Think of them as the Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Prada, or other chic brands of the small car world – the growing class of “classless” runabouts currently bringing a smile to the faces of bean-counters at BMW, Fiat Group and now Citroën.
In an echo of the little “original” Mini being bought in the 1960s by celebrities ranging from pop stars to princes, but on a considerably larger scale, we are witnessing the rebirth of the small car as style and fashion statement, not merely as a means of progress from A to B.
And if that means paying a hefty premium over a similar-sized, worthy but workaday car capable of doing exactly the same transportation job, patently there is a growing number of buyers saying – recession regardless – “Who cares?” Furthermore, they have been backing up that attitude by specifying, to the delight of those bean-counters, every pricy (and for carmakers, deliciously high-margin) extra available, from chequered-flag roofs to leather interiors, high-performance packs, specially painted alloy wheels and dashboards, plus almost every electronic gizmo known to man.
The renaissance has been inspired, of course, by BMW’s 21st-century reinterpretation of the Mini, worldwide cumulative sales of which have reached over 1.7 million since its launch in 2001. Fiat has jumped on the bandwagon with remarkable success, selling in less than three years some 550,000 of its cute, retro-styled Cinquecento (500), harking back to the urban runabout that almost single-handedly motorised Italy in the 1950s and 1960s. And now, from Citroën, we have the novel DS3.
The marketing men at Citroën have coined the phrase “anti-retro” for the DS3 sales campaign, representing a less-than-subtle dig at BMW and Fiat for their reliance on past icons to exploit the new fashion-car niche. In reality, Citroën is also borrowing from the past – but for a name only. The DS designation harks back to Citroën’s gloriously quirky and innovative “flying armchairs”, the DS19 and 21 of the 1950s and 1960s, with their revolutionary self-levelling hydraulic suspension, which allowed a wheel to be changed without a jack, or the car even to be driven around slowly on the three remaining wheels. (Been there, done that, got the photos.)
The original DS models looked so futuristic and so unlike anything else on the road that, at their Paris motor show launch, they were unanimously dubbed “the spaceships on wheels”. The DS3, whose design team was led by Briton Mark Lloyd, is no less characterful and distinctive, while eschewing entirely any styling links with Citroëns past.
However, apart from looking remarkably well built, the DS3’s style and “premium” feel account for almost its entire USP. Rummage beneath the bonnet and you will find no modern-day equivalents of the revolutionary technology that made the original DS such a sensation at its launch. The driver, once seated, is confronted by a dashboard as quirky and jaunty and fresh in design as the extrovert exterior. But mechanically, all versions of the DS3 are essentially conventional, three-door, front-wheel drive small hatchbacks, albeit unusually fun to drive ones.
To its credit, the DS3 has almost the go-kart handling of the Mini while offering considerably more practicality. Two adults could travel for some distance in the rear seats (not the case with the Mini), and there is more than token boot space. As for its other main rival, the little Fiat, the Citroën is altogether more fun to drive, with one notable exception: Fiat’s Abarth 500 Esseesse will shake a driver’s teeth out on an indifferent British back road, but it is an absolute riot to drive – perhaps even more pleasing than the Mini.
Just like the 500 and the Mini, however, the sales appeal of the DS3 is expected to rest mainly on style and panache. Indeed, its links with the fashionistas are already well forged. DS3s, in full Yves Saint Laurent livery, have recently provided the official transport for film and fashion stars at the YSL retrospective exhibition at Paris’s Petit Palais.
There is a wide range of models, with five engines and three specification levels available. Three 1.4 and 1.6 litre petrol engines, developed jointly with BMW and to be found also in the Mini, offer 95, 120 or 154 horsepower. The two 1.6 litre diesels – the Peugeot/ Citroën group’s own – include one version emitting just 99g of CO2 per km, thus exempting a DS3 so fitted from British road tax entirely, as well as London’s congestion charge.
The three specification levels – DSign, DStyle and DSport – all share the same basic eye-catching styling, and even the £11,700 entry-level DSign has an MP3 player, electric mirrors and windows, and electronic stability and cruise-control as standard.
It is necessary to move up to the DStyle and DSport, however, to gain access to the front bumper-mounted LED running lights, air-conditioning, contrasting body and roof colours, black lacquered dashboard and 16in, diamond-pattern alloys.
With the range-topping DSport’s £15,900 price tag you also get a rear spoiler, racing-style drilled aluminium foot pedals, twin exhausts, yet more special black alloy wheels, climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, a decent hi-fi system and a USB port. And that’s before the “personalisation” process (already such a big earner for BMW and Fiat on the Mini and 500) begins.
The DS offers 38 body and roof colour choices and dozens of options for painting trim, such as door mirrors and wheels. There is a wide choice of roof and other decals, some distinctly dubious. (Why on earth would anyone want a roof so speckled with white spots as to resemble a seagull’s practice bombing range?) There are half-a-dozen paint and carbon fibre-effect options for the dashboard and a wide choice of leathers and other materials for the interior trim.
Just like Mini and Fiat, the marketing people at Citroën expect the majority of DS3s to be ordered laden with nice profit-boosting extras. They are also offering an admirable three years’ worth of routine servicing for £200. But to that, I suspect the affluent urbanite owner’s response will tend to be: “How jolly interesting … Rupert, pass the Bolly.”