A Peugeot 207 in Greece
By George Straton
The auto show debut a few months ago of the upcoming VW Polo reminded me of my trip to Greece last summer in which I vacationed at our family beach home about 90 miles southwest of Athens in the Peloponese. While I certainly am fortunate to have a home right on the beach of the Gulf of Argos, where the water temperature hits 90 F by 11 am on a mid July day, I felt just as fortunate for the opportunity to try out the European automotive markets’ offerings that aren’t available stateside.
Now Greece (or Hellas – its rightful non-Germanic name), thanks to the infrastructure requirements of the 2004 Olympic Games, is a poster child for the recent transformation of an entire system of public and road transport from medieval to modern within a 10-year period. How ironic that the oldest country in Europe had to modernize to reclaim the ancient athletic spiritual event that it founded.
Narrow-gauge, slow-as-molasses rail lines aside, Greece’s roads were infamous for their narrow two-lane national highways with razor thin shoulders, which themselves were used as a second lane for slow traffic. At least they were lined by colorful laurel trees.
The treachery of narrow, zig-zagging mountain passes and sharply winding curves is visible in the photo below taken on the corniches, where one wrong turn of the steering wheel can lead to a swan dive to the sea 500 feet below.
For this reason, Greece on more than one occasion has held the dubious title of having the highest per capita traffic fatality rate of any modern country. The ubiquitous roadside memorial shrines bear witness to this.
The old highways were ruled by Ford Taunus sedans and beat-up Citroen 2-CVs, many in trailer-pulling caravans, and good heavens, three wheeled (Greek made) Reliant Robins with 750 cc motors, and even Zundapp powered three-wheeled cycle vans.
During my drive, I also encountered smattering of some newer VW Golfs and an even rarer W 201 series Mercedes 160E. (High engine displacement taxes in those days meant virtually no engine greater than 1999 ccs). And then there were the imposing real kings of the road: the Volvo, Scania, MB, and DAF heavy trucks that paid no heed to diminutive passenger cars.
By 2004, modern high speed rail aside, six lane tunnels, dug through limestone mountains, replaced the zigzagging mountain passes and winding corniches. You could now actually steer your car in a straight line for more than half a kilometer.
Basic transport had given way to a proliferation of BMW 3 series, Audi A4s, Mercedes Benz E-classes and a fair share of Audi R8s and Range Rover Sports (and even the occasional Lotus Elises, such as the blue one pictured to the right) whipping along at Autobahn speeds in spite of the max speed limit posted at 120 km/h (72 mph).
Now that the dangerous traffic has moved onto straight and level roads, the fun can resume on the old national roads. With gasoline priced at $7 per U.S. gallon and parking at a premium (and often occurring on sidewalks) my interest was in the “Supermini” class, or Parakalo. The supermini class, typically in hatchback guise, dominates the European market in a way that the mid-size family sedans and crossovers dominate in the U.S. market. And it is NOT to be confused with the “City” class, the latter not being terribly well suited to motorway driving. I settled on two choices for my rental ride for three weeks this summer. Budget offered the VW Polo and the German company, Sixt Rent-a-Car, in an ironic twist, offered the Peugeot 207. My only prior experiences with any French make was a battered Pug 305 I briefly drove back in the early 1990s and (if it counts) my (since stolen) Peugeot UO10 road bicycle.
Of the two choices available, only the Peugeot had a winning motorsport heritage. At least the 207’s spiritual ancestor, the 205 series, spawned some of the most successful road rallying cars of the 1980s, including the one that won the 1985 Acropolis Rally.
The flowing styling of the 207 reminded me a lot of my G35 coupe as compared to the stolid block-like styling of the Polo. I was curious to see what made the Pug 207 series special enough to be the top selling car in Europe in 2007, and why, in its first two model years of production, more than 1 million “were served.” Almost enough to warrant a Golden Arches-like sign, eh?
The brand new Aegean Airlines A-321 touched down at the state-of-the art Eleftherios VenizelosInternational Airport located just about 25 miles northeast of Athens on an early July mid-day in 2008. In spite of the ubiquitous “smoking bans” the cigarette smoke would lead any nose to the back offices of the car rental desks in the arrivals hall. With the help of the accommodating car rental desk agents, got my rental papers and was off, afoot, to the lot located a hop, skip and jump away. There she was basking in the inferno of Athenian mid-day heat, the shapely little Pug 207, in her lustrous gunmetal blue hue. Barely 2000 km were on the odometer.
The Pug 207 is evidence that the sub-compact car has evolved from basic affordable 4-wheel transportation to something of an enigma: economy, for sure, but with a dash of sport thrown in for good measure, and fit and finish on par with what is expected in the North American premium segment.
The “mako shark” front air dam tends to turn the heads of the casual observer. In 2006, it was a unique design for the Euro sub-compact segment, but today is a feature that competitors are starting to emulate.
Enter the interior and one cannot help but be impressed. Especially when recalling the spartan simplicity of the interior of a car that had dominated the segment some 15 years earlier: the Mazda 121. The hatch luggage area has enough space to accommodate a full 29″ suitcase. The carpeting in the trunk is at least as good as it is in my Infiniti G coupe. The movement and sound of the open and close of apertures is as least as good as a Honda Accord.
The dash has a mesh-pattern soft plastic surface and that pattern theme extends to the seating surfaces. The seats are covered in a fine wound nylon mesh, which seems to breathe at least as well as the T-Tec seating material found in Volvos. For a black colored seating surface inside a dark hued car exterior, basking in near 100 degree temps for hours the seats were actually relatively cool to the touch. Try that in any car with a leather seating!
If there was ever a lesson to be learned from the Japanese luxury marques the variety of shapes, colors and patterns in automotive interiors make the task of driving a bit less wearisome. Design flair should be fairly innate to a French marque such as Peugeot, and it shows in the 207, particularly when compared to the aforementioned VW Polo. Not as wild as the Ford Fiesta, mind you, but very business-like without falling into the abyss of the mundane.
Secondary controls have a solid feel and have an actuation that is “second nature”. Storage bins are plentiful, whether found in the doors or by the center stack. The glove box is decently sized and sports a cooler compartment (connected to an A/C duct) which can fit a couple of small water bottles. Aluminum-trimmed gauges are easy to read and the top of the center stack sports an Info Display for the trip data and entertainment system.
The driver’s primary control and seating position is another matter. The steering wheel is properly sized, and adjustable for tilt, yet the greatest steering wheel in the world means little more than a hill of beans without the necessary reach adjustment. I’m in the group of average height males who prefer the “9 and 4 O’Clock” wheel grip. Because the steering wheel doesn’t protrude enough from the console there is a feeling of “hanging on” to the wheel. This may work for folks on a “pimp cruise,” but doesn’t for high-speed motorway driving. I suppose that these are the concessions that designers have to make when given small cabin space.
With RUSH’s “Chronicles” compilation disc in the head-unit and the A/C cranked up it was time to get down to the nuts and bolts of operating the primary controls. Eighty horsepower is hardly an amazing power to displacement ratio given the engine’s 1360 ccs. However, those 80 horses only have to move 2400 pounds of steel, plastic, glass and rubber in this application (100 pounds less than a Miata), and the engine also produces 90 lb-ft. of torque at a usable 3300 rpm. The car’s relative feather weight includes all the modern safety accoutrements such as ABS and active restraint systems. Autocar UK provides test data of 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) acceleration in the neighborhood of 14 seconds, and a terminal velocity of 104 mph, no doubt aided by the low drag coefficient of .31 cd and a taller 5th gear. A 1600 cc-powered subcompact of eight years ago would be lucky to offer 55 hp and with the aerodynamics of a brick, and would be fortunate to hit 70 mph on a decline with a tailwind! In all the excitement about the Peugeot’s power (or lack thereof), I nearly forgot about the fuel consumption, which I tallied at 45 mpg all the while cruising at 130 kph. After all, good fuel efficiency is the Raison d’ existencefor the “supermini” class, is it not?
Clutch engagement is linear even if pedal travel is on the long side, making the omission of extendable steering wheel rake all the more conspicuous. I never missed a shift in the decently-spaced five-speed gear box, which is something I cannot claim to have done in my prior E36 M3. I also give credit to the electric-servo assist steering rack. Around town it’s plenty light to make parallel parking – what little is available, that is – a snap. At speed, steering effort increases accordingly. Only the front brakes are discs – there are drums in the rear, but ABS and EBD are standard fare. Confident trail braking on either dipping or rising sharp curves was possible likely due to some really excellent pad/ and shoe compounds that cars come standard with these days. On the motorway, slowing from 130 kph (80 mph) never prompted pedal vibrations, which was something of a staple with the previous generation sub-compacts when front rotor diameters could be tiny.
If McPherson-type front suspensions are good enough for the BMW E90-E93 3-series, they can’t be misplaced in the Peugeot 207. Low unsprung mass means more control over wheel movement, which is especially important in front-drivers that already have more sprung mass over the drive wheels. The Pug lacks the sophisticated rear-locating link architecture found in BMWs, hence the harsher rebound over rough pavement or railroad crossings. The 185 65/15 Goodyear GAs, on steel wheels, offer decent grip and good road isolation. The Goodyearsare quiet. Approaching Corinth form the west on the E-65 motorway there was little buffeting of the 207 from the crosswinds from the Saronic Gulf to the southand the Gulf of Corinth. Here, older “brick” shaped subcompacts would get tossed to and fro on that same stretch. The electric servo steering, sans the on-center nervousness of many cheaper set-ups, ensures that tanned knuckles don’t always turn white.
Another piece of evidence pointing to the geometric improvement in the “fit and finish” category is the sound isolation, whether from the road or drivetrain. No wind whistling even at higher speed means that seals are tight. I always had suspicions as to whether the old mobile tin cans had any body/cabin insulation whatsoever.
OK, so the subcompact Euro hatch is no longer the tin can rattle cage on four wheels. However, I wanted to explore whether it invites enthusiastic driving near its limits. While I didn’t have a track at my disposal, I had the next-best thing, a caravan of hurrying Athenians making their way along narrow, winding two-laned asphalt. (The keen eye would note the sibling Peugeot 207 CC Cabrio visible through the windscreen in this photo).
Fun at the beach is always followed by the traditional large post-noon meal at a seaside taverna. A personal favorite is some fresh pan fried Barbouni (Red Mullet), accompanied by pommes frittes (as only the Greeks can love them), a summer salad of tomato, cucumber, kalamata, olives and feta. One also cannot forget and a glass (or two) of chilled Agiorgitiko white house wine from the barrel to follow the food down the gullet.
Back on American soil, it is encouraging that Ford is readying its Fiesta for U.S. shores, while Fiat simultaneously readies its retro 500 and VW its new Polo for North American consumers. The pricier Mini is already selling fairly well Stateside. Ordinarily, celestial bodies would have to be in perfect alignment before small cars could become “ala mode” in this land of “Supersize me.” Yet this class of automobile has so metamorphosed from the proverbial caterpillar into the chrysalis that the orbs may finally be in alignment. Au revoir mon cheri, Peugeot 207.
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