First run: Citroen DS4 HDI 160 Automatic
Of the DS-line model trio, the DS3 has been the runaway success, but recent updates to both the DS5 executive saloon and this, the DS4 coupe-crossover, have meant that sales for those have picked up too.
Maybe the DS4 concept was a little too ‘out there’ for some people. Neither a proper crossover like the class-leading Nissan Qashqai nor a proper coupe like the old three-door sporty C4 could claim to be, the DS4 has been left somewhat out on a limb. But what a difference a little time spent with it makes, because under the DS4’s skin there’s a brilliant car.
In fairness there’s a brilliant-looking car on the outside, too. It’s striking; sitting noticeably higher than a typical hatchback but with arguably Citroen’s finest styling smothered all over it. When you actually look at it there isn’t a bad angle on the thing.
As well as five doors you get a good size and evenly-shaped boot, albeit with no spare wheel underneath. Visibility backwards over it from the driver’s seat is hardly perfect thanks to the sleek coupe-like lines cutting down on the quantity of glass, but you can’t have everything.
The updates on this model are pretty significant. It has a new six-speed automatic gearbox connected to the more familiar HDi 160 2.0-litre diesel engine, making it, on paper at least, the most relaxed DS4 you can buy.
The gearbox has two modes: Drive and Sport. The difference is simply that Sport holds onto gears for longer than Drive - shifts aren’t noticeably any faster and it’s only marginally keener to kick down. The secret is that whatever your aim, Drive is the best mode to be in. It changes up nice and early under light throttle pressure, displaying the sort of seamless, genteel precision you expect only in much more expensive cars. But push the pedal harder and the gearbox tends to stay in the perfect gear to ride the wave of torque from the creamy-smooth engine, making surprisingly rapid progress possible at the drop of a hat without the engine getting too rowdy. It’s a very impressive set-up, if not the most frugal, and it feels a lot more potent than the on-paper figures suggest.
It’s clever, too, holding the gear you’re in if you head downhill and lift off the throttle, even if the revs rise as gravity pulls the car ever faster. This keeps engine braking higher and increases safety. The one imperfection is the sixth ratio’s gearing. While the lower gears are quite tall to keep revs low and fuel consumption down, sixth sits at over 2,000rpm at 70mph - which is too high for this car. The drivetrain could easily handle a taller ratio to bring that down to 1,700rpm or so.
There are other niggles on this DSport range-topping model, like stunning but incredibly vulnerable wheels that absolutely shouldn’t be taken near anything resembling a kerb. The electronic handbrake, like every other of its type, is slow to operate and when you’re doing lots of short trips on the same day it gets wearing.
However, back on the rosy side of the fence and the DS4’s brakes are incredible. Wide tyres are partly to thank for offering a large contact patch, but the way the car shrugs off speed in an emergency stop scenario is staggering. Those tyres also create lots of lateral grip and, combined with a surprisingly flat cornering attitude, the DS4 can tackle bends as quickly and safely as most other things on the road.
The ride is firm but well controlled for the most part. It’s only when hitting sharper bumps that the excess of compression damping shows up and sends a bigger bump through the cabin.
But for the most part it’s a lovely cabin to sit in. Stylish seats unlike any others out there are more comfortable than they look, but they’re also on the firm side in the same way that many German cars’ seats are. It’s designed to help them last longer without starting to sag. The interior styling is also especially fresh and different without being impractical, although the digital rev counter, which works in blocks of 250rpm, isn’t precise enough for my tastes. The materials are solid, though, and a big step up from Citroen’s non-DS cars. The whole package feels substantial and well made.
I came away from my time with this new DS4 variant massively impressed with its all-round ability, and particularly with the gearbox. It’s one of the best automatic diesel cars I’ve driven in years.