Rental Car Road Test: Citroën DS3 1.6 e-HDI 115 Airdream DSport

No, your BMW "MINI" does not look as cool as this...
The 10th of October was a good day. Just like last year, the Uni's karting team is running an event each term for students, and the first one was a fortnight ago, once again at the Llandow Circuit, which is near Llandow in South Wales. Because none of us dare keep our cars in Swansea, we decided it would be best to rent something, like I did myself last year when I got a Vauxhall Corsa. This time, we got something much cooler, and I was driving again. So here's a 100-mile road test! I'll do it in the current Jalopnik Reviews format, because I can and there's nothing you can do to stop me.

(Disclaimer: Avis in Swansea wanted me to drive the Citroën DS3 so badly they labelled it as a THP 155 - which is the fastest and most powerful version - even though it's a diesel and THP means petrol engine in Citroënese. Actually though, I didn't get a choice of car because that was the only supermini they had at 9am. We didn't tell them they were lying about which engine it had. I bought MAOAMs and thought I'd left them in the car by accident, only to find them later.)

First of all, let's deconstruct that name. The DS3 (the sort-of-sporty premium 3-door version of the C3) is made by Citroën, who need no introduction. This particular DS3 is packing a 1.6 turbo diesel engine with 115 horsepowers and gets the "Airdream" tag. Airdream is Citroën's eco badge, attached to hybrid and diesel models that produce less than 140g/km of CO2, are built in some certified factory and are "95% recoverable," which probably means 95% recyclable. The must-have DSport trim level is the highest non-hot-hatch trim (although there's a DSport+ sub-trim level that adds frivolous extra things for more money) and gives you the big alloys, carbon fibre-effect interior trim and plenty of equipment.

I've driven a diesel DS3 before a couple of years ago, but only for about five minutes. The driving position reminded me of the previous-gen C3 that I learned to drive in, with a seat that I wish would go slightly lower than it does and a handbrake that subsequently feels quite far away compared to other cars like my Punto. The ~75bhp diesel in that DS3 (also a DSport, IIRC) gave it a satisfying surge and I generally melded with it quite quickly. After about 100 miles of city, motorway and country driving in this punchier grey one yesterday, the same thing happened and now I miss it. Something about it just makes it a car you like. It's not finite elements of the ride and handling on the limit or anything like that, but it might be the balance of comfort and fun, premium feel and a funky character. Something's just very likable about it, I've found. It makes me want to try the limited-run DS3 Racing!

Exterior - 8/10

The DS3 has pleased my eyes ever since it first came out in 2010. It's not just the funky styling (yes, I said funky in 2013, and frankly it's the best word for the styling of Citroën's DS models - be glad I didn't say "groovy" instead), it's little touches that you find around the car. There's the shark-fin B-Pillar you've likely noticed before - its shark-ness accentuated by this particular car being painted in Shark Grey - and the subtle wheelarch flares and so on, but then there's the newly added "3D LED Tail Lights". These were first seen on the DS3 Cabrio that came out last November and were added onto the normal hatchback at the same time. Here's a better picture of them than the one I took:

On the side, there's this DS tile pattern that they use on the key, in advertising, on their website and even - if you want it - on the roof, with the DS logo highlighted once in a way that catches your eye. But the real centrepiece of this light unit is the tail lights themselves, which are on all the time like the front daytime runners in the bumper (although there's a setting to switch them off). There is but one squircle of LEDs, and yet somehow, probably with mirrors and/or witchcraft, it appears to repeat. Repeatedly! Seven illusions of lights appear inside the actual lights. It's awesome. It would've been great to keep the car until the sun was down, just to see the full effect of it at night or low light.

To be honest they make the front lights seem a bit boring. The main headlights (also on the current C3) are devoid of clever LEDs, and the ones in the bumpers are - I think - at the wrong angle. They almost appear to be pointing downwards like spotlights, which sometimes makes the car look like it's riding a teeny bit higher than it is. I think the angle should've been reversed so they lean back and point forwards. But that's just me.

This one is painted in the aforementioned Shark Grey, with a white contrasting roof and mirror caps. The combination of a sober colour and stand-out white and standard chrome details gives it a good balance between showy and sensible. The 17" alloy wheels that the DSport trim gives are painted black as standard, with polished ends to the spokes. You can have them in plain silver if you're boring or in white if you're an idiot. I like them in black.

Overall though, it looks classy, modern and damn funky (as long as you choose your colours carefully). If Daft Punk designed cars...

Interior - 7/10

The interior is great. Mostly. Just like the outside, there is some really nice design going on in here. The dials are great, easy to read but three-dimensional for no other reason than it looks really cool. It also does that once-around-the-gauge thing when you turn the key, which is fun. The steering wheel was also great, with lovely soft, smooth leather and a rim shaped so that your hands fit around it perfectly, unlike 'wheels that are circular in crossection, because at the end of the day your hands aren't circular. It's got a flat bottom trimmed in silver plastic that also felt soft and smooth. This stuff matters, because it gives the car a premium feel as you drive it. Also adding to that are the seats. The DSport gets sport seats as standard (click this for a pic) and they're fantastic. Soft and yet very supportive, hugging without squeezing. We liked the little patches of alcantara too, because, like, you get that on sports cars and stuff. They were mostly cloth where you sat, but with fake leather on the sides and back. I didn't try the back seats, but my four passengers did - not all four at once, mind - and there was just enough space for them to be comfortable, however there were complaints that the tumblehome intruded on headroom at the outer edges, and the rear windows really aren't as big as they look on the outside, as Citroën have employed BMW-MINI's trick of covering the pillars in glass (le picteur). There's a grab handle where the shark fin is that helps with clambering in and out of the back.

Another complaint is the dashboard. Yes, it looks great (if you can tolerate sort-of-carbon-fibre-looking trim), but they've put the radio/music controls level with the gear stick, so while people were pairing their phones up with the Bluetooth or adjusting the radio, I had to ask nicely to change gear, which we all decided was a bit daft. Citroën, if you read this, sort it out! Buttons around the screen or on the steering wheel - not loads on the 'wheel, just two or four - would work a lot better. Or give it overhead switches like in the DS5!! Those are awesome! Also down by the gear stick were two mysterious buttons, one with the Citroën logo on it and one that said "SOS". Unfortunately, after consulting the manual, it turns out the logo button doesn't make it into a dancing robot, but phones somebody at Citroën should you have any questions. Parents will love explaining that their child has called the same person eight times in the last hour despite their warnings! The other one calls the emergency services and is mercifully out of a child's reach. We were very tempted, but refrained from pressing either.

Also, this one was black with black headliner and black seats, with grey trim. It wasn't the brightest environment. Visibility was good, with relatively skinny A-Pillars and a back window that was big enough, if no bigger than that. Darkness aside, this is a very nice place to be, one that feels expensive and looks cool. That said, the glovebox is a piss-take. It's only half as wide as the lid for it is! It's like the French actually just use them for gloves...

In a way the driving position reminded me of the 2008/9 C3 I learned to drive in. It would've been nice if the seat could go a bit lower, as the handbrake felt like it was quite a long way down. In fact, just like the C3, I was alerted by the car that the handbrake was still on after I'd put it down, because it hadn't gone down far enough. This happened twice yesterday and made me look silly, so I have to take a point off for that.

Acceleration - 7/10

As I mentioned earlier, this car's engine has 115 horsepower. For most of you reading this, that's a small amount of horsepowers, even in something weighing around 1250kg or so. But! This is a diesel and that means that it torques over your misguided derision. In fact, at 1750rpm it's chucking out 200lb/ft, which is the same amount of maximum rotational energy that you get in the DS3 Racing, Peugeot 208 GTi and BMW Cooper S JCW hot hatches, so it shifts even with five students in it. There is turbo lag though, and if you try to set off in a hurry you really notice it. It comes on song at 1500rpm or so, at which point you're greeted with a satisfying surge of acceleration. The 0-60 time of 9.7 seconds doesn't do this engine justice, but I think I know why it takes that long; I tried revving it out once on a motorway slip road, and after about 3500rpm the needle's progress slowed down so much that I gave up at about 4200 and changed up. This thing really wants to be between 1500 and 3500rpm, which it invariably is in normal driving. At one point I thought the turbo lag was throttle- rather than revs-related, because it came on boost as I was pushing the pedal down in say 2nd gear. I think you'd get used to it over time, but it takes more than a day, I can tell you that. It doesn't help that I've never spent longer than 10 minutes driving a turbocharged car before.

Once you're in that 2000rpm-wide window, though, the gears are just long enough that you can savour the thrust (long gears also contribute to the 0-60 time). Even in 6th at 70mph - when you're sitting right on 1500rpm, it still pulls just fine and reaching 100mph was a much less tense or noisy affair than it would be in any of our cars! The top speed is quoted as 118mph, if you're curious.

A quiet, refined and very flexible engine for the driving you actually do, be it motorway, town or countryside. What's more, it only emits 99g/km of CO2 and the digital fuel gauge only went down by one block after a 100-mile day of mixed driving with lots of passengers. I only had to pay £7 or so to make it read full for the rental guys. The joys of diesel!

Braking - 6/10

Meh. I can't say they really stood out to me in any way, but they're powerful enough and felt like they were a decent weight, if a bit soft to press in a fluid kind of way (not a worn-out kind of way). I'll give them a 6 to be positive.

Ride - 8/10

The ride is good. Very good, in fact. You expect Citroëns to be smooth operators because of the reputation built up by decades of hydraulic magic carpets, but this does without Hydractive suspension, just like everything bar the C5 and C6 (and their predecessors). Riding on conventional springs and dampers, the bumps were muted and almost pleasant compared to how it would've been in my car or my friend's lowered Fiesta. They were taking off the road surface at one point on our journey to Llandow, and as we dropped down onto raw road and then back up onto regular tarmac, there wasn't one bad jolt or crash, and yet on smaller roads winding through the trees, there was only minimal body roll partly caused by me entering the odd corner too fast. We were impressed. Citroën have recognised their reputation in this area and stuck to it.

Handling - 6/10

The handling was fine. Not a highlight, but not dull or disappointing. The steering felt fluid rather than mechanical, sort of like steering through oil or something of a similar viscosity. It was better-weighted than my car's steering, but felt artificially so and it was still quite light. It was accurate, though. I think it was electric because of this. As I've mentioned, there isn't all that much body roll, but it might have been more fun with a lighter nose. That said, there was no outright understeer that I experienced, although we didn't exactly sneak it onto the kart track (or the car track next to it) to look for any. Grip levels are high, which proved a good thing when we went around a downhill 90° left-hander slightly too fast. My passengers might disagree.

Gearbox - 7/10

This engine comes with a 6-speed manual gearbox. This is novel to me as both my Fiat and the old C3 learner car have 5 gears. Having now experienced 70mph at 1500rpm instead of 3000+rpm, I must say that six gears is better than five. The shift action itself was nice and precise and strangely mechanical-feeling, but the throw is too long (also true of that blasted C3). That said, it's easy to use it quickly, even pulling up the collar and chucking it into Reverse, then pulling it out and keeping it to the left to go into 1st. The clutch had quite a high biting point, but I think that's just a general difference between petrol and diesel engines. It was something else to get used to, though.

On the rightmost dial, you get a prompt to change up. This is to try to save you fuel, of course, and because it's easy to ignore it's a feature that I think all regular cars should have, because even if you don't do it as soon as you're prompted, it plants the seed and you soon start changing up earlier anyway. On the eco front, there's also a Stop/Start system* that's activated by putting it in neutral and coming off the clutch pedal. When the traffic light goes amber, you push it back down and the engine restarts. Engage first and go! It's easy. I waited for a few minutes outside the house to pick up more people after karting, and after a couple of minutes it turned the engine back on again, because the electric whateveritis that holds the engine only has a small charge (otherwise you'd need a big battery that would negate the benefits). It's recharged by the engine running. You can turn the system off, but why would you do that? You'll just cost yourself more money for no gains in performance or anything else.

*Anyone who calls it Start/Stop is wrong and needs a slap. The engine is running, then the system it stops it, then it starts it again. It's not hard...

Audio - 7/10

The DSport adds a hi-fi system, which Citroën calls, er, Hi-Fi System. We played some bass-heavy music and it was pretty good for a standard stereo system, with strong but not overpowering bass. The player of said music thought it was a bit weak, but he has a subwoofer, which the car does not. I thought it was well-balanced, with decent treble quality. The standard radio had pretty patchy signal even when tuned to a nationwide station, so we mostly just played music from our phones instead via Bluetooth. There's bugger-all on the radio, anyway, unless you know some cool obscure station you can only get if you do a special dance and balance in the right position.

The mechanical audio was OK considering. Anyone who thinks diesel car engines are all agricultural and sound or feel like they're running on rocks and sheep skulls needs to try out a good one from the last five or six years. Granted, it had a somewhat clattery idle and didn't sound the most evocative or thrilling, but it was quiet and refined once you got going. You know you're in a diesel, but you don't mind. In fact, you kinda like it.

Toys - 8/10

I didn't personally play with many of the toys, but one thing I noticed is that the key is colour-matched to the car. There's a big circle on it that matches either the paint colour or the roof (like this). Mine matched the white roof. This is part of a huge range of customisation options that includes roof vinyl graphics and so on. There was a Bluetooth phone connectivity thing that was used a lot by the passengers, but I can't say I've ever used that feature before and probably wouldn't if I had it on my own car. There was automatic a/c, but being aircon purists we left it in manual and adjusted it ourselves. The dashboard had a scented air freshener in it, but I didn't smell anything, and we couldn't get it to work. Eventually one of us pulled it out and it may have been empty. I'm giving it an 8 because it's got a long equipment list, what we played with was good and it's got everything I'd want it to have.

Value - 7/10

The car we had costs £18,245 new, minus the inevitable dealer discount, and the one we had was only 205 miles old at the start of the day (about 308 at the end IIRC). Thanks to a hefty young driver charge, it cost us £75.03 to use yesterday. If you ask me, it's worth it because it looks and feels that expensive and does everything you need it to, but it's worth pointing out that you can get the C3 for about £500-1000 less with the same mechanicals and basically the same interior, plus an extra pair of doors and a windscreen that goes back a lot further to let more light in. It's not as sexy - that far-reaching windscreen sort of looks like a receding hairline - but on paper it's the better purchase... or is it? I think the DS3 will hold its value better as it's more desirable. But the C3 is the sensible choice.

I want one of these. It's a great little car for people who think the BMW "MINI" is too irritatingly retro or just want a car that's the same idea - a stylish premium small car - but different. The French straight-up "get" small cars like this, even more luxurious ones like the DS3. Like I said earlier, you just end up liking this car.

Taken at Mumbles, near Verdi's ice cream parlour. Mumbles is lovely. You should go there.

Overall Rating: 71/100

Oh, and in case anyone's wondering about the actual go-karting, it was pretty great. For the first time we experienced Llandow Kart Circuit in dry, pleasant weather, having previously raced there in torrential rain and frozen cold. It's a decent little track with one of every kind of corner, although no elevation change to speak of. I managed 2nd place in my first race, losing to an expert by some margin, but beating everyone behind comfortably as well. I then came 4th and then 3rd, when I was dicing with this guy the entire race, keeping him behind for most of it, and then on the very last corner he tried one last dive down the inside and I didn't see him fast enough, so we collided and he spun off. He was sporting about it, but may not have believed me. I can't remember how my fourth heat went, but in the semi-final, I was again fighting for a podium, when a different guy giving me grief spun out in the chicane and I overreacted, spinning out too and getting onto the grass. I had to wait for everyone and then struggle back onto the track to finish stone dead last. It sucked, but again the guy said sorry and we were nice about it... unlike one guy. He was being all over-competitive and irritating, so one of the other guys... "persuaded" him off the track. Mr. Competitive reacted by pulling into the pits afterwards and ramming into his stationary kart, yelling at anyone who went near him and getting himself thrown out. Not clever...

After the journey back to Swansea, we realised we had a couple of hours left with the car, so rather than return it early, the three of us recruited two more housemates and drove along the seafront to Mumbles, a pleasant seaside town which I think is technically part of Swansea. Supposedly it has the second biggest tidal movement in the world, and having seen it at low tide, I'm inclined to agree. We had posh ice cream (the place was fancy enough that us grubby students felt slightly unwelcome, but whatevs) and then went to Caswell Bay where there was a small beach and a cave with water in it, which we then climbed around to find a walker's route around the edge of the coast. Alas, by then our time was getting tight, so we went the short way back. All in all, it was a great day, and the car played its part nicely.


  1. Great review, sounds like it was a good day!

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