The French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote when the original Citroen DS was launched in 1955 that the car was now the “exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” Believe me: nobody’s going to write that about the new Citroen DS3.
Of all the great French cars, the 2CV might be the Frenchest, for its simplicity and affordability, but the original DS was unquestionably the greatest for its extraordinary styling and technological advancement. And now it’s back. Or the name is, anyway. The Peugeot-Citroen group, rightly if belatedly recognizing that there’s money to be made in premium cars, and danger in the way the premium brands are moving in on its small-car customers, is developing a DS ‘line’; each a premium version of an existing model.
So what is the new Citroen DS3?
This DS3, based on the new C3, is the first; a DS4 and DS5 will follow. Citroen has also rightly recognized that much of the success of the Mini and the Fiat 500 is down to a strong sense of national identity and a link to a cool small car of the past. Unfortunately, the best small French cars were admirable and accessible but seldom aspirational: a new 2CV wouldn’t appeal much to a buyer tempted by an Audi A1.
One CAR colleague says it’s sacrilege. I don’t agree. Citroen owns the DS name and can do what it likes with it; as a means of communicating Frenchness it’s better than a tricolore on the roof and a horn that play La Marseillaise. I’d just question the marketing wisdom of inviting comparisons.
But let’s leave the row over the name aside and examine the car. The DS3 is a three-door, five-seat hatch with a decent-sized boot, Citroen calling attention to the Mini and 500’s failings in these regards. It offers 90 and 110bhp diesels and 95, 120 and 150bhp petrols with five and six-speed manuals, and an auto with the 120. We’ll come back to the tech later, as it’s by far the least interesting aspect of this car.
Is it cheap?
It’s going to cost you between £11,700 and £15,900 before options, and close to nineteen grand with them all – for a car derived from a Citroen C3, remember. Options are the most interesting aspect of this car, Citroen having – again rightly if belatedly – recognized that personalization is another key to the success of the Mini and the 500. So you can have the roof in black, white, a purplish-red or baby blue, the wheels and wheel centres in a ‘near-infinite’ range of colours, chrome or colour for the wing mirrors and sills, and a choice of eight dash colours, seven gearknob designs and umpteen fabrics and leathers.
Orange County Choppers offers its customers less choice. It’s going to create a nightmare in the factory, but the carmakers know that in an age of chronic congestion, spiraling oil prices and likely GPS-enforced speed limits we’re not going to get our motoring kicks from actually driving any more. So the DS3 offers to extend the delicious agony of specifying your car, and delight you every day with the knowledge that your car is entirely your own creation and probably unique.
There’s a flip side, of course; the possibility of mild disappointment, or indeed complete horror, when the car arrives and you realize that design is best left to designers and there’s a reason your Mum still picks your clothes, or the moment three years hence when you realize that the used-car trade doesn’t love that brown-blue-pink combo as much as you do, and that you’ve irredeemably kippered your residual value.
Our test car looked very of-the-moment in white with white wheels, and blue roof and wheel centres, but we wonder how good it will look when the moment has passed. It does draw attention to the DS3’s better features, like the ‘floating’ roof, the ‘shark’s fin’ body-coloured B-pillar, and the long rows of LED running lights in the chin that emphasize the car’s broad and low (for a hatchback) stance.
I liked the way it looks, as did most of Paris from the extraordinary attention it garnered, but you’ll decide for yourself. Inside, I liked the way it worked, but found the looks unremarkable. The seat support and position were fine, there’s masses of storage including a vast glovebox, decent visibility and relatively logical switchgear, most of it lifted straight from the standard C3. The attempts at premium-ness are admirable – lots of extra leather with the leather trim option, and a glossy lacquer finish to the entire dash – but are let down by some traditional Citroen wobbliness in places. You interact with this stuff every day; nothing’s going to annoy you, but nor will it deliver the constant tactile delight of an Audi.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Citroen DS3 first drive
We could only try the 150-badged petrol (actually 154bhp) with the six-speed box. Developed with BMW and made at Douvrin, this is a non-intercooled version of the 1598cc turbo unit that makes 175bhp in the Mini Cooper S and is used in varying states of tune elsewhere in the Peugeot, Citroen and Mini ranges. It’s torquey, flexible, refined and very linear, and the shift quality of the six-speed ‘box fair, though a little long and imprecise. Don’t confuse even this top engine option with a hot hatch though, especially one of Renaultsport’s current efforts. There’s enough power to entertain but not thrill, and any more would expose the chassis’ shortcomings.
As it is, engine and chassis are well-balanced. The ride is remarkably good given the top-spec 17-inch rims, with only the worst Parisian potholes sending much noise or shock to the cabin. Refinement is impressive; the engine is as well-isolated as the road, and the quick, fluid, fully electric steering is free of kickback but also free of feel. Good secondary ride on city streets translates into decent body control on open roads; push the motor harder and the chassis will start to roll and understeer earlier than a Mini, but the point of dynamic disintegration arrives much later than you’d think. You’ll enjoy driving this car briskly, but it doesn’t do fast.
If this praise sounds faint, it’s because the DS3’s general competence is compromised by the fact that it just doesn’t do anything new; its marketing is lifted straight from the Mini and its engineering from the C3 it’s based on. It won’t be as disastrous as the French car industry’s other recent attempts to do a ‘different’ small car – think 1007 or Pluriel – but only because it’s a much safer play. Frenchness alone can’t make it interesting, and we’d feel the same way even if it didn’t bear that storied name.
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