This week, I have been driving an unexpectedly smart green car: the Peugeot 208 1.4 e-HDi Active. The 208 has already impressed, with its back-to-best French supermini abilities, ride and handling that remind me of the famous 205, and neat styling that does its best to reference the 1980s hatch where it matters (the C-pillar graphic is delightful).
But it’s the powertrain that’s proven most intriguing. And I admit, I wasn’t expecting it to. The 1.4 HDi 70 engine, for example, is not the freshest engine around: I’ve been driving it for a decade now, in Citroen C3s, Peugeot 206s, Ford Fiestas, Mazda2s, even the most unlikely Peugeot 307. It’s always been a bit too clattery for my liking, a bit too lacking in guts and thus much too reliant on the turbo.
So imagine my surprise when I jumped into the 208, fired it up and thought my ears were blocked. No, it’s not silent, but the clatter cacophony I was expecting simply wasn’t there. This was as refined as any other contemporary diesel. And it also performed with contemporary engine mannerisms on the road, too.
It’s not fast, be in no doubt. But, with 118lb ft, it is torquey, so never actually feels slow. The reassuring muscle is always there to keep you rolling and you can get away without actually using the gearbox that much at all. Simply plant your right foot harder, wait a while as the turbos spin up to speed, and the summit is not far away.
What was that I mentioned? Ah yes, the gearbox. For my test 208 was not a regular five-speed manual, but the five-speed ECG alternative – that’s robotized manual, where hydraulics take over the actual shifting of gears and operation of clutch, upon a gearbox that is otherwise the same as a regular manual.
These ‘semi-auto’ gearboxes do not have the best of reputations. They’ve been around for years – Saab sold such a box for decades, and revived the concept in the 1990s with the Sensonic system, briefly. But they haven’t traditionally been the smartest cookies. Even though actual gearchange times might not be that much slower than a manual shift, they feel very lethargic, somewhat unpredictable and are generally jerkily lumpy. People have been known to declare actual physical hate for these gearboxes, and they’ve been eliciting bad language from journalists for years.
Needless to say, I thus wasn’t expecting much. So imagine my surprise when I found, actually, it wasn’t bad. No, it’s not as good as a DSG twin-clutch auto, and will never be as smooth as a full auto. But Peugeot has nevertheless managed to smooth and hasten the gear changes, make the clutch engagement more intelligent and, crucially, also perfect the gearshift control logic. Now, it acts pretty much like a regular auto does: it rarely changes up as you enter a corner, doesn’t resist downshifts and certainly doesn’t hold onto gears at random moments.
Even when you feel it is lagging a bit on the gearshifts, you can override it using steering wheel paddles – and these won’t then default the gearbox into manual mode either (shift the gearlever left for that) so you don’t have to press any mode-shift buttons to get it back into auto. Clever, and one of many examples of why this system now appears to have come of age.
It’s still not perfect. Low-speed manoeuvring is interesting, giving you the sense you’re burning the clutch out, and pulling away does occasionally elicit a clutch-judder (instead of changing down into first when exiting tight corners, it will slip the clutch a bit in second instead – good for smoothness and, of course, the clutch has been uprated to cope, hasn’t it..?). Generally though, it’s a system that you’ll now choose positively, rather than suffer.
And the benefits are clear. It’s not just in self-shifting convenience that the ECG option wins (although that of course is a plus point for many – me included by the end of the week, rather surprisingly). No, it’s the benefits it has in fuel consumption that could give the nod to ECG. Because it theoretically changes gear at the most opportune time, it performs better on the official European cycle and, following this logic, will also perform better in real life.
Because it dictates the most economical gear at any one time, it means drivers don’t have to worry about it and it eradicates the blinking gearchange light that so many find so annoying. Leave it to do the eco stuff and it should return better figures than if you did it yourself.
Not only that, it also gets Peugeot’s ingenious starter-alternator stop-start system, which elicits restart near-instantaneously without the whirr of a starter motor. This means it can be used much more extensively, even shutting the engine off as you roll to a halt (firing it up again in a flash if you then need to move away again). The real-world satisfaction this brings is considerable.
The result? 87g/km CO2 instead of the standard car’s 98g/km. And 83.1mpg instead of 74.3mpg.
Clever stuff, then – and not expensive stuff, either. Another benefit of ECG technology is its relative simplicity, which means it costs far less than a regular auto. The premium for the 208 is just £700 (and it includes stop-start too, remember). Throw in the fuel and CO2 savings, and you do indeed have something that’s more intelligently green than you perhaps first think. I was certainly surprised: good work, Peugeot.