Gavin Green on Citroen and DS, CAR+ February 2016

Published: 10 February 2016

► Gavin Green speaks of innovation in the car world
► The old DS was, and still is, the best DS to date
► BMW i is the modern day DS; futuristic and different

The best thing on the DS Automobiles stand at any motor show is, invariably, the old DS. It was true at the Frankfurt show last autumn and it will be true at Geneva next month.

It is also true of the grand DS World emporium that lures passers-by – like a glitzy Louis Vuitton store – just off the Champs-Élysées. The 50-year old DS reposing elegantly on the upper floor is like a Picasso canvas alongside a C4 Picasso: one a work of genius, the other a nicely executed marketing opportunity.

While the new DSs that tempt car buyers at shows and stores may be finely finished, sharply styled, nicely trimmed and available with myriad paint and upholstery combinations, the old DS stands as a symbol of a grander belle époque, when Citroën sought – Steve Jobs like – to change the world, rather than merely find a convenient slot in the status quo. Citroën in the ’50s, like Apple in the early 21st century, was on a mission. Now, it is merely part of the automotive mainstream, still occasionally sparkling. 

You can’t really blame PSA, owner of the newly independent DS Automobiles marque (and of Peugeot and Citroën). After all, if CEO Carlos Tavares tried to rally shareholders with talk of reinventing car suspension, redefining aerodynamics, revamping steering and brakes, and releasing the most technically avant-garde experience in the premium car sector, he’d probably get as many cheers and high-fives as Tim Cook would promising to relaunch the Apple Newton. 

No longer do Citroën, or PSA, have the appetite to revolutionise cars. Its glory days, possibly like France’s, are in the past. The world’s car industry and we consumers are the poorer for their diminished audacity. This is not to say that we should pour scorn on PSA’s and DS’s attempt to muscle in on that almost exclusively German premium car club. They are a very welcome addition. Just as Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and Lexus all grow, and offer a distinctive non-German flavour, so a new French rival offers a cheerful alternative.

Though none of the current DSs is class leading, upcoming cars will undoubtedly be better, and may be genuine and appealing rivals to Audis, if not perhaps the finer BMWs. Stand-alone style is promised, always different from Citroën. Plus DS Automobiles is thinking long term, a rare quality in the car business. PSA boss Tavares says it will take 30 years to succeed in the premium car sector, suggesting both patience and planning.

A quick visit to Paris, to interview new DS Automobiles CEO Yves Bonnefont, revealed that his goal is to offer comfortable and refined alternatives to firmer riding and more aggressively styled German cars, a noble vision. New DSs will offer class-leading personalisation and, says Bonnefont, sector-best connectivity. These are achievable goals, particularly as the Germans have different priorities, and more affordable than trying to do a 2020 version of the original DS. 

It’s intriguing that a nation famed for luxury goods – from Louis Vuitton to Hermès, from Krug to Chanel – no longer has its own luxury car label, if we exclude daft tiny-volume Bugattis, which are now remorsely German in their ugliness and their technical irrelevance. 

It’s intriguing, but not surprising. The French, unlike the British and Germans who dominate premium car making, are remorselessly rational in their car buying habits, which is why they were at the forefront at innovating MPVs and hatchbacks. It is why the great French cars are invariably brilliantly functional, from Renault 4 to 2CV, from Citroën H Van to first Espace. The classic DS was no vanity car: it was a machine of genius and logic.

France’s focus on rationality was why its car makers missed the swing to SUVs, the least logical automotive trend of the past two decades. French buyers are also less attracted by badges and ‘brand’ than we status-conscious Brits. They spend their money on good clothes or superior wine, which is far more sensible. It is therefore easy to see why the French have – until the DS brand – ignored the premium phenomenon (now further fuelled by status seeking Chinese, Russians and Gulf State Middle Easterners).

But – hark! – there is a new premium car brand that prioritises tomorrow’s world tech! That yearns for futuristic space-age design, and offers a totally different driving experience. Which has produced probably the two most outstanding new cars of the past 24 months. Behold BMW i! The DS of the 21st century.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience