15:50 Monday 09 December 2013

REVIEW: I don't know what it is, but I know that I like it

Written byGARETH BUTTERFIELD

I’VE spent a week driving Citroen’s striking new DS4 and I have to confess for the first few days it had me absolutely flummoxed.

For more than 100 miles of driving it I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked it or not.

The reason for my indecision is that it’s virtually impossible to work out what this new model is trying to be.

When I test a car I like to put myself in the mindset of a potential buyer ready to shell out the required cost to purchase one and ask myself - would I choose this over its rivals?

The trouble is, I haven’t got a clue who this car’s typical potential buyer might actually be.

It rides high, like an SUV but it has the looks of a coupe. It’s sporty to drive, like a grown-up DS3, but there’s a genuine feel of luxury.

It has similar space inside to the C4 hatchback with which it shares a few parts but it’s infinitely more stylish and individual.

So where does that leave it? What on earth is this car? A luxury car? A hot hatch? An SUV? A sporty coupe? I’m flummoxed.

In an attempt to find an answer to the conundrum that was spoiling my experience with what otherwise seemed like quite a decent car, I took the unusual step of thumbing through the sales brochure.

There’s a line in this posh, glossy book that caught my eye.

It reads: “While the citroën DS4 is not an SUV or a hatchback, it distills what’s best about all of these genres and creates something genuinely fresh.

“It’s a striking, sophisticated five-door coupé that has the balance and fine-tuned engineering to inspire keen drivers with quick responses and nimble handling.

“It’s a luxurious way to travel for five and it’s a creative design statement. This is what happens when you begin with innovation.”

And then it struck me. It’s not an SUV, a hatchback or a coupe but it’s got a bit of all of them in it. What it is, in Citroen’s own words, is ‘unique’.

And the funny thing is, when you stop trying to pigeon-hole the DS4, you quickly start liking it.

It’s a bold step by Citroen to launch a car that has no standard place in the market - but they certainly sound proud of it.

And when you step back and look at the angular body it’s not hard to see why.

It’s sculpted, rather than designed. There’s lines and bulges where you wouldn’t expect lines and bulges to be and there’s that gorgeous continuous curve of the roof capping it all off. It’s lovely, in a daring, unashamedly French sort of way.

As with every car in the DS range its bold lines and styling cues continue inside with some very modern touches and a sharp, almost business-like feel to the dashboard and controls.

It also comes with a whole pile of standard equipment and top models can even be had with multi-function seats, a Denon HiFi system and directional Xenon headlights.

Top all this luxury off with an automatic gear box and safety kit such as a blind-spot monitoring system and you’d be forgiven for feeling like you’ve splashed out on a much more expensive car.

And then, once you’ve shuffled forward a bit in the lovely leather seats and knocked the gearbox into sport mode, it becomes a hot hatch.

It drives brilliantly. Far better than it really should given its height. The precise steering oays dividends with the feel of the car in the twisty roads and the suspension is firm but certainly makes the most of a decent chassis. It’s a surprise hoot.

The fun comes served up in a range of ways, depending on your choice of engine. The 160bhp HDi diesel in my test car is a peach and surprisingly economical but it’s also available with Citroen’s terrific 200bhp turbocharged petrol engine. And that’ll make it even more fun.

There’s actually six engines to choose from, three petrols and three diesels and one of each can be ordered with an automatic gearbox.

You’ve also got three model variants to choose from; DSign, Dstyle and Dsport - with the base model starting at £17,580. It’s perfectly possible to spec top models up to around the £30,000 mark, but for that money you’ll have a lovely car.

I wish the DS4 had a little bit more legroom for rear passengers - although head room, to be fair, is fine, especially given the swooping roof.

Another aspect that bothers me; and this is a really odd one, the rear windows don’t wind down.

The French will no doubt dismiss this as a ‘quirk’. I’m guessing it’s a form over function thing given the unusual design of the rear door, which has an integrated door handle in the pillar, but I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing.

But other than that it’s all good news.

Of all the cars in the DS range this was the one I was most concerned about. The DS5 is excellent, the DS 3 is one of the best small hatchbacks on the market but the DS4, on the face of it, didn’t have any obvious qualities.

Having driven one around for a week I now realise I was being a bit narrow-minded.

I still don’t know what it is and I’m still concerned about how a car with an obvious identity crisis might sell but there are bound to be people that like the idea of a non-conformist vehicle on their driveway.

And, at the end of the day, why should it conform? Why should it fit into a segment? If you want a DS4, then you want it because you like the car - not because you’re after any specific type of vehicle.

Thinking about it, Citroen may have pulled off a very neat trick here. It’s uniqueness means it effectively has no direct competition.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any better or any worse, but in its own context (whatever that may be) it’s a really good car.

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