DS3 rediscovers some of Citroen’s old Gallic charm

French cars have failed to make it in the premium market, but this might work

Make: DS

Model: DS3

Year: 2016

Fuel: Petrol

Date Reviewed: July 28, 2016

Tue, Aug 2, 2016, 19:01

   

It’s fair to say the thought of driving the latest DS didn’t fill me with awe. Despite promises of beating the German premium brands, what’s on the road is hardly inspiring.

The promise is based on smart alloys, funky leather seats, new grilles and an exceptional ad campaign that plays strongly on French design and culture. The idea is admirable.

Consider the key target markets for the car. The British have always held a begrudging respect for the design culture of its cross-channel neighbour. They have occasionally poked fun at the French car industry, but pots and kettles quickly come to mind.

The all-important Asian markets, meanwhile, hold France on a cultural pedestal. You only really appreciate the degree of respect they have for our Gallic neighbours when you talk to Chinese or Japanese visitors after they have been to France. They are frequently in shock.

Expecting the height of cultural refinement, they invariably encounter the reality of normal life. Litter-strewn streets, graffiti and introverted, monosyllabic youths identical in attitude and demeanour to the ones they left behind in Taipei or Tokyo. Never meet your hero or visit your real-world idea of heaven.

Still, there is a recognition that playing the French card is likely to bear fruit in Asia. Remember, this was the car firm that advertised its Citroën C5 a few years back with the tagline “unmistakably German”, so it knows all about playing into national motoring stereotypes.

Mainstream decouple

Citroën’s grand plan is to decouple the DS range from the mainstream brand and turn it into a premium brand in the same way Volkswagen has with Audi or Toyota with Lexus. It sounds like a solid business strategy. French cars have failed miserably when pitched against the premium market in the past, but this plan might just work.

The problem is that while the strategy and marketing plans are relatively turnkey, when it comes to models, the DS3 has to fall back on its sister brand and hope to tweak what’s there.

So far it hasn’t done a great job. With both the DS4 and DS5, the ride quality was made worse while the price was increased. The recipe was wrong.

Thankfully, with the DS3 things are put right. The Citroën DS3 was, in fact, a little cracker even before they dropped the Citroën name when giving the car its facelift. It picked up numerous awards and was a firm favourite among hot-hatch fans in the UK.

Not that the DS3 is an outright racer: at the heart of our test car is a new 1.2-litre, turbocharged, three-cylinder petrol engine. Yet with 130bhp on tap, it’s positively high performance for this size of car.

It has that feature we’re always looking for in a car: ultra-quick responsiveness the moment you flick your right foot. It’s serene around town and in traffic, but the power is there in an instant when you need to overtake a slow-moving van on a national road.

Meanwhile, the steering is so positive that it feels like you are directly engaged with what’s going on at tarmac level. It’s a doddle to drive on tight city streets, a trait that once defined the success of Fiat’s small cars.

This engine comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, though there is an automatic on offer. Aside from having an automatic-only driving licence, I can’t for the life of me think why you would bother. The transmission is fine for what it is, but if DS wants to tap into its World Rally Car involvement, then it should really have worked up a more sporty, short-throw gearbox for this car.

There are lower-powered variants on offer, including the 82bhp and 110bhp versions carried on from the original DS3 range. There’s also a diesel, but for the supermini market I would stick with petrol unless you are a high-mileage motorist.

The styling hasn’t changed greatly over the earlier DS3, except that it’s now fully cloaked in DS features. Those watch-strap seats are a feature inside and there’s a relatively annoying touchscreen system – no worse than many of its rivals, to be fair.

The engineers at DS should really rent out an Audi A1 for a few days and see if they can cut and paste its functionality into the next DS design.

Outside is a sizeable grille up front, which somehow works on this car, even with the “double wing” affect courtesy of LED lighting strips running down the side. There are also lovely 16-inch alloys on the entry model and 17-inch on the higher-end Prestige version.

In keeping with the trend to give small cars some customisation levels, you can combine a myriad of body colours with various roof colours – 44 possible variations. Not my idea of time well spent, but each to their own. White body and black roof seems to set the car off best.

The DS3 is a two-door supermini, so practicality is always going to be limited, but it compares well with its direct rivals and the back seats come with three seatbelts. It’s not as roomy as the Mini back there, but it’s better than most of the rest.

No comfort cruiser

And so to the all-important ride quality, one of the pillars of the 1950s DS’s reputation. Where they got it so wrong on the DS5 and DS4, on this car it works well. It is firm and you will feel the potholes and the badly repaired surfaces, but it’s not out of keeping with the character of this car. It was never meant to be a comfort cruiser.

What DS really needs is to revive is the glorious Citroën C6, a Gallic magic-carpet ride that seemed to float about the road. That car had DS DNA before the marketing folks in Paris ever considered creating a standalone brand. Alongside such a car, the nippy DS3 supermini would work.

In terms of competitors, the most obvious rival is the Mini range, and in reality the DS comes a close second. However, that’s a very credible finish for the brand and there are plenty of Mini owners or supermini buyers who are a little jaded with the Cool Britannia retro styling of the British-built BMW car. No one would criticise them for opting for the DS3.

The DS pricing pitches it directly at the Mini range, although there is a sizeable jump to the 130bhp Prestige version we tested. At €27,295, that’s a lot of cash to lay down on a supermini. The 110bhp Elegance version at €23,145 seems like a more sensible option, even if it lacks the pep of the new engine. A price drop on the 1.3-litre DS3 would be a great move for the brand.

These prices mean there are more affordable rivals out there, particularly if you are looking for more comfort and practicality. Top of that list would be the VW Polo and Mazda2, both boasting starting prices a couple thousand euro lower than this DS.

That said, if you were looking for something more mainstream, you would consider the Citroën version of this DS.

The mainstream Citroën brand has finally got a workable strategy in place, with a model line-up that’s about to launch a renaissance of the brand. DS got off to a false start, but if it can build upon this supermini then it has a chance.

Lowdown: DS3

Engine: 1.2-litre turbocharged 130bhp

Price: €27,295 as tested

CO2 (motor tax): 105bhp (€190)

0-100km/h: 8.9 seconds

l/100km: 4.5 (52.3 mpg)