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Comparison test – Peugeot 208 GTI V Audi S1 V Smart ForTwo Brabus

Reviews | Published:

The small hot hatch market is ultra-competitive, so we’ve brought together two of the best – and one wildcard – to see which reigns supreme

We’ve got somewhat of a cards game here. The first two suits are well-known, safe choices – in this case the Peugeot 208 GTI and the Audi S1 – but the third is a wild one, somewhat of a left-field choice in this hot-hatch segment – the Smart ForTwo Brabus.

We’re going to see at how the three compare by taking them on to some of our favourite roads.

What’s new?

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There’s quite a bit to talk about with these three. First, we have the likeable Peugeot 208 GTI. Competitively priced and packing a 205bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged engine as well as lower suspension and more powerful brakes.

Up next is the Audi S1, which sits underneath the S3 and S4. Despite its compact size, it uses a large 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine also found in the current Volkswagen Golf R.

The sprint to 60mph takes just 5.7 seconds – though this is far longer than the heavier R’s time of 4.5 seconds. It has plenty of performance upgrades elsewhere, with a four-pipe exhaust and larger alloy wheels giving some indication of the S1’s uprated performance over a standard A1.

Finally, we have the Smart ForTwo Brabus. Instantly recognisable, it retains all of the diminutive proportions that have won the city car such praise. However, its looks have been beefed up with wider wheel arches, lower suspension and a sportier bodykit. It also produces 108bhp – up from the 89bhp in the standard ForTwo.

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Looks and image

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Our trio here all take distinctly different approaches to styling. The Audi, for instance, is understated throughout, with just small badges at the rear and in the grille showing it up as anything different to the standard car. Inside, it’s tastefully finished with plenty of brushed aluminium used to brighten up the interior. It feels like a premium product, but then it should, given the S1’s £26,255 base price.

The Smart goes all-out in terms of styling. Despite its almost comically small proportions it manages to look squat on the road, and this is mostly down to the large alloy wheels and flared arches. Its lower ride height also gives it less of a top-heavy look on the road, too.

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Peugeot has given the GTI just enough styling tweaks to lift it above the standard 208. That means you get larger alloy wheels, sports suspension and revised bumpers. Inside, there’s heavily bolstered sports seats and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. This wheel is almost comedic in its smallness, and it’s something that people either love or hate.

Space and practicality

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Hot hatches need a certain degree of practicality to be driveable on a day-to-day basis, and it’s something that all three of these cars are able to offer.

The Smart has a respectable 260 litres of boot space, which is more than enough for a few shopping bags or one large piece of luggage. There is also a reasonable amount of storage inside the cabin itself, from usefully sized door bins to a handy drawer located underneath the gear selector. All in all, the little ForTwo isn’t as impractical as you may think.

The 208 GTI has all the practicality you could want in a hot hatch. It has a large 285-litre boot, and its deep, square shape makes it ideal for bigger items such as suitcases.

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The interior is also remarkably spacious, with plenty of leg and headroom for those sat up front. However, the 208 GTI is only available as a three-door, which does impact roominess in the rear. Taller passengers in the back may struggle in terms of legroom, though there’s still a lot of headroom to be found.

The Audi S1 can’t offer the most amount of boot space because its four-wheel drive system limits the space available at the rear. With just 210 litres to play with, it only has enough room for a few weekend bags.

That said, if you do want to extend this the rear seats can be lowered, expanding the load area to 860 litres. The rear seats are quite cramped too, and because of the raked roofline the cabin can feel a little claustrophobic.

Behind the wheel

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All three of these cars tick the boxes in terms of driving excitement, but they all do so in vastly different ways.

The Smart, for instance, has the smallest power output, but thanks to a characterful engine it feels surprisingly energetic to drive. The lowered suspension means there’s very little body roll, while the dual-clutch automatic gearbox shifts surprisingly crisply.

Despite offering just over 100bhp it feels remarkably eager to accelerate, and its engine note – along with a distinct noise from the turbo – gives it a lot of character when on the move. And, when you come off the B-roads and head into town, the Smart is still effortlessly easy to park – you even start aiming for more challenging spaces.

The 208 GTI is a far more grown-up affair. With a smidge over 200bhp on offer, it’s a far more powerful car than the Smart. The steering is rather frantic feeling, and this sensation is increased by the previously mentioned tiny steering wheel.

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It’s something we just can’t get along with – when in the correct position, it blocks out your view of the main dials, meaning you must peer over it to check your speed. It gives you a sense of being ‘over’ the car rather than in it, too. The six-speed manual is easy enough to use, but it lacks the accuracy of the Audi’s and tends to feel ‘baggy’.

In contrast, the S1’s six-speed manual is a delight to use, with its short throw and notchy action giving you a real connection to the car. It’s accentuated by the car’s lovely metal shifter – a small touch but one that does wonders for the overall experience. There’s no denying that the Audi’s ride is firm, and it can feel a touch too jostling on rutted country roads.

You must remember that the S1 is a performance hatch, however, and that if you were looking for all-out ride comfort then a standard A1 would be a far better choice. The 2.0-litre engine under the bonnet has a huge amount of character, and the exhaust it is coupled to produces all manner of pops and bangs, too. There’s a lot of power on offer for a car of this size, but its Quattro all-wheel-drive system ensures that it very rarely breaks traction, no matter how British the weather becomes.

Who would buy one?

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This boils down to where you’re planning on driving. The Smart is undoubtedly the best suited of the three around town, and benefits from the additional punch that comes with the uprated engine. It’s also a lot more fun on twisty roads than you’d expect, but feels a little out of its depth when put up against cars like the Peugeot and Audi.

The S1 is a very rounded package. It’s good looking, has performance in spades and will hold its value for far longer than the other two cars. However, it is expensive, and some elements of the interior – the infotainment system for one – are starting to feel a little old-hat. The overall driving experience is just what you’d want from a hot-hatch, though, and it’ll make even routine trips just a bit more exciting.

The Peugeot is the most usable of the three. It’s got plenty of luggage space and retains the level of practicality that you’d expect from a standard hatchback. It’s fast, make no doubt about that, but its relatively quick steering contributes to a driving experience that is a touch too frenetic. That said, it offers a huge amount of performance and capability for a price that undercuts the other two here by some margin.

Verdict

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For overall value, the win must go to the Peugeot. Despite its light steering and opinion-dividing steering wheel, it simply does more for less money. Its cabin certainly doesn’t have the high-level finish of the Audi’s, but then its infotainment system and controls feel far more current. Against the Smart it feels a far more rounded prospect, and one that would be easier to live with on a daily basis.

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