Test DS4: France strikes back by Emmanuel Van de Brûle

After several years of searching for its own identity, the French automotive industry is eventually finding its place in a broader environment. DS even gambles on the premium segment, while at the same time marking the difference with its rivals. Design, technology and comfort being the keywords of the day.

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There’s a definite French flavour to be felt in the Chantilly area, on the outskirts of Paris. A black box of several hundred square metres is being used as a « car show ». Inside, there is a miniature conference room, several small lounges, a prototype with futuristic lines and, of course, the brand new DS4, the fourth model of the brand which is now completely separate from Citroën. The accompanying panels speak of French savoir-faire and high-end experiences.

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In short, ensuring everything is done to satisfy all the customers’ needs, no matter what they are. The launch of this premium compact is a crucial moment for the brand : the competition – mainly German – is snatching up personal sales and leasing contracts, copying and pasting is no longer sufficient to keep up with the likes of Audi and Mercedes. However, we can trust the French for being creative and trying different approaches.

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 Bold design above all

The style and design boldness strike instantly. Sharpened and chiselled features are everywhere and there’s an endless delicacy in all the details. One thing is for sure, the DS4 really stands out rather than playing it safe and being anonymous . Its size is halfway between a compact car and a mini-SUV and rather well toned down by its slender appearance and massive wheels (19’’ ones are factory-fitted while 20 » ones are available as an extra). According to one of its designers, « transition from the concept to production model was easy to negotiate with the engineers ». Indeed, the two models placed side by side keep the same proportions and the same look, with just a few minimal changes, mostly due to regulations.

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Even the edges on the C-pillar, which serve no practical purpose, were allowed to remain. Body panels production methods are now sufficiently advanced to allow such a design flamboyance. The DS4 comes in three trim levels but the differences are purely aesthetic. The Performance Line pack blackens out most of the chrome and adds some slightly sportier details, while the Cross version gets hard plastic protection panels and roof rails. There is no difference in ride height betweenthem, but there are three noticeably different looks without resorting to silly details. A good point against the competition.

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Top equipment levels

High-end technology was near the top of the project’s objectives and there is nothing to be ashamed of here, quite the contrary. The available engines are mainly petrol ones, ranging from 130 to 225 hp. There are, above all, plug-in hybrids. A full electric model is planned for 2024. Indeed, half of the model’s orders taken to date are models fitted with a battery under the rear seat. These units are all mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission.  Smoothness, rather than performance, is the order of the day. To prove it, there’s no all-wheel drive on the agenda.

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Equipment levels are pretty high and there’s a whole range of extras, not to fall short of the competition. Head-up display, 10″ central screen, touchpad on the centre console, active suspension, LED lights… everything that matters these days is all there. DS will even add voice recognition and semi-autonomous driving by the time the new DS4 will be available at a show-room near you. We feel DS is not overdoing things, just putting its finger to its mouth to achieve its most ambitious goals.

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Supreme comfort

Comfort wise, it seems totally reminiscent of the original DS values. The Active Scan Suspension couples monitored springs to a camera and allows you to deal with road imperfections in total peace of mind. In practice, this gives ideal damping, even with 20″ wheels, and controlled roll in corners. The only downside is that the Comfort mode, which most drivers will use by default, is very prone to rolling on rough roads. Not enough to make you seasick, but enough to make you switch to another mode. The E-Tense version is a plug-in hybrid mustering 225 horsepower and 360 Nm. Its comfort extends to the electric power integration, which is almost forgotten throughout its realistic 50 km range. Never brutal, nor even wild, the DS4 is driven with the fingertips, without expecting too much feedback from the steering wheel.

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Indeed, the efforts made to lighten the car are successful (it weighs only kg 1,430) However, dynamically, don’t expect miracles. Acceleration is lively and brisk but cornering is not exciting. Obviously, this is not what the DS4 was made for,  no matter what the “performance” pack might suggest. The Puretech version features a 225 hp petrol engine, has more feel and a livelier body. Without really being playful, the chassis of this Peugeot 308 cousin is quite responsive, even if there is always a hint of understeer. The only real drawback is the gearbox management in Sport mode, which pulls the engine all the way up to its rev limit, even with a light foot. The paddles located behind the steering wheel will be useful to get back to a quieter pace and more sedate atmosphere.

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Is it a real alternative?

In all honesty, that’s the tricky part. With a base price of € 28,400, challenging the German competition  as equals is a risky business. Indeed, the Audi A1, Mercedes A-Class and BMW 1 Series have similar prices. However, as we have seen above, the DS4 is positioned differently and features a more extensive standard equipment list.

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Combining bold design with German construction methods (It comes out the Russelsheim factory), the DS4 eventually brings a welcome French touch to the premium compact segment. It also ticks the compulsory boxes (like high-end fit and finish, lavish equipment levels and supreme comfort) that its forebears had forgotten. Cheers to the new DS4 that  stands out enough to be noticed ; France is definitely now back in business . (Pictures & text: Emmanuel Van den Brûle – Translation: Dimitri Urbain)

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