There's an old adage that says if you're ever locked up, your best chance of survival is to find the biggest inmate in jail and punch them right in the face. Citroen's fully aware of this brave, possibly foolhardy strategy, but has embraced it fully as it prepares to take on the market-leading Mini, with its brand-new DS3.
Don't believe us? Just have a gander under the DS3's bonnet, where you'll find the same petrol engine as its rival. Then hark at the DS3's obscenely high degree of customisation -- one of the Mini's proudest traits. Finally, consider Citroen's 'anti retro' tag line, which isn't so much a marketing slogan as a battle cry against its nostalgia-loving adversary.
The DS3 is the high-end offshoot of the company's forthcoming C3. It uses that car's basic underpinnings -- its floor-plan, engines and suspension -- but gets a host of design flourishes that will have traditionalists tutting their disapproval. The shark-fin-shaped wedge separating the front and rear windows, the vertical LED light strips below the main headlamps and the muscular front and rear bumpers are all integral parts of a forward-thinking design that, like it or not, stimulates discussion -- much like Citroens of old.
Citroen's gone to great pains to make the DS3 as customisable as possible. There are 11 different paint finishes, four different roof colours (with the option of zebra-print, stripes or tribal sticker motifs), chrome, body or roof-coloured door mirrors and seven types of alloy wheel. The company offers a similar level of customisation on the interior. Everything from the shininess of the dashboard to the colour of the scented air-freshener knob are tweakable via kiosks in the dealership, the Citroen Web site or a DS3 iPhone app.
Cabin technology in the DS3 is hit and miss, with Citroen's MyWay sat-nav system providing most of the misses. The 7-inch information and entertainment display is gorgeous, but you'll find the process of entering a postcode via the twisting knob input system fiddly work. There are other niggles too. MyWay only lets you enter the first four digits of a post code, if your postcode is listed at all -- ours wasn't. After that you'll need to manually enter the street address, which can be hugely time consuming.
Trying to find points of interest (POIs) is a waste of time. They're listed in a tiny window on the screen, where ill-fitting text is scrolled left to right. As a result, longer POIs text strings can take in the region of thirty seconds to fully reveal themselves, by which time you'll either have fallen asleep, or changed your mind about going there.
Save yourself the £1,100 Citroen charges for this joke of a system and buy yourself a TomTom. You'll lose the integrated Bluetooth phone system, rain-sensing wipers and USB music connectivity that form part of the MyWay package, but most of these can be replaced with less infuriating after-market alternatives.
The DS3 makes up for its finicky cabin tech with excellent road manners. The car is a joy to drive in most conditions, particularly around town. Its suspension is forgiving and its clutch pedal and steering make light work of rush hour commutes. It's not shy of more enthusiastic driving, either.
The 1.6-litre engine in our top of the range DS3 THP 150 tester blew a satisfying baritone through the car's twin exhausts. It completed the 0-62mph sprint in 7.3 seconds -- 0.3s slower than the Mini Cooper S Clubman. Spirited driving reveals a lack of on-the-limit feedback in the steering, but the car grips well and changes direction with agility, so if you do get in trouble on the road, it's probably your fault.
Citroen is well aware that, in order to compete seriously with its rivals, it's had to show courage with its design -- and that's exactly what it's done. Sure, the DS3 struggles to provide the same sense of status as the Alfa Romeo MiTo, and isn't as dynamic and involving on the road as a Mini, but it's a definite head-turner that exudes a sense of freshness its rivals can't compete with. If you're looking for a supermini that's fun to drive and fun to look at, you could do a whole lot worse.
Citroen DS3 stats
- Model tested: Citroen DS3 DSport THP 150
- Top speed: 133mph
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds
- Max power: 150bhp
- Economy: 42.2mpg (combined cycle)
- Price: £15,900