Citroen DS3 Racing (2011) review

Published:11 April 2011

Citroen DS3 Racing (2011) review
  • At a glance
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The Citroen DS3 Racing is a turbocharged 204bhp hot hatch that finally represents a road-going performance car link to Citroen's dominant World Rally Championship team. The Citroen DS3 Racing's WRC cousin is a safe bet for the 2011 WRC championship in the hands of Sebastien Loeb. Does the DS3 Racing live up to expectations? Read on for our first test of the Citroen DS3 Racing.

Citroen DS3 Racing: the lowdown

Has any hot hatch ever had such raw potential? It has been developed by the geniuses behind Loeb’s total domination of rallying at the very same time that they’ve meticulously developed a brand new WRC version. Lessons shared, know-how poured into both projects. And they’re keen to make an indelible mark in a new discipline – road cars. No area has been untouched to this end, the DS3 R benefiting from a 20mm wider track, new springs and dampers, gorgeous lightweight 18-inch alloy wheels, a huge power hike thanks to improved combustion and a bigger turbocharger, uprated four-piston Brembo brakes, a unique electronic stability system, there’s even a sprinkling of motorsport fairy dust - carbonfibre.

The DS3 R is a mouth-watering prospect. No wonder the 200 right-hand drive DS3 Rs already have dozens of potential suitors shuffling awkwardly in a disorderly queue. Even at £23,100 it looks close to irresistible. I’m genuinely nervous. Please Lord let it be good. In fact, let it be great…

£23,100? That seems pretty steep though..

Fair comment. On the plus-side, the DS3 Racing certainly looks exotic. The wheels are gorgeous, the real carbonfibre wheel arch extensions, front splitter and rear diffuser are motorsport-geek heaven (sign me up), the interior, in all its orangey orangeness, feels special (there’s more genuine carbon weave in here too, including an ugly but exquisite-to-hold steering wheel).

In those first few moments of cooing at the detailing the DS3 R seems like pretty decent value. After a day or prodding cheap-feeling electric window switches and discovering the odd area of hard plastic, you’re not so sure. However, a Mini Cooper S Works costs from £21,875 and most are specced far beyond that price. So Citroen might be chancing its arm a little, but they’re not pushing into unprecedented territory.

Driving the Citroen DS3 Racing

About 100-yards is all you need to know that the DS3 R is a real hot hatch. It has that lovely controlled damping that characterises a Clio Cup, unquestionably firm but just knocking the edges off the worst lumps and bumps. It has that intense hit of torque and rush to the limiter that defines a Mini Cooper S Works (it’s essentially the same engine, albeit it in a unique DS3 Racing tune). Best of all though, all the controls are knitted together so finely that it positively brims with purpose. The brakes are fabulous. There’s no dead travel just instant, progressive bite. The steering tugs under acceleration and pings in sympathy with the tyres over coarse road surfaces. At first the six-speed manual ‘box feels a bit loose, a tad sloppy even. However, as you start to unlock the DS3 R’s potential it works effortlessly and very quickly. It’s not a stand-out feature, Type R-style, but it is effective and foolproof. You need that confidence when a road like the Col du Vence starts to unravel through the DS3 R’s wraparound windscreen, because you’ll be travelling very quickly indeed.

It was raining when we tried the DS3 R, but this hot little Citroen seemed oblivious to it all. The 215/40 R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres cut through the water and deliver astounding lateral grip. They struggle to cope with the engine’s full 203lb ft out of the tighter hairpins and the ESP is pretty busy, but it’s also lenient and will choose a good degree of wheelspin instead of overt nannying if it makes for quicker progress. Body roll is well suppressed, the deep sports seats are a fraction too wide for me but still do a good job of bracing against the forces, and the engine is really up for it, gobbling up the cold air and spitting it angrily out when all its energy is spent.

What else?

Stability is the DS3 Racing’s weapon. It allows you to brake deep into corners, to roll quickly onto the throttle and scuttle away to the next challenge. I want to come back to those Brembo brakes too, because they’re really superb. Not only is the pedal feel spot-on, but the mechanical grip of the DS3 R means that ABS intervention is very rare indeed. This first phase of a corner is the key to building confidence and the DS3 R is so adept at shedding speed that it naturally encourages to lean on the front end. There’s some understeer, just a little sign that you’re close to maximising the grip available. But then it pushes back at you, allowing more throttle or more steering angle should you need it. Hot hatch purists should be aware that the DS3 R is missing one party trick at low and medium speeds – that old lift-off oversteer number. Because it’s very good at controlling its mass there’s not too much weight transfer to induce. You turn, lift and the DS3 R sticks. You go in too fast and on the brakes. The DS3 R sticks. Point and shoot. Simple but mega-effective. 

Any weaknesses to the Citroen DS3 R?

Well, if you’ve driven a Renaultsport Megane you will know that a mechanical limited slip diff would make a huge difference to traction in wet conditions. You can spec a proper diff on a Cooper S Works, so it’s a shame you can’t here. I suspect some will criticise the slightly lightweight gearshift, but I think it works brilliantly when you really need it. Others might also crave a bit more lairy exuberance from a car that looks deliberately provocative. However, here the DS3 R has an answer. If you want the rear tyres to point you into corners, to feel the car sliding neutrally from corner to corner, then you have to summon the spirit of Loeb as best you can. Try harder. Turn in faster. See if you can keep up with it in fast 3rd and 4th gear corners. Here the DS3 R can be coaxed into neat, totally stable slides that come and go in the blink of an eye but feel deliciously no-nonsense. It doesn’t do indulgent quasi-hero stuff. The DS3 R slides when it needs to in order to go faster and not before.

Verdict

This is the real deal. A fast, characterful, super-committed hot hatch with enough design jewellery to appeal to the Mini crowd and enough substance to turn the heads of even fervent Renaultsport addicts. I’m genuinely surprised. Delighted too that Citroen Racing hasn’t cheapened their name with a damp squib of a marketing exercise. This really could be the start of something genuinely exciting.     

It’s not quite as sharp as a Clio Cup, but it hits harder and has better steering and brake feel. Nor is it quite as high quality an item as the Cooper S, although it beats the Mini’s ride quality, is more stable and feels a more focussed product, plus it’s more practical and efficient to boot. Overall it’s a memorable, exciting and entertaining hot hatch. A car apart from that on which it’s based, a car clearly touched by people who know what they’re doing. Citroen Racing has served notice on Renaultsport and the boys in Munich. They won’t be having it all their own way from this day onwards.

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Specs

Price when new: £23,100
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1598cc 16v turbocharged four-cylinder, 204bhp @ 6000rpm, 203lb ft @ 4300rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Performance: 6.5 sec 0-62, 146mph, 44.1mpg, 149g/km CO2
Weight / material: 1165kg/steel
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 3962/1717/1443

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