A small, unsuspecting French hatchback might have more in common with the most expensive production Porsche 911 than one would think. Well, not really—but it’s a catchy lead-in. The two are totally different animals, but at the end of the day, they are still animals.
Weight is always something that we, cosseted by modern conveniences, tend to overlook in current sports cars. Twenty-five years ago, the Peugeot 205 Rallye embodied all that was good in a light car—and helped prove that point by using some pretty rudimentary parts. In short, the car was great not because it had gobs of grip or a punchy powerplant, but because it was honest.
That sounds trite, but Mr. Harris seems to agree. The old, rickety Peugeot 205 Rallye isn’t exactly comforting and delivers loads of information and feels alive thanks to the way the unassisted steering loads up and the button nose of the car is so easily placed. There’s nothing anodyne about the car. It’s sharp and lively, and with a short wheelbase and 110 horsepower on a good day, enough to make the 1,700-pound hatchback feel brisk and buzzy.
Peugeot scrapped most of the sound deadening and that 1.3-liter wearing dual Webers feels like it’s sitting in the passenger seat. The motor doesn’t make much buzz until it nears 7,000 rpm, but it’s easy to add on revs and lose them just as quickly. The free-revving mill only complements the sort of urgency and giddiness this car exudes; you just want to fling it into a hairpin and abuse it. Who needs coffee with that buzzing motor?
You have to be realistic about performance figures here, since there’s a tendency among journalists to try and make Miatas and old rattleboxes out to be supercar killers when they’re definitely not. The Peugeot wouldn’t do much on paper; the appeal is more subjective.
The 205 Rallye is fun because its there for nothing else but going quickly on tight sections of road without any cushioning but a strong line of communication between the driver, the gearbox, the suspension, the brakes, and the tires. That sort of uncomplicated grittiness feels refreshing in these days of hyper-refinement. The Peugeot’s mediocre ergonomics and lack of creature comforts would get tiring when not on a picturesque mountain pass. Well, they’d be tiring there too—but sweating for the cornering experience is part of the appeal, if that’s believable.
The Porsche, in contrast, offers a more comfortable experience which revolves around the unbelievable motor. The roaring exhaust, the response, 500 normally-aspirated ponies, and the rear-engine aspect means the car fires out of corners with unbelievable traction, sound, and speed. Much has been said about the need to get drivers back in touch with their cars, and Porsche installed one of its best manual transmissions for this purpose; giving the driver the ability to enjoy complete control over the motor.
Though separated by time, price, and sophistication, the two cars make a similar point: driving is about the involvement, not necessarily the outright performance figures. In a competitive market, it’s easy to forget the value of tactility when ride comfort and 0-60 times are all that’s discussed. Perhaps that’s because those figures are easy to convey, but when they get wrapped up in a demanding world of NVH regulation, something gets lost. Any self-respecting driver has an appreciation for something that offers such a detailed experience, makes them work, and allows them to—pardon the expression—feel at one with the car. It’s not cheesy when it’s true.