The DS model with the most potential is designed to tap into the strong consumer desire for crossovers.
For: Charismatic styling, effortless ride quality, the best DS here
Against: Poor rear legroom, build quality and tech level not fully to premium expectation.
DON’T mention the ‘C’ word: At least not in respect to the DS range.
Yes, these models used to be badged as Citroens and, yes, they’re still designed, built and distributed by that PSA partner brand.
But DS is now wholly a sub-marque in its own right with more elite ambition – it’s striving to become known as France’s Audi equivalent – and ditching the double-chevron association is part of that transformation.
So, from now on DS is a ‘secret Citroen’; one that is but isn’t: Kinda like Lexus is to Toyota.
Anyway, these cars no longer carry the Citroen name and also lose any Citroen signature styling: Hence why a key 2016 update being a different bonnet and grille. The original one looked fantastic yet had to go because it was shaped to emulate the double chevron badge. Chic but inappropriate.
DS isn’t standing wholly apart from the Peugeot-Citroen crowd. The brand will still base its product on PSA product developed for the masses. Also, there’s no wholly separate DS sales network here, as in Europe; the penetration all three French brands achieve is way too modest to warrant that level of commitment. Last year Peugeot moved just 759 vehicles and Citroen/DS, which then represented as one, accounted for 218. However, DS is supposed to sit in in its own bespoke area within a PSA dealership, and not all Peugeot/Citroen dealers will represent it, for a start, in metro areas – two in Auckland area, one each in Wellington and Christchurch and another planned for Hamilton.
So, that’s the background. Now to the product: There are three cars in the range, but just the DS4 Crossback tested here could be truly described as being a fresh product, and even that’s a stretch because it’s essentially an elevated edition of the now-dropped DS4 hatchback that was sold here for several years.
Still, it is nonetheless a newer car than the DS3 and DS5 that sit either side size and price-wise. Those models, though updated this year, are very much in their twilight years. Their replacements are already in development.
The $54,990 Crossback is actually the first product designed specifically for DS since it broke from Citroen. Given our market’s love of crossovers and sports utilities, it should be the standout performer for this marque even though it’s on the periphery of that zone, being a front-drive compact hatch meted the faux off-road treatment.
The DS4 hatch was considered something of a breakaway from conformity, being a regular hatch that blended in overtly coupe looks.
Some might view the Crossback development as representing a further step from the norm, but it’s not as eclectic as some (yes, I’m looking at you, Nissan Juke) and, when you start considering the detailing, it really becomes quite engaging, even though there’s the usual inevitable confusion about the ‘hidden’ rear door handles.
Even though Citroen doesn’t plan to provide this car with four-wheel-drive, it still relays a strong visual association with the light-duty off-seal sector, so there’s an element of ‘can do’ the look.
Unique to the Crossback are black roof bars, natty wheel arch extensions (also in black) and larger wheels, along with an increase in ride height which means you sit three centimetres higher than you used to in the standard DS4.
DS is all about premium so quality leather, full electrics, alloys, sat nav and a trip computer, climate control air conditioning, heated and massaging front seats and xenon headlamps all feature. For all that, there’s nothing more on the specification list than you will find on any other like-priced Euro.
In fact, while standard safety features includes blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera, front and rear parking sonar, automatic lights and wipers, LED foglights with cornering function, tyre pressure monitoring and six airbags, it doesn’t provision the more active accident-avoidance aides that are now starting to filter through into some other brands. Even an active cruise control is not yet a possibility.
But it does have panache, though the ambience is more about luxe than utter subtlety. One of the first things you notice is the panoramic windscreen, which comes as standard. What one colleague unkindly equated to the equivalent of a receding hairline stretches well into the roof and gives a bright, airy feel to the cabin up front. There are two-part extending sun visors that mean you don't get blinded with sunstrike.
Even though it isn’t wholly avante garde in respect to specification, there’s been reasonable attempt to bring a dash of sophistication to the interior. Soft-touch plastics are used for the upper dashboard, there’s are some suave-looking trim pieces around the console and it’s ergonomically more sound than the other DS products – though not wholly solid.
It’s probably a needs-must solution to place all the switches for the electrically-adjustable driver’s seat along the side of the chair’s base, but that means everything is operated by touch alone, so until you can familiarity it’s easy to hit the wrong button. In my case, seeking to activate the seat heating and instead triggering massage function that is actually a bit of annoyance.
Also, some of the buttons feel a bit loose when you press them and the infotainment system, though comprehensive in its abilities, just has a look and operability that seems a touch dated for the times. Some of the functions that operate through the touch screen are a touch too fiddly.
It’s this kind of thing which should dissuade an owner from undertaking a show-and-tell showdown with friends who might be driving the latest Audi A3 or BMW 1-Series.
The shape, especially the swooping roofline, also impinges on practicality, but rear seat passengers will also find legroom is almost as tight as the headroom. The roof also curves down at the sides and this, plus the effect of the rear doors being a bit narrow, makes egressing and accessing the back seat a challenge for well-formed adults.
The boot is reasonably sized, but the narrow opening and high lip restrict your access to the space, and folding the rear seats down leaves a load area that’s stepped and sloped.
Petrol engines have surprising sway in this sector; there’s been a gradual recognition that the latest direct injection types can be almost as frugal as their like-capacity diesel alternates and, of course, aren’t encumbered by Road User Charges or that usual diesel premium.
At the same token, with diesel being such a French thing, it would be really unusual for the DS4 Crossback to come with anything else. The car’s 133kW/400Nm 2.0-litre is a PSA stalwart, being used in a variety of Peugeot and Citroen products over recent years, but has been given a light refresh to gain 13kW and 60Nm more than it used to. It also burns around half a litre less fuel on the combined cycle and has become Euro Six emissions compliant.
Whereas the Germans have begun to shift to seven, eight and nine-speed transmissions, PSA is happy to remain with a six-stage automatic, but it is still a smooth-shifting unit and one that works well in this engine’s company, regardless of the big improvement in power and muscularity.
The DS4 can move off the line with good pace when asked to – the maker cites 0-100kmh in 8.6 seconds, which is a 0.7s improvement on the old DS4 hatch – but really it is more of a marathon runner than a sprinter. What you get here is exactly what you would want from a decent diesel; loads of torquey heft that uncoils in relaxed, yet unremitting fashion from quite low revs. It’s not an engine that needs to be driven with a heavy foot; indeed, that’s wholly self-defeating. There’s no discernable increase in go-forward but the refinement gives way to very audible gruffness. Best just to keep the revs at no higher than 200rpm and cruise within that torque zone.
The pseudo off-roader pretension has a definite plus in respect to ride quality. Assuredly, the hydropenumatic set-up that the marque’s maker is about to wholly consign to history will always be a barometer for all modern Citroen/PSA product in this regard, yet it’s fair to suggest the Crossback puts its extended suspension to good use by offering a very comfortable cruising gait.
It’s a shame the seats weren’t as comfortable as its on-seal demeanour; it’s s a shame the short squab and awkwardly-shaped backrest become a discomfort during open road schlepping. Without that, you’d be happy to cruise without stop all day.
Even though body roll is kept relatively well in check, moreso than you might expect given the body height, it’s not a car to be chucked around. As much as it holds well in bends, even resisting being thrown off line by mid-corner bumps, the steering doesn’t feel especially natural and the slight lofty driving position possibly doesn’t enhance any sense of one-ness.
The gearbox’s sport mode certainly livens things up, but is hardly required to achieve decent pace and, as the engine is no particular ball of fire – compare with a BMW 320d to understand how different it can be behind a German badge – the car as a whole has a different, more insouciant attitude toward getting from A to B.
It’s standard form when driving any French car to make mention that it probably won’t be to everyone’s taste. Nothing changes; even though the Crossback is more conventional than some Citroens, it definitely has slap-in-the-face attitude. That’s in keeping with the DS ethos but inevitably means that what will seem daringly risqué to some will come across as being simply too risky to others.
All the same, it a car of charisma and character. The styling is classy and even though the fitout is not going to set any new standard, it is probably the best bet of the three DS offers here at the moment. Future product should be even more promising.