My Citroën DS3

Ah, comme j’aime les autos françaises!

From the age of seventeen, and in order, I’ve owned:

In other words: six French cars, three Italian, two British and one German. By that measure, then, I guess you could say that I do like French cars. I’ve admired the quirkiness and good looks of many French motors since I was a boy, starting with “the Goddess” — the beautiful and innovative Citroën DS. To a kid in the 1960s, and compared to contemporaries like the Morris Minor and Ford Anglia, that thing really did look like it had just landed from outer space.

Citroën continued to pique my interest in the 1970s with:

In the 1980s, Peugeot turned out one of the most elegant convertibles not produced by a high-end marque: the 504 Cabriolet, distinctively styled by Pininfarina to stand out from other models bearing the 504 badge. This example is a beauty.

The 1980s also saw the introduction by Peugeot of two of their finest hot hatchbacks. First came the 205 GTI in its 1.6 litre engined version in 1984, followed in 1986 by the bigger-wheeled, 1.9 litre variant. The latter was a superb little car, that many folks think of — with some justification — as the best hot hatch ever. “It went like a rocket, and handled like a race car,” as Mike Brewer described it on Wheeler Dealers. But my preference was for the larger 309 GTI that came along in 1987. It had the same 130 bhp engine as the 1.9 litre 205, but the longer wheelbase and wider track gave the 309 even better handling. I owned a quick, mean, black machine — a 1988 309 GTI that had the ECU remapped and a K&N air filter fitted to squeeze out some more horsepower. It was a real “point and squirt” beast; an absolute delight to drive fast, which I did for about ten years before parking it up when I took a job abroad. Eventually I disposed of it; but I miss the best handling car I ever owned.

Good handling was a characteristic of other Peugeots through the late 1980s and 1990s too. I bought two Peugeot 405 models, the first in 1989. For what was essentially a three-box, family saloon, the 405 with its rigid body drove very well; and its sleek, Pininfarina styling looked better than other vehicles in its class. Mine were both 1.9 litre petrol-engined GL models, though the first was actually a GLx4, the four wheel drive version. It was the only 4x4 I ever owned, and the difference it made when driving in winter conditions was wonderful. It also had hydropneumatic suspension on the rear axle, which could be jacked up and down with a button inside the boot. That was handy at the time, because I often had to negotiate a driveway with a horrific change in angle as it neared the street, and raising the back end saved scraping the underside of the car over the inflection point on the drive. My second 405, I kept until it was 20 years old, because why not? Nothing ever went wrong with it. The cost of ownership of that car over its life with me was very low. Apart from routine servicing and consumable items (tyres, brake parts, one battery and one exhaust), my only expense was in its later years as the clutch became heavier to operate and I replaced it. It never failed an MOT, and when I let it go with over 90,000 miles on the clock it was still a runner, it had only a few small rust spots on one door, and it was still a stylish car. It was just a bit tired-looking.

Yes, yes, but what about the DS3? I’m getting there…

I replaced the 405 with another Peugeot, this time a 308. I had been without a second car for a while, and I decided if I was going to have only one car, it should be a hatchback for practicality. After working for a while in America in 1986 and driving an automatic, I promised myself that my next car would be an auto. Well, it only took me a quarter of a century and several “next” cars before I got around to it — but I set out specifically to buy an auto at last. I liked the styling of the 308, the car fulfilled my essential needs, and the auto box made driving through Edinburgh’s stop-start traffic less hellish.

Although the 308 looked sharp in its solid black paintwork (which I kept gleaming, as I had done with my 309 GTI — it’s the only way with black cars), there was nothing special about my model. In S level trim, it was equipped with a 118 bhp, normally aspirated, 1.6 litre VTi Prince engine. Not a sparkling performer, but adequate for my needs at the time; and together with the 308’s refined interior finish, spacious cabin and good-sized boot, I was happy enough. For a while.

A few years down the line, I felt it would be nice to have the convenience and utility of owning a second car again — something different, something for fun rather than base practicality…

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Hello, DS3!

I could have gone into full midlife crisis mode, and bought a little two-seat, drophead roadster. And truth be told, I did look at a few Mazda MX5s (the finest British sports cars not made in Britain and not built by a British manufacturer…) and BMW Z4s. But I planned to buy a used car, and condition was a problem in the ones I looked at locally. Strangely, the Z4s I saw either had good bodywork and a shoddy interior, or a good interior and shoddy bodywork. On one of the MX5s, the sills were suffering from very obvious tinworm; on another, the sills were suspiciously coated with thick stonechip paint. The experience was a bit off-putting, and at my age, it probably made sense to go for a car that I would be able to get in and out of without the assistance of a crane. So I looked in a different direction. And that's how I came to buy a Citroën DS3 E-HDi DStyle with the 1.6 litre, straight-four, 90 bhp turbodiesel engine and 5-speed manual transmission.

Out of all the cars I had owned, the DS3 was the first I bought almost entirely for its looks alone. I say “almost”, because I’d have steered clear if the DS3 drove like a dustcart or had a repellent reliability record. A test drive and a recollection of the Clarkson review of 2010 satisfied me on the first point, and some research on the second: the DS3 came first in its class in the What Car/JD Power UK Satisfaction Survey three years in a row. I also had the testimony of a DS3-owning friend to draw on.

I had loved the look of the DS3 since it first hit the UK streets in 2010, when it also won the accolade of Top Gear Car of the Year. It’s also rather neat that this lovely little French car was designed by a Brit, Mark Lloyd. So when the time came, and after due consideration of other options, I thought, “Why not?” The two-tone, roof-body styling had always appealed to me, and I liked pretty much all of the available colour combinations. But the one that really stood out was the Sport Yellow with black roof. It ain’t subtle; in fact, it’s a bit attention-seeking and boy-racerish, neither of which labels really describe me, but the car looks so good in that paint job: it’s the proverbial poodle’s privates. Citroën may call it “Sport Yellow”; for Jezza Clarkson it was “Egg Yellow”; but one of my nearest and dearest rechristened it “Fuck Off Yellow”. Yeah.

So that decided colour. I also wanted a diesel. Either this was before the government successfully poisoned the minds of car buyers against diesels, or else I’m impervious to propaganda: I like to think it’s the latter. My then other car, and all those I had owned previously, were petrol powered and attracted a moderately high vehicle excise duty — so a second car on which I would pay no road tax due to its low CO2 emissions was tempting. Not to mention the significantly better fuel economy. As I had decided to buy a quality used rather than a brand new model, and I wasn’t too fussy about small model variations, I just set about looking for the best DS3 I could find that met my essential requirements: Sport Yellow/Black, diesel, lowest mileage, best condition. I did take note of one criticism that a few reviewers had mentioned, however: while the 17-inch wheel looked a little better than the 16-inch — bigger wheels usually do enhance appearance, of course — the 17-inch reportedly made for a harder ride and more noise in the cabin than the 16-inch.

I found a low mileage, archetypal “one careful lady owner” specimen, and she had indeed been careful. The car was about a year-and-a-half old, and was in near to immaculate condition. Save for some scuffs over the tailgate lip probably arising from shopping bags being dragged rather than lifted over it, the bodywork was free from scratches, stone chips, dings or dents — see the photos in Figs. 1 to 3 below. The front offside wheel had been kerbed (Fig. 4), but otherwise the 16-inch alloys were in great shape.

View a higher resolution version of Figure 1.
Figure 1. Car as purchased: three-quarter front offside view.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).
View a higher resolution version of Figure 2.
Figure 2. Car as purchased: nearside view.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).
View a higher resolution version of Figure 3.
Figure 3. Car as purchased: three-quarter rear nearside view.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).
View a higher resolution version of Figure 4.
Figure 4. Car as purchased: front offside wheel with kerbing at 2 o’clock position.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).

As for the interior, the cloth upholstery and carpets were unblemished by damage or stains. The dash and controls were flawless and there was no sign of wear on the steering wheel or gear knob. The whole presented as clean and fresh. See Figs. 5 and 6.

View a higher resolution version of Figure 5.
Figure 5. Car as purchased: front interior.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).
View a higher resolution version of Figure 6.
Figure 6. Car as purchased: rear interior.
Photo by dealer (Arnold Clark, Edinburgh).

The young sales guy who accompanied me on a test drive said, “You can see on my badge that I’m a trainee, which means my time is worth nothing — so you can take as long as you like.” Which was great, because it allowed me a pretty thorough test, embracing not only town driving but zipping along a stretch of the A1 dual carriageway at 70 mph — useful for checking out the cruise control. I found it was quite a perky performer with the kind of torquiness I expect from a diesel motor. The steering was responsive and positive; the light clutch made for an easy if slightly long-throw gear change; and all the controls and systems worked as they should. The ride on those 16-inch wheels was already quite firm, making me glad (if the aforementioned reviewers were to be believed) that it wasn’t fitted with the 17s — especially given the shocking number of potholes in Edinburgh and the proliferation of speed bumps in the area where I live. Inside the cabin was agreeably quiet; I remember Citroën making a bit of a fuss about the work they had done on soundproofing when the car was released. Particularly striking was how the restart of the start-stop engine was so quick and quiet that I wasn’t even aware of it — a stark contrast with every other start-stop car I’d travelled in, where the screech of the starter motor was all too audible. Overall the DS3 had that point-and-squirt quality that characterises a lot of small, nippy hatchbacks. Although not nearly as quick or punchy, the sharp steering and stiff suspension reminded me of my old Peugeot 309 GTI. It was fun to drive.

I’d found the “good one” I was looking for. After a bit of negotiation on price and extended warranty I bought it, took it home, swapped the registration for one of my private plates, and drove it around happily for the next four years. After which, the story continues.

View a higher resolution version of Figure 7.
Figure 7. My DS3 at home. Sport Yellow really pops in the dappled sunlight…
Photo by author.

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