Car review: DS 3 has style and substance

Carlton Boyce / 14 March 2016

If you can get over the complicated design and gimmicks of the DS 3, Citroen's sub brand delivers a stylish car that drives well.



Score

8/10

Review

The original Citroen DS, the car after which this sub-brand of the French company is named, was a revelation. 

It was – and here I am, if anything guilty of understatement, rather than hyperbole – other-worldly in its effect on the motoring public. 

Unveiled at the 1955 Paris Motor Show, 743 were sold in the first fifteen minutes, with 12,000 being sold in the first day. 

It looked like an alien’s interpretation of what a motor car should look like and perfectly encapsulated the excitement of the Atomic era and the promise a post-war Europe held.

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A heritage to live up to

It’s stood the test of time, too. A poll of 20 of the most influential car designers of our time by Classic and Sports Car saw it named the most beautiful car of all time. So the DS has, it is fair to say, heritage. And so how wouldn’t want a piece of that?

Enter the DS brand, a brand that is, Citroen insists, entirely separate from its parent company. The range of cars is DS 3, DS 4, and DS 5 – premium cars with (its words, not mine) the Spirit of avant-garde.

The new DS 3 is a restyled version of the old DS 3, so the mechanical bits remain largely untouched. 

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Handling prioritised above comfort

This means that it drives very well, courtesy of overly stiff suspension that places a premium on handling rather than comfort (although, to be fair, speed humps and the like are heard as much as felt). This is fine if your priorities are similarly aligned but slightly wearing if not. 

Otherwise it's all good news, with powerful, responsive and decently economical engines mated to light and slick-shifting gearboxes, and progressive and easily modulated brakes. 

The mechanical package is in the 95th percentile, so don’t worry that your new DS 3 might be lacking in that regard, because it won’t.

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An enjoyable drive

There is a range of petrol engines that span 80bhp through to 207bhp with two diesels engines producing 98bhp and 118bhp. 

I spent the most time in the 128bhp three-cylinder petrol and found it to be a charming and engaging companion, throaty and rorty when I wanted it to be and quiet and civilized when I didn’t. 

It loped along the motorway with ease and scampered along country lanes with aplomb. I enjoyed driving it a lot.

But the DS 3, like the rest of the DS range, is not just about how it drives, the car’s dynamic behaviour being the platform on which the spirit of avant-garde sits, which is where it all gets a bit confusing.

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Good design doesn't rely on gimmicks

The interior differentiates it from its competitors: if the Audi A1 is Bauhaus, the DS 3 is Baroque, offering a warm alternative to brutal modernism. 

Again, you’ll know where you stand on this particular continuum better than I, but I found the inclusion of a variable intensity air freshener and laser engraving on the dashboard as jarring as the ride: good design doesn’t rely on gimmicks like this, although you might be more tolerant, because the overall execution is very good; the ‘watchstrap’ seats in particular are as comfortable as they look, and they look very good indeed.

The exterior is similarly complex but works as a homogenous whole, especially in cabriolet form where the roof rolls back, giving you 90% of the benefits of a full-blown convertible with only 50% of the drawbacks. 

I spent a very comfortable morning driving around in single-digit temperatures with the roof down and didn’t once even consider raising it, even at motorway speeds.

A range of trim levels is offered, along with a bewilderingly wide range of trim, bodywork, and Cabrio roof colours, enabling owners to specify any one of three million different combinations. If I was paid by the word I’d list them all for you. (Comments in the box below please if you fancy starting a petition to make it so…)

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Hatchback versus Cabriolet

The hatchback is the more practical of the two, offering a bigger boot that’s also easier to access than the Cabrio’s post-box sized gap. Not that the drop-top’s boot is small, because it isn’t, but I wouldn’t want to try and post a week’s-worth of shopping through there with any regularity. 

The folding roof also obscures rearward vision to a remarkable extent when it’s fully folded, as it sits proud of the rear bodywork. If you leave it furled back rather than completely folded down, you can still see through the rear window, which seemed like a much better option to me for everyday driving, especially in traffic.

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A successful future for the brand

Prices are hard to gauge for such a new car, but DS Automobile dealers have been known to do the odd deal, so I wouldn’t expect you to have to write a cheque for the full amount.

Assuming, of course, that the DS 3 is the car for you. 

Of its competitors, the MINI has a more hyperactive nature and lacks the premium charm of the DS 3. The Fiat 500 is a simpler, less-pampering creature while the Audi A1 is cold and ruthlessly efficient in its execution. 

I’d suggest trying a DS 3 for yourself, because I predict that you’ll either fall for it’s charms or find it mildly irritating. But that’s OK, because the premium super-mini market is growing exponentially and DS Automobiles only needs to steal a fraction of it to be wildly successful, something I predict lies in its near future. 

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Competition

Best-in-class –  Audi A1: If simplicity is your thing, then the A1 will suit you perfectly. I love the interior and the way it drives, but if you found it a bit clinical then I’d understand.

The best of the rest – The DS 3 is a very good car with a cosseting, luxurious interior. If you admire Iris Apfel, then you need look no further.

Left-field alternative – The Renault Clio is simpler and cheaper, but far better to drive. It doesn‘t have the cachet of the DS or Audi, but you’re more confident than that, aren’t you?

Browse our motoring articles for more car reviews and useful tips.


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