Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Peugeot 108

Bon jour. Photos by the author.
The vehicle: Automobiles Peugeot's smallest offering; platform and major components shared with the Citro├źn C1 and Toyota Aygo, all built on the same assembly line in the Czech Republic. 1.0-liter inline-3, 5-speed manual transmission. Rented from Avis at the Aix-en-Provence train station. (Renting a car in Provence was expensive compared to Paris, at least on Bastille Day weekend.) Unsure about trim level but included such hedonistic excesses as power steering, remote locks, air conditioning, and apparently some form of Bluetooth phone mating.

The setting: One day buzzing around a tinder-dry Provence from Aix to the monastery at Saint-Remy where Vincent van Gogh spent his most insanely productive period to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue for God's own Provencal lunch to the cloister and lavender fields outside Gordes, which was not nearly enough time to even scratch the surface of this ridiculously lovely and charming corner of the world.

Driving: Start with one absolutely crucial measurement: Curb weight for a 108 is around 1850 pounds. That sub-Lotus Elise mass defines the dynamics of the car.

The foreign press, more attuned to this kind of machine, considers the 108 to be a bit soft and reserved in keeping with its semi-upscale nameplate. For an American driver willing to take the right approach, though, the 108 is a riot. You drive it like a rally car, foot often clamped to the floor out of necessity, reveling in the responsiveness that comes with not having to manage another couple thousand pounds of body weight. Driving it is like using a really good medium-sized kitchen knife: balanced and precise and direct without feeling excessively edgy. Typical front-drive understeer only becomes somewhat apparent when diving for a late waitgoHERE 90-degree turn to some side road. You can place it far over on the lane-and-a-half-wide roads with casual confidence when making room for oncoming traffic, and the tight dimensions are a godsend in tourist-crammed parking lots and undersized street parking spaces.

All this and the suspension tuning maintains the civilized French-car tradition of not beating you up or being irritatingly jouncy.
The one-liter three-cylinder was an unruly little thing. The triple's vibes led me to think it was a diesel at first until I paid attention to the "95 Sans Plomb" sticker by the gas door; it'll rev, making an endearing growl in the process, but you have to stay on it; the torque curve felt anything but linear, with an occasional and strange on/off-throttle minisurge. Refinement issues aside, one is faced with the (inevitable, severe) limitations that derive from the Toyota-designed motor displacing all of 998 cc and producing 68 bhp, even in a featherweight like this. Batting around Provence's austerely picturesque hills required constant and attentive shifting, often into third and occasionally second on some not-that-terribly-steep climbs.

Such histrionics were thankfully aided by a five-speed gearbox that was a joy to use, with a lightswitch shift action through a slightly-too-narrow gate and a clutch light enough for your cat to work the pedal.

Wonderful One uneasily noted that the 108 didn't feel as stable and secure as the 500x on the autoroute, which makes sense given their size and weight disparities, but even in the midst of a midsummer mistral it tracked reasonably well. What was similar to the 500x was a realistic top cruising speed that matched the posted 130km/h, although (again) the two couldn't feel more different in the process - whereas the 500x had decent torque at lower speeds and just seemed to run out of drive at 130, the 108 would eventually work its way up through increasing difficulty pushing the air aside to a point of perceivable strain and a sense that that suspension tuning was approaching its effective limits.
That lightweight vibe was apparent in more than just nimble handling. Close a door with any force and you get a hollow metallic pung in response; the all-glass hatch dropped down with a simple smack against its rubber seal. I will admit that being inside something this light and small brought up a shadowy sense of vulnerability, but Euro-NCAP crash test scores are actually fairly decent.

Sitting: The silly-small external dimensions (137 inches overall, a full foot less than a Mitsubishi Mirage) belie a comfortable and accommodating pair of front seats and a rear seat that is actually usable if a front-seat occupant is of slightly less than average height.
For a definitively cheap set of wheels (as of this writing base price for a 5-door 108 Active in France equates to something well under $14,000) the 108 looks and feels like a quality piece of work. Switchgear is well-crafted and works smoothly. Seats are pleasantly unremarkable. There is no effort to hide the fact that the plastics are plastic, but they also look substantial and well-fitted. The air conditioner isn't overpowering, but on a harsh July day it kept up with the sun and heat.

Peugeot markets the 108 as a city car with the attendant understanding that someone using a city car usually doesn't require much cargo space. There's enough room for two weekend bags or a medium-sized stop at a farmer's market, but this is not a heavy hauler.

Other gripes? Few and minor. None of the cupholders could securely manage our one-and-a-half-liter bottles of Volvic, which seems like a frustrating oversight in a French car. A tachometer would have been nice given the necessity of abusing the gearbox to get the most out of the motor. Was there a trip computer? It would've been nice to fiddle with a trip computer to get an accurate fuel economy reading and so on. (Yes, I'm stretching here.)

Concluding: There was a certain point about halfway through our day - aiming down another narrow road between walls of trees, lining up another blind bend - where I realized I was making a wish list for the car, a short set of if-onlys: If only it had another cylinder, if only it was just slightly better balanced, if only it had a tachometer....

This is not a complaint. At all. When I drove the 500x, I didn't want to fix anything; I just wanted a different car. The 108 was so essentially good - and so much fun in its manic-but-mannered way - from the beginning that you just wanted to make it a little bit better. It's so close to some kind of esoteric ideal, especially an ideal created by someone who has seen too many photos of gaudily-painted hatchback Peugeots blasting through forests and up mountains over the past thirty-something years.

Taken on its own terms the 108 is a joy, proof that light and direct is all kinds of multifaceted gratification. No, it wouldn't work very well on the American market; the whimsy of constant foot-to-the-floor driving with the tiny motor would probably wear thin in a hurry, and I'll admit that it actually is too small if the intention is to regularly carry more than two people at a time. Eventually those personal-preference if-onlys add up to something like the 208, which lines up nicely against the likes of the Fit or the Fiesta - all of which are still just extensions of this idea instead of its antagonists.

Not that this will work in the first place in a market where Ford is apparently dropping said model due to a heartbreaking lack of sales, but that's a shopworn rant by now. Again, take it on its own terms: the 108 makes for some very enjoyable lessons about priorities in driving and life.