By Jonathan Crouch
Following its original launch in 2010, Citroen's DS3 supermini proved to be the strongest Citroen sales success story of recent years. In 2014, to keep its appeal current, it was lightly refreshed with more efficient Euro6-compliant engines, smart new lights on selected versions and some extra hi-tech equipment options. Otherwise, the recipe was much as before, with a three-door-only range of hard-top or Cabrio models, striking practical design both inside and out, a range of proven engines and a huge variety of personalisation options. The car sold in this form until re-branded as a fully-fledged 'DS' model early in 2016. Do these later 'Citroen'-badged versions make good sense as a used buy?
'DS' stands for 'Different Spirit', two words first associated with Citroen back in 1955 with the launch of the very first DS, the iconic original model, at the Paris Motorshow. Not only was it gorgeous but with features like disc brakes, hydropneumatic suspension, a semi-automatic gearbox and power steering, it was years ahead of its time. When, just over half a century on in 2010, Citroen once again brought us a car badged DS, this DS3, it got people talking in just the same way.
As you may already know, the DS3 is a trendy small car in the MINI or Fiat 500 mould. Nothing especially ground-breaking about that, you might think - but stop and consider for a moment. Before this Citroen arrived, established thinking suggested that a fashionable little urban trinket of this kind had to have a 'retro' look, with style harking back to an older classic model: all very nice but also pretty cramped when it came to carrying people and packages. So the DS3 has set out to turn that thinking on its head, fresh in style and practicality but also as interesting and innovative as anything else in the trendy small car segment. Other brands have tried the same thing but with this model, only Citroen truly succeeded.
Following this design's original launch, the DS range was quickly expanded with larger offerings, first the DS4 in 2012 and the DS5 in 2013. It was this DS3 though, that continued to sell most strongly, the range expanded with the addition of a cute fabric-topped Cabrio version in 2013. In 2014 though, the model faced its toughest challenge yet with the introduction of an all-new version of its closest rival, BMW's MINI. At the same time, substantially revised versions of two of its other close competitors, Fiat's 500 and Alfa Romeo's MiTo, also hit the market. Citroen's response was to smarten the looks, add some clever hi-tech equipment options and add a couple of highly efficient diesel engine options. All that created the 2014 to 2015-era DS3 range we're going to look at here, the models that were the last to sell under Citroen badges before the car was re-branded as a full 'DS' product early in 2016.
What You Get
To the uninitiated, the DS3 is still quite a sight. The basic shape of the car is traditional supermini with gentle curves marking its extremities and the wheels pushed out to the corners producing a squat, purposeful stance. The real drama, however, is in the detail. From that 'shark fin' B-pillar and the contrasting roof panel to the vertical strips of LED running lights that flank the front grille and the distinct sill line connecting the wheelarches, the DS3 is ferociously unconventional. With this updated version, buyers of D Sport variants got even trendier LED Xenon headlamps with smart sequential indicators and greater efficiency.
As with a MINI, original buyers got endless possibilities for personalisation - even your key could be matched to the paintwork - and there was plenty of scope for customers' cars to look as stunning (or as stunningly bad) as they liked. Take the roof. On fixed-top versions, it could be ordered not only with a contrasting colour but also with decals - leopard print and polkadots for example. Those who went for the Cabrio model could choose from three different roof designs: the standard Black, 'Moondust Grey' - which features the DS logo - and so-called 'Infinite Blue' with fabric that weaves in different coloured threads of blue and violet, each reacting differently to the light.
Talking of the Cabrio version, at first glance you'd be forgiven for not realising this to be a soft top variant at all. After all, the profile of this model is identical to that of its fixed-top counterpart, the fabric opening section limited to the very top of the car. Actually though, the roof mechanism is quite sophisticated, made up of over 180 different parts and electrically operated by a button on the overhead console that works to three main settings - 'intermediate', 'horizontal' and 'total' - all of which, impressively, are accessible at any speed up to 75mph. Prodding the button once will slide the canvas back so that it concertinas like a busker's accordion above a rear screen which, if you continue to press the button, will hinge forward to lie on the parcel shelf, before the folded canvas sandwich motors back to take its place. As with the folding tops provided by most rivals, you'll find that when retracted, this one almost totally blocks rearward vision - hence the standard parking sensors. The roof acrobatics take only 16s from start to finish and when the whole thing's open, there's a pop-up wind deflector that springs out of the top roof rail to quell the worst of the turbulence.
Of course, when you do have the roof down, you don't want it to take up so much space at the back that there's no room for people or packages. In this DS3 it doesn't. Take rear cargo space, accessible via a cantilevered bootlid that rises neatly outwards and upwards in a circular motion that means you can open it even when parked close to obstructions. It's unfortunate that once it is open, the aperture available is pretty small, though actually, the capacity on offer is greater than it first appears - 245-litres in all, just 40-litres less than you'd get in the ordinary hatch version. That's 30% more than you'd get in a rival Fiat 500C and twice as much as you'd find on a rival MINI Convertible. Plus you can extend it by folding down the same 60/40 split-folding rear bench you'll find on the DS3 hatch, revealing up to 980-litres.
Even more impressive, given the size of this car, is the rear seat space on offer. Getting into the back isn't quite as easy as it would be in a full-blown soft-top like a MINI Convertible because you have to duck under the roof pillar as you would in any three-door hatchback. Once you're there though, there's an unusual bonus. This is the only model its class - and one of the very few convertibles you can buy - that can actually take three people across the back seat. True, space is fairly tight back here, but it's OK for short journeys and fine for kids.
At the wheel, you get the high quality cabin ambience that's always marked out this DS3, with its piano black finishes and cool white lighting. The instruments are set into a trio of circular dials, in a motif that appears again in the round clusters of ventilation controls on a centre console you can colour-match to your own personal choice. With the exception of an armrest that slightly impedes the handbrake, the control layout is pretty faultless with an upmarket feel and a small, grippy leather-covered steering wheel that feels good to hold.
What to Look For
We should start by pointing out that as a whole, DS3 owners are a very happy bunch. If your perception of Citroens corresponds with unreliability, then it's time to change your perspective. The later post-2014-era DS3 range we're looking at here comes from a time when most of the original post-2010 model's teething issues had been sorted out. All that having been said, there have been faults reported and we found a number on our various surveys: you might want to look out for these on the used market.
There have been reports of sticky rear door hinges and Citroen issued a recall to some DS3 models to check front axle fitments. A few owners have reported minor electrical faults, some connected to the wiring harness. One owner we came across had a windscreen wiper fuse blow. Another had experienced fuel sensor and fan cooling issues. Watch out for trim rattles, particularly in areas like the exterior rubbing strip. And a few petrol models have reported issues with light and temperature sensors, turbo pumps and cam chains. Not that there's any real issue with the turbo THP petrol engine that sustains pacier models. It was co-developed with BMW and is an excellent powerplant with a great reliability record. You'll find versions of this engine in cars such as the Peugeot 208 GTI and the MINI Cooper S, so it's tried and tested tech.
(approx based on a 2014 DS3 1.6 e-HDi 90) Parts prices won't break the bank, with an air filter priced in the £17 to £25 bracket, while a fuel filter costs around £30 and an oil filter costs in the £5 to £7 bracket. A water pump will be priced in the £40 to £55 bracket, while an oil pump is around £90. On to brakes. A set of pads tend to retail in the £11 to £30 bracket, though you can pay up to around £50 if you go for a pricier brand. Brake discs retail in the £40 to £65 bracket, though you can pay up to around £180 if you go for a more expensive brand. Brake callipers retail in the £150 to £175 bracket. Now let's move onto lights. For a headlamp bulb, you're looking at around £15, but if you smash a headlamp and need a replacement, you'll be looking at around £110. For one of the Daytime Running Light strips, you'll be looking at around £125, while a front foglamp will be around £28.
On The Road
On the Road
So what's it like to drive? Well, you get in and settle into a sculpted seat that's set sporty and low. Ahead of you, the compact steering wheel feels just right and all the vital dials are set in a deeply-cowled, chrome-edged triple pod. Turn the key and both speedo and rev counter zip around their dials and return to zero. You're ready to go.
On the move, it's hard to believe that all the underpinnings of this car are basically borrowed from Citroen's conventional C3 supermini. The lower body and stiffer suspension set-up give this model a very different feel, as does the precisely-weighted electric power steering, offering assistance when you need it and plenty of road feel when you don't. The damping also offers the best of both worlds, making you aware of bumpy surfaces, but spiriting away the aftershock you could do without. It makes a MINI feel about as subtly sprung as a go-kart. Only the rather long-throw gearchange could be slicker.
Under the bonnet of mainstream hard-top and Cabrio models, there's a wide choice of engines. If performance isn't an issue, the entry-level three cylinder 1.2-litre 82bhp unit may be sufficient, though it does take 14.2s to reach 62mph on the way to just 108mph. The older, less efficient 1.6-litre VTi 120 powerplant has a bit more poke of course, improving those figures to 9.9s and 118mph. You can also order this engine in 155bhp THP turbocharged form, where it manages 62mph in just 7.3s on the way to 135mph. At the top of the range, a few DS3 Cabrio models from the 2014 to 2015-era period were offered with this particular powerplant in its ultimate state of tune, this the 204bhp 'Racing' version. This makes the 62mph benchmark in just 6.5s en route to 143mph.
As for diesel power, well the older 1.6-litre e-HDi 90 unit manages 62mph in 12.5s en route to 113mph and you'll get similar performance from the newer BlueHDi 100 engine. Personally though, we'd want to try and stretch to the engine that offers the best balance of power and parsimony in the range, the BlueHDi 120 unit. This manages rest to 62mph in 10.4s on the way to 118mph, whilst still retaining the potential to deliver less than 95g/km of CO2 and nearly 80mpg on the combined cycle: impressive.
Plenty of trendy, eager small cars can match the kinds of performance figures we've just quoted for variants across the DS3 range. Few though, can match the way this car balances comfort with a can-do attitude when it comes to attacking your favourite B-road. For the full DS3 experience in this respect, you've to choose this 1.6-litre THP petrol turbo model which, for enthusiasts, was the best car the Peugeot/Citroen group had produced since the glorious Peugeot 205 GTi and Citroen Saxo VTS hot hatches of the Nineties. But unlike those cars, you're not stuck with an awful din when you venture onto the highway thanks to clever soundproofing that promotes refinement but still lets you enjoy the engine.
Talking of refinement, what about the Cabrio version? This is a car that doesn't buffet you about as a normal small convertible would when the roof's down since, well, it isn't a normal small convertible. In essence, you could say that this car's folding soft top is little more than a giant folding sunroof, but in practice, it's much more than that. True, you never get the full 'wind in the hair' feeling that you would in a classic conventional cabriolet lacking this car's fixed side panels, but there's quite enough exposure to the elements in the fully open position to give you that real cabrio feeling, though turbulence is reduced because you're better hidden from the blustery conditions. We should also point out that, as with any proper convertible, rearward vision with the roof down is pretty awful, hence the standard fitment here of rear parking sensors.
Our favourite feature though relates to the way - unique in my experience with convertible cars - that this roof allows you to instantly react to the conditions you're driving in. Say for example, you're roof-down on a motorway in a rival Fiat 500C or MINI Convertible and the heavens suddenly open. Well, just as you would in pretty much any drop top, you're going to get wet. The Fiat's roof only operates at speeds below 37mph, while the MINI's only works below 20mph. Which means in these cars that putting up the top either has to wait until you reach the next junction, wet and frustrated. Or you've to stop in a potentially dangerous position on the hard shoulder and wait for the roof mechanics to do their thing as the raindrops pound upon your head.
With this Citroen, there's none of that. Press this little button on the overhead console and you can open or close the roof in just 16s at any speed up to 75mph. With the roof closed, refinement is near-on as good as it is in the fixed top DS3. And when things brighten up a bit or you find yourself on a slower road, another jab on the roof button can open things up again to one of three fixed positions - or anywhere you like in-between. As the roof opens, a standard pop-up deflector at the front of the windscreen flips up to reduce turbulence in the cabin, this a feature first introduced on Mercedes' E-Class Cabriolet, a car twice this one's price. And you can go further still by fitting an air deflector net.
The original DS3 embodied everything that was good about Citroen. Full of original ideas and delightful details, it proved to be a design icon for the modern world - just in fact, as the original DS was back in 1955. The sporty looks are backed up by an involving drive and, best of all, it's a car you don't have to shed the family to enjoy.
The post-2014 changes didn't alter its appeal very much, but then they didn't really need to. In this form, this car still delivered a more practical take than its rivals could offer on trendy, compact, fashionable transport. In frugal BlueHDi diesel form, this DS3 also proved to be one of the most efficient models of its kind you could buy.
But of course, practicality and efficiency won't be your number one reasons for choosing a car of this kind. Such a purchase has to make you feel special - to make a statement of intent. And this DS3 can do that, which makes it a tempting used buy. It's very individual, very chic and, most importantly, very Citroen.