Last Drive: 1985 Peugeot 205 Turbo 16

Almost two years ago to this very day, I saw a Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 cruise past me in metro Detroit. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of briefly sliding behind the wheel before the rally legend left America for good.

Given that only 200 road-going examples were built to appease Group B’s sanctioning body, finding a 205 Turbo 16 in Europe is nothing short of a miracle, but in North America? C’est incroyable. Peugeot sold the random assortment of 505s and 405s here in North America during the ’80s, but its cute little 205 hatch — let alone the hardcore rally version — never crossed its way into les Etats Unis.

Predictably, this particular car’s journey is nothing short of convoluted. Originally purchased by a French Peugeot dealer, the car was used as a halo vehicle in the showroom through the 1990s. It was then purchased by a wealthy Californian, who shelled out considerable money to have the car meet the standards of the NHTSA’s Show and Display importation loophole. The car ultimately did, but emission regulations prevented him from registering it in California, forcing him to pass it on.

In an attempt to secure the short-wheelbase Audi ur-Quattro of his dreams, the Peugeot’s third owner decided to put the T16 back on the market — but before sending it off to a new home, he kindly let me take a closer look at it.

From a distance, it bears a striking resemblance to a second-generation Golf GTI, but then you notice a number of bizarre details. Gargantuan ground clearance. Monstrous side scoops. Swollen fenders, both front and rear. And does that entire rear half of the car swing upwards?

It does indeed, revealing one crowded engine compartment. Remarkably, the heart of the beast itself — a turbocharged, intercooled 2.0-liter I-4, rated at 200 horsepower in stock form — is incredibly minute, nestled in the far corner, just behind the passenger’s seat. It’s the other mechanical bits that eat up considerable space — the radiator, intake, and other plumbing are wedged behind the driver’s seat, while the gargantuan rear shock towers resemble jet blast walls. Nestled further beneath that mess is a five-speed gearbox, which sends power to a Ferguson-sourced all-wheel-drive system with three differentials.

Not surprisingly, the cabin itself is just as packed. 205s are narrow to begin with, but the enlarged wheel wells eat into the foot wells. Despite the tall roofline, there isn’t much headroom for either driver or front passenger — surprising, perhaps, until you consider both seats are mounted on top of the fuel tanks. None of that matters one bit — Peugeot built the T16 to be driven, and drive it I did, albeit on a very, very short route.

It’s easy to get carried away with the imagery we typically associate with Group B — cars sliding around corners, spitting out flames, hurtling (and occasionally maiming) bystanders, and making fantastic noise. Their street-legal counterparts, however, were a little more tame. Race-spec Peugeots were reportedly throwing down in excess of 400 horsepower, but all 205 T16s destined for consumers were rated at half that figure.

Turbo lag is as monstrous as the car itself — not surprising, as the Group B cars were tuned for high-end power — and until the tachometer’s needle swings past the 3000-rpm mark, the two-liter engine feels lazy, content to simply cruise around at low speeds. Once past that mark, things become much more lively — boost and torque suddenly appear, pushing the Peugeot forward while muting the squeak of the interior plastics with a ferocious bark.

The power’s certainly fun, but so too is the entire package. Although it’s built to be slid through gravel corners, the 205 T16 exhibits tremendous grip through paved corners, thanks to its wide track and long wheelbase, but the car is remarkably composed and comfortable over broken road surfaces (just as you’d expect a rally car to be, I suppose). The driver is given a manual steering rack that is direct and communicative, along with one of the best manual transmissions I’ve ever sampled — the clutch is beautifully weighted, pedals perfectly arranged for heel-toeing, and the lanky shifter produces shockingly short, precise throws.

I still can’t pick a single word to summarize this pocket rocket, but bittersweet seems to fit. The T16’s acceleration, delightful cornering, and hospitable interior could render it a delightful (semi-regular) daily driver. That said, now that this 205 is completely street legal to be used as such here in the United States, it’s being shipped off to a new home in Greece. Dommage.

(Merci mille fois a M. Francois!)