Out of the Comfort Zone – 2012 Citroën DS5 Hybrid4 Road Test

Seeking a scintilla of substance beneath the style, Driven to Write’s Swiss correspondent is not impressed.

The shape is OK – but too many details distract from it
The shape is OK – but too many details distract from it

As every year in springtime, my C6 recently got serviced and had its tyres changed for summer conditions. My dealer, while not exactly around the corner, is capable and friendly, and has grown up in a family of Citroën lovers, so shares my preferences in cars. As a bonus, I often get interesting courtesy cars while my car is being looked after. This time, I was surprised with a DS5. It has long been on my list of cars I wanted to drive, so I happily accepted and looked forward to a new experience.

Quite proudly, the garage owner drove the car out of the narrow parking spot – without any engine noise. It had to be the ‘Hybrid4’ diesel hybrid version then, I concluded. This was even better than expected, as this special drive has always been the most fascinating part of the DS5 for me. The hybrid setup with the automated gearbox (a simple one, no double clutch and no torque converter) only needed a very short introduction. What is unusual for everyone used to standard ICE cars is the starting process. With the gear selector in neutral, a start button is pressed – and nothing happens except a few controls lighting up. Once the left instrument says ‘ready’, the lever can be put into ‘automatic’ and pressing the accelerator gets the car going. From there on, everything is straightforward driving, the car normally decides if it’s staying silent or if the diesel engine is required.

This gave me time for a first look around, to see and feel what the car is like. Two things I noticed immediately: it’s dark inside (especially on a rainy day – see the pictures) and there suddenly were bumps in the road where it has been smooth five minutes before. Otherwise, I felt at ease, all controls were in the expected places and the seats were quickly (and electrically) adjusted to a good driving position.

The slightly claustrophobic sensation could be eased a little by opening the blinds on the three glass panes of the roof. For this, there is a console of roof-mounted switchgear that looks quite fancy. It also includes buttons for the head-up display (more about that later) – not the most logical place for them, but still fun to operate. The downside of that switchgear is its bulky housing that protrudes into the headroom between the seats and – in combination with the high central console – reinforces the impression of confined space. The black trim throughout the cabin doesn’t help, either. I don’t know if it’s light coloured on any of the interior options.

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The suspension remained the biggest issue, however. It worked well on every kind of surface except ripples, dimples, waves, cracks, small offsets, potholes, cobblestone or gravel. And it was not very good at low or medium speeds. While it is believed that a hard setup is better for roadholding, the DS5 doesn’t demonstrate this. The wide (235 mm) Bridgestone Blizzak tyres and the wet roads might also have contributed to this, but the car showed heavy understeer and lost grip at the front wheels much too easily. It felt like even my usual 2-ton barge was much more eager to go into bends than this one. I had to drive cautiously in a way I haven’t experienced in any hydropneumatically-sprung cars I drive. I heard that the suspension has been improved later on (the car I tested was from 2012), but I can’t imagine it being much better, unless they have changed everything.

Not a DS5 kind of road
Not a DS5 kind of road

So far, I might have sounded quite negative, but there are positive points, too. The interior as well as the instruments and general ergonomics are pleasant – although it could be in a much cleaner style without all the decoration. The materials give an impression of high quality, and I like the variety of colour options to be had. At least if leather suits one’s taste. The textile options are limited to black. The test car had black-and-white leather which wouldn’t be my choice. First of all, the somewhat creamy white leather doesn’t match well with the glossy metallic inserts which have a bluish tint. And secondly, after 50,000 km, some of the white parts on the seats have started looking dirty. This might be remedied, but for a person like me who is rather reluctant to spend hours of car cleaning every Saturday, brown, red or blue (!) seem better suited. Apart from the positive things, the devil is in the details. Like Maserati, they felt they had to include an analogue clock. However, with its purplishly reflecting cover and its overall cheap look, it’s not doing the dashboard any favour.

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The instrument panel consists of three displays. At the left, instead of a rev counter, we find a sort of efficiency or economy gauge with a light blue area starting at zero and a red area above twenty percent. Below zero, a dark blue part shows recovery. It is a nice looking gadget, but in the end it’s not showing much more than that pressing the accelerator is bad. Insofar it’s a bit reminiscent of Citroën’s ‘econometre’ back in the ’80s that showed the same (minus the recovery part) with three LEDs. The speedo in the middle is also a kind of display, but has a real hand – quite nice looking and readable too. On the right there is the usual choice of trip computer functions, with the addition of a nice schema showing diesel engine, electrical motor and battery, and indicating which of them is active and where the energy flows.

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The same can also be shown in the bigger monitor in the central console which otherwise is home of the satnav or the radio display. Steering all these functions is actually a pleasure, as a small dial and a few keys are located in front of the central armrest, exactly where the driver’s hand rests. There is no searching for tiny buttons on a remote central console like in the C6.

What I liked most on the cockpit was the head-up display. At first I was sceptical, as it was not projected to the windscreen like in my car, but used a separate, small screen above the instrument cluster. But I found the numbers to be crisp and in a nice type, and although I had no plain sunlight to test its brightness, it seemed to have a pretty good range of adjustment. A nice touch is the colour change: in zero emission mode the speed is indicated in light blue, otherwise it’s white. The speed limiter / cruise control also changes colour when it’s activated. The only awkward bit is the satnav information. It interferes with the other displays and the numbers are misaligned – an irritating and avoidable flaw that lets a good thing down.

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Finally, playtime! Yes, for a playful mind as mine, a technology like the ‘Hybrid4’ drive offers great entertainment. When I first drove off, the system was on ‘auto’, which means that it chooses the way it drives according to speed, acceleration and battery charge. When stopped, the diesel engine is always out. Normally, this provides quite agreeable driving. The automated gearbox is astonishingly smooth, and so is the transition from electric to diesel. If speed and acceleration are moderate, it can hardly be heard and only betrays itself by slight vibrations.

What’s less pleasant is quicker acceleration, however. The engine then heralds its combustion principle very loudly. Furthermore, the gearbox takes quite some time to change gears, during which time the acceleration ceases. Once the new gear is engaged, the diesel boost sets in again, unexpectedly. I guess one will get used to that after a while, but coming from a torque converter, it’s irritating at the beginning. To some drivers, the strong decelerating effect of recovery might be another source of irritation. For me, it was rather welcome, as I like to regulate my speed without using the brakes too much. With this car, it’s even possible to hold a speed downhill.

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Next to the ‘auto’ mode, there are three others: ‘ZEV’, ‘sport’ and ‘4WD’. In town, ‘ZEV’ is certainly the most interesting one, as it allows silent driving in fully electrical, zero emission mode. It’s a pity that the battery capacity is very limited, and even when fully charged, electric drive is hardly possible for more than one kilometre. I also had times when a message was displayed that the mode was not available, or it was kicked out upon acceleration. And I found it hard to deliberately charge the battery when I knew that I wanted to use ZEV afterwards. The best possibility I found was to use the ‘sport’ mode. Here, the display showed charging more often than in ‘auto’. Otherwise, the accelerator has a much more sensitive characteristic in this mode, and for acceleration, both drives are often used simultaneously. It didn’t feel really fast and sporty, though. Last but not least, the ‘4WD’ mode does the obvious thing: both drives are engaged permanently, so all wheels are driven. I couldn’t test its benefits in snow or off-road, but it might be a good thing to have here in the Alps.

What’s my conclusion? The DS5 definitely is not a car for me. The hybrid drive which I still find fascinating is spoiled by the rough diesel engine. It should have been combined with something much smoother. I even doubt that the consumption would be worse with a good petrol hybrid. The figures I got were no different from a standard diesel car of similar power. And then there is the suspension. I don’t understand how such a setup could ever get an OK to be let on the road.

It has a nice stance – especially from behind
It has a nice stance – especially from behind

It was discussed in this DTW article whether the Citroën C4 Cactus is a cynical car. I tended to agree, but after knowing the DS5, this verdict has to be revised. The Cactus is much more Citroën and fairly honest in comparison, while the DS5 speaks of cynicism and ineptitude. It’s not only a disappointment, but rather an insult to anyone who knows and loves big Citroëns.

After this test drive, I got back my C6. The soft, pillowy ride almost felt like driving a DS for the first time. I’ve never had this feeling after any other courtesy car.

All photos by the author

10 thoughts on “Out of the Comfort Zone – 2012 Citroën DS5 Hybrid4 Road Test”

  1. Thank you Simon. Great review of a Citroen, but not as we know it … and now not a Citroen anyway. Out of interest, I looked up both of Car Magazines DS5 reviews. It engendered a great deal of goodwill, and they obviously wanted to like it, but the poor driving experience prevented that. Yet again on these pages we have to ask how two companies that produced such fine suspension systems could forget how to do it? It’s a real lost opportunity for PSA. There are many things about the concept I could live with, though that poky rear view isn’t one of them.

  2. Interesting review. Back in the days of the CAR magazine forum, a rather heated discussion took place about this car and whether the ride could be improved by upgrading dampers/shock absorbers. One guy was used to doing that on his own cars and thought there was potential there, another was adamant that when he buys a car he expects it to be perfect or at least as good as can be. Both are valid arguments however what works for one driver may not be good enough for another, and cars are built to a budget and there should always be room for upgrading some key components, although some are more difficult to replace than others.

  3. I got really excited about the DS5 when I first saw the pictures. It’s distinctive and unconventionally stylish, if fussy. I guess it was the same with the Cactus. But being based on the same platform as the first gen C4 Picasso and having nothing of engineering note of interest bar the Hybrid drivetrain shared with Peugeot, which emerges as fairly crudely executed, it’s a sham on fancy wheels. Now it’s worse as it’s been inculcated into a sham brand which besmirches a motoring icon. I should not let it, but it makes me angry.

  4. The DS5 is a super looking car let down by the details. The interior feels unexpectedly tight –I say ‘feels’ as objectively there is space to be had. Subjectively though it feels small, like a big room with a low chandelier, filled with too much furniture. The huge edifice of the dashboard looms at you, and for a premium car there is far too much cheap looking plastic inside. I’ve never driven a DS5 but in a car lacking sporting pretence a firm, fidgety ride is unforgivable. Nice seats though.

  5. Very good roadtest – Simon!
    I like the DS5 – especially the versions with the senseless roof windows and nice leather seats.
    It is one of these cars that makes you smile when you are approaching it. Like an Alfa Brera – for example.
    But i am afraid, there is not a single logical reason to buy one. Like an Alfa Brera – for example.

  6. it is hard (no pun intended) to believe that a Citroën would be known for such a harsh ride. this car deserved a better platform, a bit more width, the hydropneumatic suspension, better fit and finish, and the list goes on. too beautiful, too promising, too ill-conceived.

  7. Thanks for all the comments.
    I have to say that all the pointless details like switches and windows in the roof or bi-colour seats are the bits I like about the DS5 — in a way, the C6 is similar in this respect, albeit in a very different style.

    As Sean cites from Car Magazine, I actually tried to meet the DS5 with goodwill, too, and I really wish I’d have liked it more. I think I could live with all the flaws in the drivetrain, and with less-than-perfectly fitting trim as well – but never with a granite suspension.

    And I forgot to mention: there is one thing I learned from this car. I’m definitely hooked on silent, electrical driving. But in something that allows for this more often, ideally always. The C6 might well be my last daily driver with an exhaust.

  8. An excellent review. I haven’t tried the car, but what’s written concurs with opinions expressed outwith the dead tree press and its online offshoots.

    I don’t care for the automated manual gearbox, which I think was developed by Marelli. The Chinese industry has taken to such things, but it’s automatic on the cheap, and it shows.

    There’s a lot of cleverness being applied to hybrid drive systems, and more to come as batteries become smaller and cheaper. Volvo seem to be doing plug-in more cleverly than VAG; disappointing as Audi were doing some clever things – Wankel range-extender, gearboxless e-tron – which never got beyond the concept stage.

    Like Simon, I’m won over by electric drive. Not just silent, but with full torque from zero revs. Only a large capacity V12 with an old style automatic, with a huge torque converter and not many ratios, can remotely compare.

    To briefly digress to quotidian matters, I turned up this morning at work to pick up the Leaf, to be told that some bad person had stuffed in the front end. £6000 worth of damage, £3000 of that electrical hardware. I was put in mind of Kavanagh’s words:

    “And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.”

    With nothing else available apart from the Smart mhd death-trap – “Wer den Tod nicht scheut, fährt Smart” – I resorted to a universal 2-litre diesel with a conventional automatic – my own.

    It’s just not the same…

  9. Pretty much mirrors my thoughts on the DS5.

    I quite like the distinctive but somewhat fussy exterior, and the light coloured interior was quite a pleasant place to be.

    However, it was let down by squeaks and rattles from the interior (on a six month old car), and the feel of some of the plastics was not the best. It did not compare well to our then 7 year old Fiat Bravo, which actually used nice interior materials and was very well put together. It had no rattles when we sold it after 8 years of ownership.

    The ride though was the biggest disappointment. Harsh yet still managing to feel somewhat uncontrolled, and noisy on the coarse stone chip that often blights our roads. Substantially worse than the shorter wheelbased, more sporty Bravo.

    We really wanted to like the car, but it ended up a real let down. A real missed opportunity.

    1. I can’t get over the appearance. The cramped interior also disappoints. You’d wonder how so many pathological liars were rounded up for the focus groups. Or what were they asked to compare it to. I mentioned elsewhere that the same firm supplies trim to PSA and Mercedes. Production engineers can be hired and poached. I mean, the technology and knowledge exists to make a squeek-proof car. What stops PSA using it? Plainly the cost-cutting mentality is not working.

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