s so hard to find today.