Concluding our latterday examination of DS Automobiles, we draw some conclusions.
The 2015 relaunch of DS Automobiles as a separate stand-alone marque necessitated a facelift for the existing DS3, DS4 and DS5 models. The Citroën badging and logo was replaced with a new, stylised DS badge, while the distinctive Double-Chevron front grille was replaced by a rather generic hexagonal item. The stylised DS initials appeared twice on the front end of the facelifted cars, in large size within the grille and on a smaller square badge on the painted panel above. At the rear, DS also appeared twice; stylised in the centre of the tailgate and offset to the right in a plain script suffixed with the model number.
Did the abundance of badges indicate a degree of unease about DS’s name recognition, and its prospects as a stand-alone marque? This badging led to a certain confusion as to the names of the relaunched models; for example, was it DS DS3 or simply DS 3? The official DS website indicates that the latter is correct.
In any event, the relaunch had no apparent impact on DS sales, which continued to decline. The formerly successful DS 3 was already five years old and, in 2016, its first full year as a DS, a total of 38,690(1) were sold in Europe, roughly half the number of sales it achieved at its peak in 2011. Moreover, the DS 4 and DS 5 would both be discontinued in 2018 because of poor sales. To become viable, DS urgently needed convincing new models.
The first of these was the DS 7 Crossback, launched in 2017. This is a mid-sized crossover which looks like an amalgam of contemporary Audi Q5 and Lexus NX styling cues. It is not unpleasant, but rather generic in appearance. The DS 7 had an auspicious launch: President-Elect Emmanuel Macron used a customised open-topped version for his inauguration on 14th May, seven months before the model went on general sale in France.
Autocar magazine tested the DS 7 Crossback after its UK launch in early 2018. The reviewer remarked on the lack of originality in its design. The interior appeared to be more distinctive and, at least superficially, quite luxurious, with an abundance of diamond-shaped motifs in the upholstery and trim. However, there were also plenty of hard plastics to be found, undermining its premium aspirations.
Although based on the same PSA EMP2 architecture that underpins the Peugeot 3008 and 5008, the Prestige-spec DS7 came with a feature called DS Active Scan: a camera monitors the road surface ahead and automatically adjusts the shock absorbers accordingly. Unfortunately, this system failed to deliver the hoped-for ride quality, which was described as follows: “The DS 7 rides softly and with adequate comfort at low speeds. The car’s suspension conducts plenty of road noise into the cabin, however, and while it deals with bigger, softer-edged lumps and bumps well enough, it too often allowed the 19in wheels and 50-profile tyres of our test car to thump and crash a bit over sharper scars and imperfections.”
Overall, the DS 7 was summarised as being generous in cabin and boot space, with interesting design details and a punchy, quiet and economical petrol engine. However, it was adjudged to be lacking in originality and insufficiently polished to compete on equal terms with its premium rivals.
The DS 7 was followed in 2018 by the DS 3 Crossback, aimed squarely at the Audi Q2 and MINI Countryman. In design terms, it is a strange confection of two distinctly different styles: rounded, organic and somewhat bloated below the waistline, geometric above. The shark’s fin detail on the B-pillar of the original DS 3 supermini is reprised, although it looks rather dissonant on a five-door vehicle.
Surprisingly, the design of the new model has little in common with its larger sibling. It may be the case that DS wants to give each of its models a distinctive and unique style, but is this wise for a new company with so little brand awareness or equity?
The DS 3 Crossback is based on the new CMP platform co-developed with PSA’s Chinese partner, Dongfeng Motor. PSA reportedly spent €100m refitting its Poissy plant in readiness for the new model, which was hoped to be the mainstay of the company’s range.
Autocar tested the DS 3 Crossback in early 2019. The reviewer was unconvinced by the exterior style and thought the interior, although distinctive, was lacking both in terms of ergonomics and quality: entry and egress was restricted by high and wide sills, there was poor vision from the rear seats, the diamond-motif stylised secondary controls were inconsistent in their action, and plenty of hard plastics were to be found at lower levels in the cabin.
The new platform was equipped with independent rear suspension. The car was softly sprung with light but uncommunicative steering, so not very engaging to drive. Unfortunately, there was no compensation to be found in its ride quality, which felt restless and under-damped, with significant cabin noise generated by road imperfections. Overall the magazine summarised the DS 3 Crossback as follows: “Unremarkable handling and a choppy ride are notable offenders, as is an interior that fails to deliver the sort of space and convenience that compact crossover buyers are now used to.”
DS 7 Crossback European sales were 68,074 from launch until the end of November 2020, an average of just 1,660 units a month. DS 3 Crossback European sales were 35,560 from launch until the same date, an average of just 1,482 units a month. Even allowing for the disruption caused by Covid-19, these are weak numbers and suggest that DS Automobiles is still far from establishing itself as a serious player.
Perhaps DS Automobiles had hoped the burgeoning Chinese market might provide a route to viability? The company offers a wider range of models there, including the DS 9, a large saloon based on an extended Peugeot 508 platform, which is scheduled to go on sale in Europe from late 2020. Unfortunately, the situation there is even more dire than in Europe: in 2014 DS sold 26,008 vehicles in China, but numbers have declined precipitously since and only 1,254 DS vehicles were sold there in 2019. In the eleven months to the end of November 2020, a derisory total of just 381 DS vehicles were sold in China.
PSA’s acquisition of GM’s European business in March 2017 and FCA in December 2019 leaves the enlarged group, now renamed Stellantis, with a plethora of overlapping mainstream brands, but no convincing premium competitor. Rather than persist with DS, should Stellantis instead consider putting its energy into Alfa Romeo, or even Lancia? Although shamefully neglected, and just about defunct in the case of the latter, these storied Italian marques at least have a fine history on which to launch a full-scale revival.
DS Automobiles has promised a third Crossback model, the 4, for late 2021. This will be a PHEV in a crossover-coupé style that will sit between the 3 and 7 in the range. Time will tell whether the 4 will be good enough to turn around the company’s fortunes, but the recent precedence is not encouraging. The 2014 Devine DS concept had raised hopes for more attractive and coherent DS designs, but these hopes have not yet been met.
For now, DS Automobiles seems only to be going backwards. Its most convincing model was the 2009 DS 3 and its current offerings smack of cynicism, attempting to overlay prosaic underpinnings with a superficial veneer of luxury and sophistication. In that regard, DS Automobiles is the polar opposite of the wonderful Déesse from which it takes its name. In November 2020, DS announced that it would stop selling petrol and diesel vehicles from 2025 and would only offer electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles thereafter.
It is a moot point as to whether or not DS Automobiles can be turned around but its current situation is not propitious. The PSA/FCA merger to form Stellantis received almost universal shareholder approval on 4th January 2021 and should be completed by the end of the month. The new company will be juggling a portfolio of fourteen brands. Facing challenges on a number of different fronts, it is difficult to see DS, at best a marginal player within the enlarged group, being a priority.
(1) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.