DTW assesses the progress and current state of DS Automobiles after a decade on the market.
The launch of the Citroën DS 19 in 1955 was unarguably one of the seminal events in the history of the automobile. In its conception, design and engineering, the DS was at least a decade ahead of any competitor and left observers slack-jawed in amazement at Citroën’s audacity in bringing such a revolutionary car to market.
The DS 19 was first and foremost an engineering-led design. Its hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension gave it a peerless combination of superb ride quality and sharp handling. Its dramatically streamlined and aerodynamic body was highly functional, allowing it to cleave the air quietly and efficiently, but was also strikingly attractive. The DS had none of the ornamentation of a traditional luxury car. Instead, its appeal lay in the quality of its engineering and its dynamic prowess.
A trailblazer for other advanced Citroën models; notably the smaller GS and the extraordinary Maserati-engined SM, both launched in 1970, the DS itself still looked and felt modern and contemporary after almost two decades when it was finally replaced by the CX in 1974.
Unfortunately, Citroën’s design and engineering prowess was not rewarded with a level of sales that would ensure consistent profitability. In reality, many potential buyers were frightened off by the complexity of the company’s designs. Citroën had been owned by Michelin since the tyre manufacturer bought the automaker out of bankruptcy in 1935. It finally tired of bankrolling the company’s innovative but profligate business and sold out to Peugeot in 1974.
By the mid-2000’s, Citroën’s glory days were a distant memory. The company had endured thirty years of Peugeot’s parsimonious management and its reputation for engineering innovation had been grievously undermined by a series of exceptionally dull and dreary cars; often little more than rebodied Peugeots, positioned as value alternatives to their (slightly) more upmarket stablemates. Their only distinctive attributes were the large discounts and cheap financing deals offered to move them off the forecourt of an often indifferent and apathetic dealership.
Citroën looked enviously at competitors with more prestigious brands that were able to sell essentially similar vehicles at a significant premium. BMW had maintained and burnished its own aspirational sporting credentials and successfully relaunched MINI as a premium manufacturer of upmarket small(er) cars.
Likewise, Audi was able to sell rebodied VWs with a few extra trinkets to people who were happy to pay a significant premium for the bragging rights that came with the four-ring badge, even on the Polo-based A1. Citroën’s B-segment supermini offering was the practical but resolutely dull C3, a car distinguished only by its extreme averageness in all respects.
Citroën looked at its own back-catalogue and recognised the enduring resonance of DS. Those initials(1) still epitomised Citroën’s former greatness as a builder of innovative and impressive cars. A plan was developed whereby Citroën would relaunch DS as a premium sub-brand, starting with a new supermini, the DS3.
The DS3 was officially launched in January 2010. It carried Citroën badging and the Double-Chevron grille, but the company made clear from the outset that the DS3 would be the first of a range of Distinctive Series(2) models. It was pitched against the MINI and would similarly be offered with a wide range of personalisation options, including dual-colour paint schemes.
The DS3 represented a soft launch for the new sub-brand and it was well received in the market. Autocar magazine rated the petrol engined 1.6 litre Sport as the pick of the range. Tellingly, the magazine said that Citroën’s “cleverest move with the DS3 has been not to aim this model too high”. In other words, it was not quite a match for the MINI Cooper, but it was usefully cheaper too. It quickly gained a following, attracted by its distinctive styling and personalisation options. A total of 53,223(3) and 72,876 examples were sold in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Citroën, of course, had much bigger plans for DS and in 2011 launched the larger DS4 and DS5 models, respectively C and D-segment semi-premium challengers. This is where things began to go awry.
The DS4 was what might now be described as a crossover-coupé. It featured hidden rear door handles and, bizarrely, impractical fixed windows in the rear doors to accentuate the coupé profile. The DS4 leant rather too heavily on the decidedly undistinguished underpinnings of the C4. In particular, the car’s ride was seriously deficient.
Autocar described it as follows: “…the DS4 feels unsettled and lacking in composure. Hit a short sharp bump and the relative crudity of the torsion beam rear suspension makes itself felt as the chassis thumps noisily. At higher speeds, the same kind of rough roads upset the DS4’s vertical body composure and can cause the wheels to part company with the tarmac entirely.”
For a car attempting to leverage the reputation of the original DS for its superb ride quality, this was a grave disappointment, one that no amount of decorative flourishes could overcome. The magazine’s verdict was damning: “The DS4 isn’t distinctive enough and is too short on practicality, refinement and dynamic deportment to deserve recommendation for other reasons.” DS4 sales started slowly and peaked at 30,214 in 2012. Thereafter, they declined steadily until the model was discontinued in 2018. Total sales amounted to 151,875 over eight years.
The DS5 was, perhaps, a more serious attempt to recapture the spirit of the original model. It was launched at the Shanghai Auto Show in April 2011. The DS5 was a striking looking car with a semi-estate monobox profile, but a lower roof line than a typical MPV. It was not dissimilar in size and shape to the 2008 Lancia Delta, and certainly more distinctive than the derivative DS4. The plush aircraft-inspired interior looked interesting and attractive.
Autocar tested the DS5 and remarked upon its conceptual similarity to the original DS. Everyone who saw it thought the design distinctive and appealing. The interior came in for particular praise, being imaginatively styled and tastefully executed, with high-quality materials and no signs of cost-cutting(4).
Once again, however, the car’s dynamic qualities were found wanting. The DS5 was based on a version of the ageing PF2 platform that underpinned the DS4 (and a number of Peugeot models) with the wheelbase lengthened by 115mm (4½”). The conventional suspension and beam rear axle produced: ”…a fairly mediocre ride that is at best settled but short of sophistication, and at worst plies an uncomfortable blend of vague, unsettling body control and an intermittently grimace-inducing lack of bump absorption.” There was no compensation to be found in the car’s handling, which was described as “…acceptable, yes, but merely average, generally.”
Citroën had settled on a poor compromise between handling and ride quality, neither being remotely good enough to make up for the deficiencies of the other. The DS5 fared even worse in the market than its smaller sibling. Annual sales peaked in 2012 at 23,083 then fell away rapidly. A total of 86,174 were sold over eight years before the DS5 was discontinued in 2018.
Notwithstanding the deteriorating sales performance of the DS4 and DS5, Citroën decided to relaunch(5) DS Automobiles as a separate stand-alone marque in 2015. In Part Two, we will examine the models introduced by DS following its relaunch and appraise its current state and future prospects.
(1) A contraction and homophone of Déesse, the French word for Goddess.
(2) Citroen’s 2010 reinterpretation of the DS initials.
(3) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(4) Other reviewers, (including DTW’s editor), noted areas where the quality of the interior fittings was found wanting and cramped front footwells caused by the unusually wide centre console.
(5) Although ‘cast adrift’ might have been a more apt description in the circumstances.