IAIN ROBERTSON 

While the PSA Group has been desperate to ape Teutonic style and build quality of late, reports Iain Robertson, with the enticing DS7 it no longer needs to, as it is a car that exudes Gallic ingenuity, comfort and expressionism that has been missing for years.

Being ‘French’ elicits automatically a sense of style and subtlety that crosses all barriers, from the ‘bout filtre’ Gauloise-sucking countryside farmer, to the Parisian beauty on the Champs Elysees. The inventive use of fabrics and trim details extends across all aspects of couture, food, culture and presence that remain uniquely Gallic. Yet, for some reason, probably marketing-driven, its carmakers have struggled with identity.

Launching a brand-new car can be fraught for any carmaker. Launching a completely new brand, on the other hand, can present issues of nightmare proportions. When Mazda tried it with Xedos in the early-1990s, it failed abysmally. Nissan’s dogged attempts with Infiniti hardly represent a shining example. Yet, Peugeot-Citroen persevered with DS, its company personnel swearing blind that something new and fresh would come our way, even though most critics figured that the likelihood of a rehashed Citroen would be all it could muster.

Pulling DS from its corporate hat was a strange decision. After all, DS represented a solitary model line that had spun iconic styling on its head from the mid-1950s. It was the model that made every other carmaker look to its laurels, so far advanced was it in both form and functionality. However, it could be accused of having led to that most confusing period of Citroen’s existence, almost breaking the firm but culminating in French government, Michelin Tyre and then the formation of the PSA Group as its route to survival.

Since that time, Citroen has tried exceedingly hard to offer something traditionally French in appeal that has been subsumed into a corporate and largely characterless mire. Fortunately, despite pursuing the VW shared-platform ethos, inevitable management changes enabled Citroen to creep inexorably from the immense Peugeot shadow, reinforced by a small range of bling-laden DS models, with 3, 4 and 5 variants working very hard to impress…sometimes too hard.

In the past four years of DS existence as a stand-alone brand, a succession of cruel but understandable jibes have been made about those formerly Citroen-branded models. Both Audi and Lexus are prime examples of making a more aspirational name work and, while it is easy to refer to them as costlier VW, or Toyota, models, they are recognised as high-end brands in their own rights. DS needed an ‘Audi’.

With DS7, it has it and it is French through and through.

In Crossback Performance-Line, driven by a 180bhp turbo-diesel 2.0-litre and 8-speed auto-box, the new DS7 hits the mark. It is gorgeous to look at. Well-proportioned, it is an expression of subtle style-consciousness that plays defiantly with mid-size SUV aspirations. From its prominent radiator grille, to its pert tail, the DS7 is every millimetre a star turn that exists because it deserves to. In fact, photographs hardly do it justice.

Packed to the gunwales with viable technology, its biggest sin is that the DS7 driver cannot see the Dervish dance of the front headlamps, as they are fired into life, although the 3D-pillow treatment of the LED tail-lamps, which can be observed, is both attractive and different to any rival product. While variable headlighting is not new technology, the manner by which DS uses it is exceptionally ingenious and painstakingly Gallic.

Left in ‘Auto’ mode, the multi-module, powered front LED units demonstrate their remarkable flexibility through predetermined Town, Country and Motorway settings, the intensity of illumination varying according to conditions and all without driver intervention. At maximum volume, the range is an amazing 520m on high beam. A night-into-day reality is attained dynamically. Yet, even the ‘welcome lighting’ function is intriguing, from its initial purple ‘wake-up’ hue through ‘follow-me-home’ settings and both location and marker illumination. The lighting performance is further accentuated by scrolling indicators, all of which can be managed by delving into the dashboard touch-screen.

The beautifully proportioned exterior of DS7 is balanced by an equally space-conscious and eye-catching interior. Needless to say, soft touch materials abound, from the nubuck dashboard covering, reversed for the suede-like panels, but cladding almost every surface within the car, to the ‘DS’ logo impressions on switchgear. Personally, I have never experienced such visual high-quality within any French car, although it is something for which I have hoped for many years. Yet, it is not overt. It avoids being OTT. It is immensely impressive and the fit and finish is of Audi-grade perfection, without the clinical severity.

Yet, there are minor niggles, like the installation of the sharp-edged and mildly confusing window switches within the centre console and not on the doors. Inevitable dust-traps, they might also be fingernail-snappers, if rushed. Although the digital instrument panel works fluently enough, I still prefer dials, even if they are only an electronic representation. The air-vents are also slightly over-stylised, although I have no issues with the throughflow of air.

As a mid-range model, the Performance-Line lacks some of the electronic fripperies of both Prestige and Ultra-Prestige versions but, list-priced very competitively at £36,380, you would have to spend another £3,000 and then a further £4,200 to be elevated into those better equipped models. The range starts in Elegance trim at £28,095. While electrically operated and heated seats are an option on the test car, they are included in the upper ranges.

Space has been optimised within the black interior of the DS7, however, comfort was an obvious key. From a purely personal viewpoint, my two metres of height is accommodated impeccably and Peugeot’s silly dashboard and teensy steering wheel clearly have no role to play for DS, which reverts to the more comfortable convention of a flat-bottomed tiller and rake and reach adjustability that is both generous and hugely satisfying. A near-Germanic use of space demonstrates that DS has executive aspirations markedly above those of its sister products. Its front seats are exceptionally comfortable and supportive, while there is bags of room for three-abreast in the rear and the boot offers a substantial 618-litres, with the rear seats up and the parcel-shelf in place.

Fired-up by depressing the Piano Black starter switch in the top-centre of the dashboard, the engine delivers strong power across its rev-range, although its transmission seems to work better by flexing the steering column-mounted paddles, in manual mode, rather than being left to its own devices, as it tends to hunt for gears confusingly at times. Its top speed of 134mph, with 0-60mph covered in 9.6s, while sipping fuel at up to 57.6mpg, emitting 128g/km of CO2, highlights that all are respectable figures for a super-luxurious family car, possessing strong business aspirations. The engine choice ranges from a basic 130bhp HDi (low CO2 of 101g/km), 180 and 225bhp turbo-petrols and the 2.0-litre HDi of the test example.

However, most impressive is DS7’s ride quality, which is no less than sublime, when Comfort mode is selected on the four-position rocker switch, and the overall handling characteristics are as Gallic as French cars always used to be, cosseting, yet comfortably competent. Grip levels are excellent on the front-driven-only models. I am hugely impressed by the DS7.

Conclusion:    DS has achieved something with the DS7 that I had believed would be impossible. Competitively priced and of unerringly high quality, finally the PSA Group no longer has to try so hard to tackle Germanic control of the SUV sector. It can do it on its own, French terms and they are memorable indeed.