Road Test Citroen's new DS5 has the style and finish to rival its German contemporaries.
France's Citroen takes on Germany with a promising result
I still remember when my friend around the corner phoned to tell me his dad had got a new car. It was an Audi 100, the wind-cheating wedge, and it was the first time I'd ever clambered into a premium car. I can still remember the number plate. It was exotic, unusual and desirable, as was the BMW 5 Series he eventually replaced it with. My friend's dad had real taste, and his cars were a cut above the mainstream drudgery that most parents drove.
I can't imagine any kids getting too excited about an Audi or a BMW now. Premium is the new mainstream; a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz is nothing special anymore. At least not the models that sell in big numbers; 3 Series, A4s and C-Classes have become volume, day-to-day machines. They're relatively affordable, making the decision between something a bit ordinary like a Ford or Toyota and an Audi A4 a no brainer. That's hit the mainstream firms hard, with every one of them aiming to claw back market share from the (usually) German premium brands.
Citroen might have just the thing to do so. The DS5 is one of the most interesting cars I've driven this year. It's also one of the most visually exciting. This is the mainstream fighting back. More than the impressive DS3 and slightly odd-looking DS4, the DS5 is the car that's got what it takes to convince buyers to forget about the blue and white propeller, three-pointed star and four-ringed badges and enter a different showroom.
And just try walking past a plate glass window with the DS5 displayed behind it. I'll bet you can't - as hatchbacks go, it's a bit of a looker. Busy too, admittedly, but the feast of feature lines, gaping vents at the front and the very bold use of chrome, make the DS5 look like nothing else. That's the point; Citroen can afford to be brave, a bit avant-garde; after all, the original DS, built from 1955 to 1975, was a styling revelation.
That one also featured clever hydro-pneumatic suspension, allowing French dignitaries to float around Parisian streets as if the rough cobbles didn't exist. Citroen has apparently forgotten about all that with the DS5, which is a real shame, as the over-firm ride does compromise what's otherwise a brilliant and extremely interesting car.
The extrovert styling of the exterior is echoed inside. Citroen has spent a lot of time working on surfaces and finish. The leather is supple and soft to the touch, the optional metal watchstrap effect pattern on the seats a particularly smart touch. The switches and knobs all work with a precision that even the most fastidious German engineer would be proud of, while the tactility of the materials is right up with the upmarket players, too. It's all very pleasing.
As is the drivetrain - the 1.6L THP turbocharged petrol engine developed, ironically, with BMW. It's a smooth engine delivering 200hp and ample performance, though you do need to be busy with the six-speed manual gearbox to keep the rev-hungry unit in its sweetest spot. The gearshift isn't the most precise out there, nor is the massive gear knob really necessary, but you'll forgive it a lot for the fine detailing and pleasant feel of the materials in your hand.
The same is true of the steering; the chunky, well sculpted steering wheel so nice in your hands you'll ignore its pointlessly cut off bottom and the lack of real information from the front wheels. Not that the DS5 doesn't have substance to back its oh-so-obvious looks. Grip levels are high, while speed is easily gained and maintained, giving the DS5 the ability to keep up with even the most knowledgeable, brisk, local drivers on the sinuous tarmac climbing up into the hills.
It's just not so clever when you get it back into town, where the combination of large 19-inch alloy wheels and suspension that's too stiff does somewhat lessen the appeal of the DS5. You could opt for smaller wheels and, if you choose something other than this THP petrol version, slightly less taut suspension. Even so equipped, it's nowhere near as supple as it should be. And nowhere near as compliant and comfortable as a posh Citroen should be.
Which is a shame, as it really is something to behold. Kids will call (or text, or tweet) each other excitedly proclaiming their dads have a new car - a cool, individual and stylish car. Though they might feel sick after a short trip on a bumpy road.