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IAIN ROBERTSON

 New boots and panties (Ian Dury would have been proud!) are indicative of   PSA Group’s future momentum, writes Iain Robertson, although he is concerned that superficiality might be the precursor for a new brand icon.

 

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. If that is the case, then my contempt for the latest Gallic novelty almost knows no bounds. Yet, with each drive, with each behind-the-wheel experience, I have felt that DS is more French than any car from within the portals of Peugeot-Citroen has been for the past decade at least. In fact, its very appearance may be the result of wishing for the unattainable, yet receiving the very thing that I wished for, which is enough to send a never-ending tremor from cranium through to my very fundament.

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To me, the letters DS (pronounced ‘day-esse’) represent the days when our family lived in France and my father was a ‘Grand Fromage’ in Her Majesty’s Foreign Office. My father owned a number of DS models. Industrial philosopher, Roland Barthes, said upon first sight of the Citroen DS that, at its introduction in 1955, it looked as though ‘it had fallen from the sky’, so space-age and futuristic was the design. As a seminal piece of automotive art, it was a co-operative effort between Italian sculptor, Flaminio Bertoni, and French aerodynamicist, Andre Lefebvre. Nothing since has even dared to be so radically different and advanced as that one machine.

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Being an original DS meant floating effortlessly; wafting along winding country lanes at a stately rate, supported by innovative hydropneumatic suspension; cruising almost silently along autoroutes at three-figure speeds, all wrapped in a cocoon of cosseting luxury, as far removed from the winged Humbers, Hotchkisses and unheavenly behemoths that populated the Gallic roads of the 1950s as it could be. Yet, the company was owned by Michelin Tyre. Michelin used Citroen as a mobile development laboratory and skinny but capable Michelin Xs were very much the new radial order of the day.

 

The PSA Group, of which Citroen and Peugeot are the primary members, has been through hell and high water in recent years. It has enjoyed a number of high energy points, among which has been the re-introduction of DS, as a semi-sporting arm of the corporation, albeit under the auspices of Citroen but now a brand in its own right. Yet, Citroen is little more than a Kia-to-Hyundai, a badge-engineered producer of so-called Gallic replicants (South Korean, in their case), with a seemingly endless desire to be Teutonic and anything but French.

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However, somewhere within the crystal maze that is PSA’s Parisian headquarters, exists a ‘think-tank’ that believes ‘DS’ possesses greater currency than ever. In some ways, it must harbour some hope that today’s car buyers will have forgotten, or been ignorant of, the past misdemeanours of the DS brand…yesterday’s news, tonight’s chip paper. As beautiful as DS was and is, it represented an ownership nightmare that still makes the mechanical ‘old guard’ wake up sweating and breathing heavily. A modern DS needs to shrug off those memories and the fact that the DS, despite its almost 1.5m sales, which it took 20 years to achieve, was some way responsible for the demise of Citroen, as we knew it.

 

The latest DS5 is almost a thing of beauty, even though it looks like a slightly enlarged version of the Hyundai i20 hatchback. Far from ungainly, its stylish new snout, filled with a ‘chip cutter’ grille surrounded by blingy chrome that continues in a broad and unusual swathe to the base of the A-pillars, is the brand’s new signature. The shape is familiar, albeit updated, because Citroen has marketed the DS5 for the past couple of years, with a modicum of success.

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Its interior, complete with two-tone ‘watchstrap’ seats (the pliant blue and grey leather is stitched together in offset blocks that represent the straps of some of the world’s best timepieces) and high-end switchgear, illuminated by glazed sky ports built into the roof structure and divided by additional banks of switches and storage bins, is ineffably unusual and intentionally up-market. The dashboard is a driver-focussed swathe of matt-black, with alloy filleted highlights and a sometimes confusing, TFT instrument display screen set into a bold ‘soft-touch’ moulding, complete with magical ‘head-up’ display. It looks the part.

 

However, its driving position, in that ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenario, is typically Gallic. For ages, I have barracked all French carmakers for turning their backs on their nation, in an ill-founded desire to beat the German brands at a game that has become their own. I wanted openly for Citroen, Peugeot and even Renault to return to the brilliance of their pre-1990s style. Therefore, it could be said that I more than asked for an ‘Italianate ape’ driving position, in which the space for long legs is restricted, while long arms are a prerequisite. I can manage one aspect in my automotive callisthenics but the other is impossible, a factor that made my week living in ‘la automotive Belle Epoque’ sheer hell, resulting in lumbar backache and sore ankles.DSC_2087_edited

 

My big question for PSA Group is, why do you continue to produce cars for LHD markets and scarcely spare a thought for RHDrivers? It is French arrogance all over again….oops! Remember what I wished for? Powered by PSA’s long-standing, if not exactly long-lasting, 1.6-litre HDi diesel engine, now in 117bhp form mated to a six-speed manual transmission, the DS5 lopes along in a grand Gallic style reminiscent of the original DS model, thanks to 221lbs ft of torque developed low down the power band. Renowned for its refinements, the unit is uncomplainingly strong (when new) and spirits the mid-size model to around 120mph, despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in a less-than-flattering 12.4 seconds, which my 1.0-litre Skoda ‘Shittigo’ demolishes around 1.5 seconds quicker. Yet, there exists something more wholesome from this mile-eater than outright performance suggests.DSC_2088_edited

 

At 1.6-tonnes, it is hardly a lightweight, an aspect that several other carmakers have embraced willingly to reduce their carbon footprints. Despite that, the Official Combined fuel economy is given as 70.6mpg, a figure that I truly struggled to replicate, although I was able to score a satisfying 61.2mpg on my frugality driving route. A more normal 52.4mpg average of a week’s worth of motoring should ensure that most DS5 owners/operators will remain contented with their choice. While the future of VED payments will mean that the ‘free’ tax disc given to current new DS5 owners, as a result of a lowly 104g/km CO2 rating, will become £140 annually from next year, running costs are admirably low.

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The driving experience is what counts. As I have suggested, the DS5 delivers a stately impression, which the 50-profile tyres might belie. Although moderately firm, the ride comfort is quite resilient and compliant, thanks to its pre-loaded, variable-valve (PLV) damping, and there is scarcely any road noise intrusion to the cabin. The 225 section Michelins cling on gamely during more exuberant cornering manoeuvres, although body roll can be pronounced, if not as ‘bad’ as it once used to be in a DS original. If you want sporty handling, I would advise a DS3, as the DS5 is more comfort orientated, which is as it should be. As it happens, the well-weighted electric power steering and other controls (clutch, brake etc) work sweetly and in league with driver wishes. Overall, the new direction for the DS5 is comfort and stability, both of which it achieves in spades.

 

As retaliation to criticisms received for the former Citroen DS5, which did have ‘issues’, the company shored up its defences by highlighting that China is the brand’s ‘real’ target market. Well, I disagree. I reckon that with some deft market positioning and clever, non-Germanic advertising, the DS can withstand criticism in the UK and Europe quite stoically. It is easily the most French of French motorcars that I have driven in recent times, an aspect highlighted by its long-legged driving capability and armchair comfort but that is not to say that some problems still remain unresolved. If DS is to make headway, its Gallic style and presence need to be displayed more widely and willingly.DSC_2093_edited

 

Conclusion:   It is easy to be a cynic in British motoring terms, because we have been bombarded with all manner of ‘foreign’ brands and their attributes, while watching our former motor industry buckle to the point of near non-existence. PSA has been a major sinner, resorting to Teutonic methodology and deserting its sense of national pride rather too willingly. Can we be expected to trust such a changeable car company, simply because it has decided that DS is now a brand in its own right? In my book, the jury is still out. Yet, if DS does to its models, what has resulted in the DS5, then I give it more than half-a-chance of survival. Fix the driving position to suit taller occupants and the car could be a winner and DS could inject a fresh set of valuable memories into its portfolio.

 

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).