More than 35 years after its demise, Group B remains legendary. A new formula for 1982, it lasted just five seasons before being phased out because the cars were just too fast. The regulatory limitations were so few that manufacturers were able to field some of the most outrageous competition cars of all time. Spectators loved it, but a series of tragic accidents culminating with the death of Henri Toivonen at the Rally de Corse in May 1986, resulted in the cancellation of the series before that season was even over.
As Group B evolved and manufacturers figured out how make the most of what few rules existed, the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 emerged as one of *the* cars to beat. It won the manufacturers’ championship both years that it raced, 1985 and 86, which were the last two years of Group B. In doing so, it (barely) beat back a stout challenge from the Lancia Delta S4 and de-throned Audi’s Quattro, which was too heavy and big to compete as effectively, even in remarkable short wheelbase Sport Quattro form.
The rules required the construction of just 200 road versions of a car in order to race it in Group B, compared to 5,000 cars in Group A which replaced it. Since so few needed to find customers that were wealthy and brave enough to buy them, this meant that the homologated road cars could be very wild indeed. Certainly it took a special customer to buy one since it cost as much as a Porsche 911 or six times as much as a 205 GTI.
Although Lancia periodically exercised some optimism when it came to stating their production numbers to satisfy homologation requirements, Peugeot dutifully produced the required 200 road cars, 219 in fact. Never offered in the United States, these cars are forbidden fruit of the highest order in North America.
Nominally based on the 205 economy car, the Turbo 16 shares basically nothing with that car. The entire back of the chassis was cut off, and the engine moved to the back where it was mounted amidships driving all four wheels. Wildly turbocharged, it produces 200hp with a 6.5:1 compression ratio in street trim. It also produces fireballs from the exhaust.
While 200hp doesn’t seem like much today, the car feels extremely special from the moment you touch the shift knob for the first time. The control forces are heavy: the shifter feels mechanical, precise, and substantial, and similarly, the brakes and steering are very heavy at low speeds. It’s a physical car to drive, certainly more physical effort than Ferrari 308 or any 911 of the era, and just a notch behind the Countach, which has to be the benchmark for high control forces.
At speed, this all melts away and the Turbo 16 is a car that works well when hustled. At low RPM, there’s not much power, but boost builds progressively rather than explosively, eventually delivering a healthy shove in the upper rev range. Unlike many turbocharged cars, especially vintage ones, it never runs out of breath and revs fairly high: 7.000 RPM. The result is an epic rush to redline followed by a terrific bang as flames shoot out the exhaust during the pause between gear changes. It is a hell of an experience: pure vintage rally car magic.
Driven neatly, the Turbo 16 is not a scary car; although its reputation suggests that perhaps it eventually reaches that point if you ask enough of it. I surely did not, especially not on ancient Michelin TRX tires. At 7 or 8 tenths, it’s engaging, confidence inspiring, and feels incredibly special: a true driver’s car. Brakes are heavy but work well, the pedals are positioned nicely for heel toe-ing, while the chassis balance and response are excellent. Changing throttle position in a corner adjusts the cornering line in a useful way that allows the driver to place the car precisely and play around a bit. It really comes into its own at speed; the low speed clumsiness metamorphosizes into a joyful sports car experience that puts every Ferrari of the era this side of the 288 and F40 to shame.
Setting aside the risks of driving while blindfolded, if I drove this car while blindfolded, I’d be shocked when the blindfold came off because the experience is so exotic in feel. The muscular looks are sensational but the fundamental shape is that of a hatchback and that sort of sums the Turbo 16 up neatly. On one hand, it’s very physical to drive, especially at low speeds, yet it also has a delicacy and communicativeness underway that makes it very rewarding to drive quickly. That it also happens to be a road-going version of one of the ultimate cars from the most legendary era of rallying only adds to the magic.