Road Test: Poor performance leads DS 5 into a cul-de-sac
DS’s attempt at 21st century re-invention flounders on the first try
Date Reviewed: January 26, 2016
It seems mildly odd to me that the French have never enjoyed a truly great reputation for engineering prowess. Any image of rigorous quality and attention to detail has landed east of the Meuse, on firmly German territory. The Germans are great at engineering, says the world. Precision flows through the Germanic race like so much precisely counted blood. The French? Lovely wine. Great food. Nice scarves.
This is, it seems to me, a little unfair, especially when you consider the great iconic symbol of France – the Eiffel Tower. More than 120 years old now, it’s not only still standing, it’s still perfect. And when I say perfect, I mean it. When it was built, to mark the 100th anniversary of the French revolution, the tolerances the designers and engineers had to meet to ensure the structure would stand up against its own weight were less than 5mm – this in a world where the telephone was an exotic novelty. So if someone tells you that the French can’t be great engineers, point them to the tower.
It’s against this background of engineering cliches that we find DS, once a subset of Citroën, now a fully fledged brand in its own right. Once upon a time, Citroën created the most advanced, most forward-looking car in the world and called it DS. It was 1955, and the world went slightly nuts over this futuristic-looking, futuristic-driving car that seemed part jet plane, part flying saucer. Citroën has been toiling in that car’s shadow ever since, unable, seemingly, to match its effortless greatness. With the Citroën brand (once upon a time one of motoring’s greatest innovators) now somewhat sullied by a too-long-held reliance on simple cars sold at significant discounts, the decision was made to hive off DS as a supposed brand in its own right – an attempt to match the great French fashion houses of Hermès and Chanel, but with four wheels.
And there’s no denying that the DS 5, the flagship of French motoring, the car fit for a president (bonjour, Monsieur Hollande) strikes a pleasing pose. The new grille, which replaces Citroën chevrons with a diamond-like mesh grille and a stylised DS badge, is perhaps not as pretty as once it was, but the truncated hatchback shape, the glass house with faint overtones of Concorde cockpit, and the simple fact that it’s not a square-rigged Germanic three-box shape, all make it hugely distinctive.
Crack open the door that lies at the trailing edge of that sweeping chrome “blade” and you’ll find a cabin of true beauty. Even this most basic DS test car, shorn of the gorgeous optional leather of more well-specified models, looks great inside, with deep-dished backlit instruments, a clock that looks like a stupidly expensive watch, and welcoming seats.
And then it all goes a bit wrong. First off, if you’re tall and have large feet, you will notice that there’s not a lot of room for you. Even with the seat as far back as it will go (which effectively puts you out of range of the reach-adjustable steering) there’s a sense of cramp and a lack of clearance. Then you’ll realise that the swept-back windscreen, which looks so cool from outside, means you struggle to see out, especially with a seat that won’t quite adjust low enough. That’s without even considering the fate of those in the back seats, who will have nowhere to put their feet and less space again for knees and heads. Basically, the DS 5 is very cramped, though this is supposed to be a luxury car.
Rubbish to drive
Unfortunately, there’s no way of working gently around what comes next: it’s utterly rubbish to drive. The suspension simply doesn’t seem to know which way is up – it feels floppy and loose when you turn into a fast corner (via steering which seems utterly divorced from the concepts of feel or accurate weighting) and yet it clatters and thumps its way over every road obstacle. Even on motorways, where any French car should excel in the comfort stakes, it constantly fidgets and frets. The gearshift, a six-speed manual, is also an issue, clonking and clattering between ratios in a manner unbecoming a car which should be refined and soothing. In a car costing €25,000 this would all be bad enough. In a car which costs, at minimum, €36,045, it’s unforgivable. Worse, it’s nothing new. Since the DS 5 was originally launched as a Citroën four years ago, we’ve been giving constant feedback to Citroën and now to DS that the car is simply unworthy of the badge (either badge). Yet nothing has fundamentally changed – the only improvement is the generally excellent new 1.6-litre BlueHDI diesel engine, which is mostly quiet, enjoyably powerful and decently economical.
And we know it doesn’t have to be like that. Idling in traffic in the DS 5, I glanced to my left to see a beautiful Citroën C6 pull up next to me. Now that’s a car which could have worn a DS badge with pride – gorgeous to look at, spacious and sumptuous interior and a ride quality which soothed away every pimple and pockmark on the road beneath. A suspension system so brilliant that it could turn the old back road between Athenry and Galway Airport into a billiard table; it really was that good. No one bought one? So what? No one’s going to buy a DS 5 either at this rate.
There is some hope. Yves Bonnefont, DS’s CEO, has said that he expects it to take at least 15 years, possibly more, for DS to be able to match the great German brands head-on. That’s sensible talk, especially considering that, right now, a DS 5 is a less tempting alternative than a Ford Mondeo Vignale, another mainstream car with premium pretensions. However, one wonders if Bonnefont, DS and Citroën will be given enough time. The market, after all, works exclusively in quarterly numbers, not long-term aspirations.
Perhaps the great white hope for DS is its next-generation suspension system, which development boss Eric Apode has confirmed will be launched on a new model in 2018. Rumour has it that it’s a development of the electro- mechanical system originally shown a decade ago by electronics giant Bose.
Back then, the system (which has only been used on heavy commercial vehicles since) could not only make a test-hack Lexus ride smoothly and corner flatly, but could even make it leap several inches into the air to avoid a conveniently placed obstacle. If DS has taken that basic concept and worked on it, then the mystery new model could well break new ground, beyond what its illustrious forebear managed in 1955.
Until then though, sadly, the DS 5 is simply not good enough. Gustave Eiffel would not be impressed.
The lowdown: DS 5 1.6 BlueHDI Elegance
Price: €36,045 as tested; range starts at €36,045
Top speed: 200kmh
Claimed economy: 4.0/100km. (70.6mpg)
CO2 emissions: 104g/km
Motor tax: €190