There was a clean, sharp chill in the air that late winter morning in 1999. Visible breath billowed from my mouth as I waited in awe of the sight before me. The sun’s whiteness dazzled as it reflected on the elegant chrome fixtures; its warmth just enough to melt the frosted crystals and allow delicate tears of nature to cascade down the instantly recognisable shape, beautifully sculpted by Flaminio Bertoni over four decades before. In an instant the four pistons cranked into life, immediately followed by a series of clicks, hisses and whooshes as the legendary goddess awoke from her slumber and rose majestically from the ground. There, in all her magnificent glory, was a 1973 Citroën DS 23 Pallas. I was about to enter my motoring Valhalla.

By holding the ‘real’ DS in such high esteem, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d view these modern day, DS-badged models as comparing sliced white with a seeded batch. After all, when Abingdon closed in the early 1980s, worshipers at the octagonal altar reeled in horror upon witnessing their beloved MG initials being plastered liberally across sporting Metros, Maestros and Montegos. Even the visual treat of red seatbelts didn’t appease them. Nothing further could be from the truth. Yes, it’s disappointing that the introduction of this sub-brand does makes no attempt to innovate like its ancestor, but Citroën is instead trading on the DS’ other traits of style and exclusivity.

Look of Love?

The way a car looks is almost always the principal influence over how much desire we attach to it. A car can be forgiven its ordinary handling if its styling plays a melody of attraction in our heart. That warm glow of pride as we glance back at our car park trophy is the result of design, not mechanical advances or low CO2 emissions. But a car’s appearance also sparks camaraderie and division as we take sides on the looks debate. Our differing tastes will always mean one person’s silk purse is another’s pig’s ear.

Personally, the shape of the DS3 I’ve been driving, falls definitely but delicately into the silken category. It doesn’t have effortless beauty but few small cars do, due to the shortness (and nowadays tallness) of their designs. I can see why others claim it’s over-designed or even kitsch, but these styling elements blend well to produce a package of visual interest, one that not only intrigues the eyes of the beholder but positively encourages their fingers to explore its complex shapes for a fuller sensory experience.

Being based on the second generation C3 hatchback provides a useful foundation but also introduces some limitations. Because essentially the whole front end is shared (as well as the unseen platform), Citroën had a dilemma similar to that faced by Porsche in the late 1990s when it launched the Boxster and 996-generation 911 with near identical noses. Aside from detail adjustments, the French marque utilised a stylistic feature popularised by Audi and installed a fillet of LED day running lights (DRLs) to the lower outer edges of the front bumper. A simple but very effective differentiator for the small Citroëns. From the doors back, the siblings are very distinctive. The DS3 is afforded much more in the way of body sculpting providing an interesting relief to the body sides and leading to haunches over the rear wheels. The glasshouse appears to float, especially when fitted with darkened privacy glass as this test model was. The single most controversial feature remains those dorsal finned shapes just behind the doors. They serve no functional purpose, other than partially cladding the structural elements of the ‘B’ pillar but for some they could be the difference between signing the order form or wandering off to the MINI showroom. And therein lies a key message from the DS3’s marketing campaign – whereas BMW celebrates the MINI’s heritage in all manner of retro-focused design clichés, the DS3 instead tries to be different, modernist and thought provoking. That its look provokes debate is a positive and will doubtless draw it to the attention of people for whom cars don’t normally feature in casual conversation. Inevitably there’ll be those turned off, but several will be turned on who might not otherwise know of the DS3’s existence.

Inside Story

The model I sampled was the mid-line DStyle trim level teamed with the 90bhp version of the latest Peugeot-Citroën HDi common rail diesel engine. The French combine was one of the early adopters of this popular method of high pressure fuel injection and consequently their latest motors are refined and subdued compared to the clattery under-bonnet shenanigans of decades gone by.

Opening the wide door to the cabin, you are immediately aware of the raised levels of perceived quality. The plastic mouldings tend to be free of shininess that smacks of cheapness and also appear to be thick. The door cards, for instance, cosset your arm and make it feel protected from the world outside. Once aboard, the impressions of quality continue. The seats are firm and grip you about the waist comfortably. The ones in this model were clothed in an unusual mix of dark grey Alcantara and what appeared to be high tech sports clothing material. The general dashboard architecture is shared with the C3 but it feels suitably premium. The beautiful triple chrome ringed instruments are shrouded by a binnacle hood that lets light in behind it, while the whole dash top and wide door cards are formed from a soft-touch moulding mimicking a reptilian skin. The centre console and main facia were gloss black on this example and matched the contrasting roof panel of the exterior. Contrary to Citroën switchgear of old, the buttons, knobs and switches had a delightful tactile quality to them, many feeling rubberised and well damped. The only let downs were the curiously toy-like brittle plastic of the heating and ventilation dials, a shame considering how much these might be touched on a day to day basis. Overall, the interior is a big step up from Citroën and those trading in C2s, let alone Saxos, would be forgiven for not believing this was from the same company that produced their cars. True, we’re not talking Audi A1 levels of interior solidity, the lower dash panels where fingers rarely venture are of a cheaper, harder plastic, but then again, if you’re hankering for an A1, a DS3 is unlikely to be on your shopping list – demure versus avant garde.

Small cars today are not small cars as we knew them even a decade ago. While a lot of their increased girth is explained by talk of safety legislation, the upshot is that they have become roomier and more versatile. The scalloping of the passenger side of the dashboard provides a very airy environment for the front passenger or alternatively allows them to sit further forward to liberate more rear legroom. Not that the DS3 is a squeeze in that regard – my 6ft frame fitted behind where I would have the driver’s seat without my knees pummelling the seat back. It would have been perfectly comfortable except for the coupé-like roofline reducing the amount of headroom I required, however for smaller adults and children there’d be no problem. As is common nowadays, two ISOFIX mounting points for child seats are standard, while access to the rear quarters is good – the wide apertures and front seats that tilt and slide forwards take the difficulty out of a potentially escapologist-like body manoeuvre. The rear seats also split and fold to take longer loads and turn the DS3 into a stylish van, although at 285l with the seats in place it’s a good size depository of goods for a small car.

Those controversial fins provide another point for debate inside though, as they minimise rear seat passengers’ forward visibility. It’s not terrible and they prove to be handy mounting points for a grab handle on either side, but it will be down to personal choice and frequency of use of the rear bench as to how consequential they are.

For a middle of the range trim the equipment level is typically Citroën generous, with electric mirrors and windows, MP3 compatible stereo, trip computer, cruise control and air conditioning. Although this wasn’t the climate control buyers so often crave these days, it was effective and within 15 minutes on air recirculation mode, the cabin was a chilled oasis. The DS3 is a safe car too, achieving the desirable 5 star rating in the Euro NCAP crash testing programme.

Runners and Riders

Like all good turbo diesel engines, performance and economy are happy bedfellows with the 8-valve 1560cc motor under the DS3’s snub bonnet. From a little under 2000rpm, acceleration is impressive as the car surfs along on a rolling wave of torque, picking up speed impressively. More disappointing was a lack of flexibility at lower speeds. This was particularly evident on approaching junctions where I tend to trundle to the Give Way stripes in second ready to make a swift exit if the gap permits. This didn’t seem to be a weapon in this model’s arsenal, resulting in a bogged down exit before the torque kicked in, or necessitating a brief change to first to pick up that grunt, before driving on as normal. The engine itself plays a sporting tune, with an increasingly sonorous growl, which while it’s not an angry tractor, neither is it a rorty roadster. As an HDi, fuel consumption proved usefully frugal. This example’s computer claimed an average of spot on 60.0mpg over its mixed run of urban crawls and back road blasts, suggesting the official average figure of 70.6mpg isn’t too fanciful.

The gear knob fits coolly in the palm, with a circular design that echoes that of the DS3’s key. Changes are very positive and smooth, snicking between gears with aplomb. Clutch bite is found easily, permitting swift progress through the ratios under hard acceleration, which itself felt much quicker than the claimed 0-60 time of 11.3 seconds. The theoretical top speed of 112mph should be well within reaches of your private test track but on the open dual carriageway around Lincoln, cruising along at 80mph the car felt surefooted and with plenty in reserve.

Citroëns were famed for their magic carpet-like ride quality and less so for handling prowess and steering feel. The DS3 sets about changing many of these perceptions for those new to the brand. Having none of the hyrodpneumatic and green suspension sphere trickery of larger models, the DS3 rides on conventional ‘metallic’ springs. The result is mixed: certainly you would expect a sporting small hatch-cum-coupé to have a firmer ride to minimise roll and this one certainly does that, but the compromise doesn’t feel as accomplished as it maybe could. Around town and over poorly repaired ruts and cobbles, there is a lack of composure to the ride quality. It doesn’t jar or jiggle in a way that I’ve been subjected to in previous MINI experiences, but neither does it have that sublime, unruffled smoothness of its big brothers. Conversely, above 30mph and on more open roads, the quality is transformed, providing ample soaking of crests and bumps with fine damping. Cornering grip is impressive, encouraging the driver to take a little more speed into the bend. The steering itself though lacks the feel one expects of a sporting little car – it’s a tad too light with over-assistance to feel engaging. You quickly learn the car will corner well, it’s just that the steering column has been anaesthetised. Around town and slipping cheekily into parking spaces, the lightness becomes a boon and the wheel itself is a delight to hold, clad in leather, with a flattened bottom and metallic accents.

Verdict

Desirable city cars are definitely here to stay. Dalliances in the past which came to naught are now faded Metro Vanden Plas and Fiesta Ghia-shaped memories. The premium small car is well established and if rumours are true, their ranks will be joined by a compact luxury Vauxhall and a latter-day Renault 5 with the emphasis on feel good rather than basic utilitarian transport. With fuel costs continuing to escalate at frightening rates, discerning customers want to trade down in terms of size but not in terms of prestige.

The DS3 feels generally well built, equal of the MINI in almost all respects, using high quality, attractively textured plastic mouldings which feel solid. There were no early, irritating signs of rattles and squeaks either. Mechanically, the major components have seen thousands of miles of service with no faults of note that might worry buyers. Residuals are not quite up to the high standards of its principal Anglo-German rival but are higher than small Citroëns of the past.

Does the DS3 pull it off? Well, like all cars, there are minor gripes. Those fragile feeling heater dials are disappointing but could be banished by an upgrade to digital climate control. More annoying is the ridiculously slender glovebox which could house a small padded envelope’s worth of car clutter and seat belt buckles that drop to the base of the belt due to a lack of a retaining pin at shoulder height. Such things are trivial but a customer moving from a larger, plusher car might find fumbling around the door sill irksome. And those looking for a sporting, engaging drive might be left somewhat dismayed. The DS3 is not bad in this regard, far from it, but others do it better. Saying that, this isn’t the performance model of the range and shrewd buyers will be aware of this.

However, the small Citroën stands alone in looks, simply being itself rather than a pastiche of its heritage. I left the car with a smile on my face and enjoyed my time at the helm – I’d expect some time behind the wheel of a DSport THP or Racing model would broaden that grin even further. But choosing between this model or a comparable MINI or Alfa MiTo, my cash would be heading France-wards.

Quick Stats

Model Tested: Citroën DS3 DStyle 1.6HDi 90

Top Speed: 112mph

0-60: 11.3sec

Average fuel consumption: 70.6mpg

CO2 emissions: 104g/km

Engine size: 4/1560cc common rail turbo diesel

Power: 90bhp

Torque: 169lb/ft

Price: £14,300 (April 2011)

Many thanks to Carole Johnson for the kind loan of the DS3 for this review.

Advertisements