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Reworked supermini aims to take the fight to Mini with a focus on styling and interior comfort - but competition is fierce at this end of the market

The artist and fashionista supermini formerly known as the Citroën DS3 made a splash when it was launched in 2010, but ekeing out its success story over a full model cycle is proving a challenge for the newly founded DS Automobiles.

Worldwide, the DS 3 has now reached almost 400,000 owners, and nowhere is it more popular than in the UK. But its popularity is slowly declining.

Bold-looking new three-dimensional ‘DS wing’ replaces Citroën’s double chevrons on the front

By 2015, fewer than 50,000 units were being delivered inside the EU – in a year when Mini almost tripled that tally with three-door and five-door hatchbacks.

Attempts to keep orders flooding in have included the introduction of the 3 Cabriolet in 2013 and the update of most of the car’s engine range, its styling and its equipment over several gradual steps since.

But now comes a bigger overhaul.

New styling, new engines, new infotainment features and a new hot hatch derivative are the ingredients being used here to spice up the 3’s recipe. And we’re taking an interest, because the 3 is car we rated highly at its launch for its frothy performance and rounded, engaging handling.

The headline additions to the range are the new 128bhp turbocharged 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech version and the new 207bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre 3 Performance variant that’s out to give Mini John Cooper Works buyers a little pause for thought.

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The version we’re testing is, in its own way, as rare a bird as the 207bhp tyre-shredder: a 1.6-litre BlueHDi diesel supermini that promises to mix sub-10.0sec 0-60mph sprinting with 70mpg-topping fuel economy for less than £20,000.

Peppy diesels remain uncommon among small hatchbacks, it’s falling to the premium brands – such as DS, Mini, Audi and Alfa Romeo – and their more generous profit margins to supply them. So is this a good one and should we grab it where we can?

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DESIGN & STYLING

DS 3 rear

The most obvious part of this facelift is clearly where we should begin its description, slapped across the front of the car about as conspicuously as Carla Bruni’s latest pair of anti-paparazzi sunglasses.

The 3’s new chrome grille seems less a styling tweak and more an attempt to reverse dwindling visibility.

The idea of hybrid xenon/LED headlights sounds like a half-measure, but they’re actually very good

Having originally offered a more refined, understated aspect than the ‘single-frame’ stare of an Audi A1 six years ago, the 3 has now swung to the opposite end of the can’t-beat-’em-join-’em scale and set out to upstage its German rival with a grille of even bigger, bolder, pointier and shinier presence.

The extensions at its edges, reaching out to connect the headlights and foglights, are ‘double wings’, say DS’s stylists – there for added impact. There’s certainly plenty of that.

But however impactful, the car’s new look is at odds with the effortless pizzazz of what went before it and we’re not convinced that owners of the outgoing car will approve. For what it’s worth, more of our testers reacted against that grille than were in favour of it, which may be bad news for DS because this grille will be introduced to other models later on.

Mercifully, most of the rest of the 3’s styling has been left well enough alone. Its two-tone colour scheme survives, as does its distinctive ‘shark fin’ B-pillar, which conspires with the ‘floating’ roof above to make the car look more coupé-like (and, by association, a good deal more desirable) than the average three-door hatchback.

The 3’s engine range now includes only one naturally aspirated choice: an 81bhp 1.2-litre petrol unit at its very base. Turbocharged petrols of 1.2 and 1.6 litres and 1.6-litre diesels fill out the pricier options.

All are mated to manual gearboxes of either five or six speeds, with the exception of the 109bhp 1.2 turbo PureTech, which is offered with an alternative six-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox.

The 118bhp 1.6 BlueHDi engine in our test car is DS’s range-topping diesel, and although it isn’t the most powerful or the most frugal oil-burner on offer in a current supermini, it is particularly interesting in a post-Dieselgate sense.

Like all of the PSA Peugeot Citroën group’s new-gen BlueHDi diesels, it uses oxidation catalysis, selective catalytic reduction (via urea injection) and a particulate trap to ensure that what comes out of the exhaust pipe meets statutory emissions limits.

INTERIOR

DS 3 interior

The 3 doesn’t seem like the most practical car of its kind, because it’s offered in three-door form only, but compared with its competitors and sized up by the doughty Autocar road test tape measure, its cabin measures up quite well.

You wouldn’t ask a large adult to travel in the rear of the cabin, but it’s easier to swing yourself into and out of than it might otherwise be, thanks to a conveniently large grab handle that you’ll find on the inside of the ‘shark fin’ B-pillar panel.

Etchings of famous Paris landmarks are part of the optional ‘Irresistible Paris’ trim kit

There are three seatbelts fitted across the back, and although a new Mini offers more rear cabin space, an Audi A1 offers a fair bit less. The 3 scores moderately well on boot space, too, with a particularly deep loading area and room in there for a spacesaver spare as well.

Not that anything as rational as practicality is ever likely to sell such a car. Distinguishing material lavishness and flourish will be much more convincing for typical 3 customers and – balanced against some less convincing material quality, ergonomic design and infotainment features, all of which we’ll come to – there’s probably just enough of both to seal the deal.

Our Shark Grey test car had DS’s ‘Irresistible Paris’ accessory pack fitted, imposing a silver-grey fascia foil where a more colourful choice might have lifted the cheeriness of the car’s cabin ambience usefully. Even so, there’s enough ritzy chrome decoration about the fascia to make it look instantly special – from the bezelled instruments to the chrome-finished and leather-bound handbrake.

Spend any length of time in the car and you’ll realise that there’s limited depth to the cabin’s special feel, though. The hard secondary plastics of the door cards and dashboard have little tactile appeal, the car’s column stalks and minor switchgear feel a little cheap, and the general shortage of storage space around the interior betrays the lack of thought given to usability.

There’s no cupholder in the car at all, for example, and the best place to store a smartphone in our test car was inside the optional front armrest, around the edge of which DS provides no cut-out through which to trail a USB cable without trapping it.

DS’s new 7.0in infotainment system for the 3 isn’t going to cause anyone at Audi or Mini to lose sleep, but it does at least usefully update the car to a state where it no longer feels cringeworthily out of step with its rivals on multimedia and connectivity options.

The system is slightly cumbersome to use, primarily because its ‘home’ menu button is positioned down low, within a finger’s stretch of the gearlever — and, in every other way, you navigate using the touchscreen. Why there isn’t a ‘home’ button on the screen is an infuriating mystery.

The screen’s graphics are neatly and colourfully rendered, although they’re a long way from looking outstanding by the standards expected of a premium brand. The system itself is fairly quick to respond and the navigation is averagely well detailed.

DS’s Mirror Screen system — whereby you can connect the infotainment screen to your Apple or Android smartphone and ‘mirror’ your navigation, messaging and entertainment apps on the main display — is a £100 option that our test car didn’t have.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

128bhp PureTech DS 3 hatchback

As with so much else about the 3, it’s the Mini that sets the benchmark in this department – and because BMW supplies the diesel engines to Oxford, that means the French car has to go up against the Cooper D’s cutting-edge B37 1.5-litre triple on power and the Cooper SD’s 2.0-litre four on price.

As respectable as PSA’s 1.6 BlueHDi unit undeniably is, it’s not quite in the same league as either of those Mini options; the first is a remarkable combination of efficiency and polish, while the second makes the Mini far more responsive and rapid than the 3 tested here ever had a chance of being.

The 128bhp PureTech option provides a little more pep, but not enough to outdo the BlueHDi’s superior efficiency

Putting the class-leading question to bed early leaves us free to focus on the positives here, of which there are many.

As we’d hoped, the 1.6-litre motor is a likeable all-rounder. It’s relatively refined, keen to rev, parsimonious to a fault and yet decently spirited with it. True, that sense of spirit didn’t quite translate into the claimed 0-62mph time, but the 3 was slightly hampered on the day we figured it by damp conditions and an anxiousness for getting all of its 210lb ft down early.

Nevertheless, under 10.0sec for the 0-60mph sprint is sufficient for the car not to feel ponderous away from the line (the common diesel-engined supermini malaise), and that healthy peak torque figure results in pleasing in-gear flexibility – even from the predictably lengthy final ratio.

The six-speed gearbox itself is a maladroit old thing. It’s not unpleasant to use but is a little too long in throw and a bit short on sophistication, given the competition.

True MPG evaluation wasn’t possible at the time of testing – a shame, because in the 47 miles of fairly merciless Millbrook treatment, the 3 returned 29.3mpg, making the 67.4mpg trip computer average we registered on the gentle 80-mile drive home all the more creditable. 

RIDE & HANDLING

DS 3 rear cornering

Our regard for the original 3, beyond its pleasing-to-the-eye packaging, was linked to the way Citroën made the car handle. Clearly benchmarked against (what else?) the Mini’s zappy incisiveness, it was noticeable step in the opposite direction to the firm’s famously unhurried dynamic.

Unsurprisingly, given the limited attention devoted to the chassis this time around, the same rules apply. The 3, even with a slightly heavier diesel engine in the nose, remains a sprightly, sure-footed and pleasantly engaging thing to pedal around.

Fast camber changes remind you that the 3 is not a hot hatch, but the Performance variant should keep the body roll in check

None of this now, of course, seems surprising. The car’s open secret is the usual supermini vitality filtered through Mini’s modus operandi: quickish steering positively linked to a keen front end, with a quick-to-settle body to follow.

The new 3 performs all as remembered. Turn-in isn’t quite as nimble as that of the latest version of its rival and it certainly requires slightly more lock for the same result, but otherwise the 3 doesn’t fumble the ball and remains easily the best Citroën-based product to drive briskly.

Even with a sportier version to come, there’s enough to admire on track about the 3 to justify its early showing on the road.

The Hill Route confirms much that we suspected: the car remains very predictable up to its limit but doesn’t lose its positive edge for being so inclined. Its direction change is possibly less stirring than the previous 3’s, and the added intensity suggests there’s a little more weight in the nose than might be ideal, although its grip levels remain commendable.

Exceeding those grip levels means defaulting inevitably towards understeer, the 3 can be made to adjust its line on the throttle — if not to quite the same heroic extent as the Mini. Partly this is by design and partly it’s because, in this guise, the car’s stability control system cannot be shut out beyond about 30mph. That’s fine. By and large, the invisible hand is well tuned enough not to feel restrictive.

The problem, not unforeseeably, is that while the 3’s underside has remained in stasis, the industry around it has charged forward another generation.

Consequently, the model has fallen behind in several areas – most notably, its ride quality and all-round refinement. The ride quality we were originally moved to praise beyond the Mini’s, but now it’s clear that the 3 has none of the clever bump-nullifying compliance of the latest Cooper.

Instead, it often feels as that car used to: slightly twitchy in the rebound and fragile about secondary impacts.

As a rule, you’ll be extracting enough satisfaction to forgive its less sophisticated moments, but if you’re stuck in the grind, it’s harder to overlook. The same could be said for the lack of hush. Measuring 71dB at motorway speeds isn’t really good enough when you consider the premium options lined up against it at the asking price. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

DS 3 Prestige

PSA needed to enrich the 3’s equipment tally in the face of competition from a Mini that’s no longer quite as poorly provided for as standard as it once was.

Entry-level 3s now get alloy wheels, air conditioning and DS’s new 7.0in colour touchscreen infotainment system as standard.

The 3 has strong residuals initially but is likely to fade over the 3’s lifecycle, but the Mini, doesn’t fair all that much better

Our upper-middle-trimmed Prestige test car came with parking sensors all round, satellite navigation and 17in alloy wheels as standard and would have had part-Alcantara seats for no extra cost, too. That’s no mean tally.

If we were specifying our own DS 3, we would opt for the zesty PureTech 110 engine, auto gearbox and Prestige trim, which will also help in the second-hand car market stakes. To finish the 3 off we would also tick the option boxes on the watchstrap leather seats (£1300), a Topaz dashboard (£150) and Sport Red paint (£495).

The bad news is that the residual values of the 3 are a far cry from what they once were, and they are beginning to pull the rug out from underneath the case for paying a premium for the car at all – which may be a concern for private buyers and a reason, perhaps, to test your chances of scoring a discount.

Despite costing almost £2000 more than an equivalent Audi A1, our 3 test car is likely to be worth in excess of £600 less after three years and 36,000 miles of typical ownership, according to valuation expert CAP.

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VERDICT

3.5 star DS 3

Six years ago, the DS 3 became the first model from PSA’s fledgling premium brand – and today, it remains its best advert.

Retaining better handling and a healthy slug more driver appeal than you’ll find in most of its rivals, it remains one of the more recommendable cars of its type in our book.

Retains most of its motive charm but struggles to justify its premium

Particularly so, in fact, if your mind is made up on diesel power. The 3’s engine may not have the fun factor of Mini’s Cooper SD lump, but it’s refined, stout-hearted, efficient and relatively clean.

However, we regret that DS’s revisions haven’t done more for the 3’s static appeal or competitiveness. It’s very debatable if the car’s new look adds to its allure or simply muddles it – and the interior wants for distinguishing quality and the smart and practical touches expected from a premium brand.

DS’s all-new model must be more thoughtfully executed through toning down its corporate grille, making the infotainment easier to navigate, and spend a bit on the core materials rather than cabin decoration – and it must come soon.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

DS 3 2015-2019 First drives