Price: $19,140 to $24,200
Model tested: 2011 Citroën DS3 Racing, turbocharged four-cylinder, petrol, six-speed manual transmission
Ah, the weight of expectation. This is a car that’s had fans of the hot-hatch frothing at the mouth like rabid dogs for months and it isn’t difficult to see why. Because the Citroen DS3 Racing represents the first fruits of labour from the firm’s Racing Division. In other words, the boys and girls who build the cars that dominate WRC and have done so for years.
Weirdly, it’s been a long time coming. Because, while Citroen has been thrashing everyone on the world’s rally stages, it hasn’t, until now, cashed in on this success by turning its attention to a road-going car that the likes of us can buy for ourselves. Ford, meanwhile, has given us a couple of blinding hot-hatches in the forms of the Ford Focus ST and RS, while even Skoda has traded on its rally pedigree to give its cars some justifiable street-cred. And Renaultsport has been quietly filling the trophy cabinet thanks to its truly excellent Clio Cup and Megane RS250.
But here, at last, is the Citroen DS3 Racing (from this point on, if you don’t mind, I’ll shorten it to DS3R). Citroen is at pains to point out that the DS3R hasn’t been developed to take on either the Clio Cup or the MINI Cooper Works, with which it shares its engine. But one cannot help but make comparisons because, at the end of the day, they’re the best at what they do and, with the DS3R being priced so closely to the Cooper JCW, it’s not something that can be readily ignored just because Citroen top brass would rather we did.
Citroen says the DS3R is designed to meet the demands of an ‘everyday driver’ rather than the hardcore thrill-seeking adrenaline-junkie that might be tempted by its rivals. Fair enough, perhaps, but on paper the DS3R really does whet the appetite. And if the prospect of driving a small sports car developed by Sebastien Loeb’s team isn’t enough, the exterior appearance of this car should tell you what it’s all about before you turn a wheel: fun. With a great, big, capital F.
A sense of fun is there from the outset, as soon as you clap eyes on the thing. Not that many of us will be able to do so, mind you, because Citroën says production will be strictly limited to 1000 examples (yeah, right) and a huge chunk of those has already been snapped up. Take a look at the decals, for instance. It looks like a graphics designer has gone mad with the vinyls. There’s even one above the fuel filler cap that reads “Caution. Attention.” Why? Who knows? But it’s a laugh. And that sense of unbridled fun has been missing from performance cars for too long now.
Look at the wheel arch trims, the rear diffuser and the trims that grace the side valances – they’re real carbon fibre. The carbon addenda extends to the interior, too, with trim to the door panels and the steering wheel, which is quite ugly to look at but lovely to hold. The seats look more serious than they actually are and they’re quite wide, even for my ungainly frame, but they do a decent enough job of keeping driver and front passenger in place when pressing on a bit.
Before I describe what it’s like to drive, it’s perhaps worth noting that, when seven-times world champion (and criminally good looking) Sebastien Loeb takes to the WRC stages in his Citroën this year, it will be in a car not dissimilar to this one. Recent rule changes have resulted in smaller cars with smaller engines being being pressed into service. No more active diffs, no more paddle-shift gearboxes and the minimum physical length of the cars has been reduced from four to 3.8-metres. So the Ford Focus has given way to the diminutive but brilliant Fiesta and Citroën’s C4 has bowed out gracefully in favour of the DS3.
So the DS3R really should be a marvel. It’s time to find out if the wait has been worthwhile and whether Citroën Racing’s first road car is a triumph or a turkey. My test car is painted white with grey graphics but the other combo is much more in tune with boy racer territory: black with orange wheels (grey paint really hides their exquisite design) and decals. And I find myself wishing for that loud treatment because it would have heightened the sense of fun and attitude, which is what hot hatches do best. In my mind, any high performance car should shout it from the rooftops but each to their own.
While Loeb has been a bit too busy of late to have had much of an input into the DS3R’s development, his team (past and present) has been heavily involved. Which only serves to heap the pressure on the DS3R’s little head. Citroën Racing wanted it to be faster than the already excellent DS3 but they apparently wanted “racing behaviour and atmosphere”, too. Special new shock absorbers and springs were developed in conjunction with Peugeot, new brakes were developed with Brembo, the engine’s internals were beefed up beyond their original specification, the car’s track was widened and aerodynamics were improved.
So far so promising. The DS3R’s track has, indeed, been widened by 20mm and the engine’s power has been given a hike to 152kW. And the brakes are four-pot items that have plenty of racing pedigree. But all of this will amount to diddly-squat if the chassis isn’t up to scratch. It’s where the magic dust sprinkled by Loeb’s team will be most apparent.
My time with the car is limited as demands on the press fleet are understandably high. Basically I have just under three days with it and my plan is to hoon around in it for the first day and take some pics the following day before it’s picked up. First day duly enjoyed, the heavens proceed to open on the second day. So apologies in advance for the grey, drab photos. Best laid plans and all that…
First impressions of the DS3R are very good. Excellent, in fact. And that’s down to the suspension’s ability to soak up bumps and ruts while offering the kind of firm ride that defines a performance car these days. It’s firm enough for you to realise this is a sports car but not so firm that your fillings will shake themselves loose. It’s a compromise that most manufacturers really can’t make but Citroën Racing has done the DS3R proud.
And it’s the same when you’re throwing the new car into challenging hairpins, too. The front tyres do struggle to put that power onto the road but it remains utterly composed and predictable and, when you really want to get all lairy, a quick yank on the handbrake lever sees the rear end pirouetting around in precise, deliciously controllable fashion. It’s brilliant.
As you might expect, torque-steer is here in abundance but it’s not death-dealing like it was in the first generation Focus RS. Rather it simply heightens the fun factor. Put your foot down and the front wheels spin (and make up their own mind as to what direction you’re going in) briefly before composure is regained and traction is back. It’s all over in a second but it does remind you that this is a car to be enjoyed. It makes you laugh and it makes you smile like the village idiot. Which, in this case at least, is a good thing.
The (unique to the DS3R) ESP is constantly busying itself, trying to keep the car on the straight-ahead because the power delivery is totally instant and forceful but the nannying never feels intrusive. Rather it feels like your friend, smoothing out your mistakes and keeping you pointed in the right direction.
As a point-to-point road weapon it’s easily the equal of the hottest MINI although the all-out purity of the Clio Cup is missing. That car really does behave like a miniature Porsche 911 GT3RS but it’s not suited to the daily drive, which Citroën insists was necessary for the DS3R.
Did I mention the brakes? No? Well, these Brembo items are utterly superb. As anyone who’s spent serious time on a race circuit is well aware, brakes are as important as horsepower when it comes to setting a decent lap time (I once saw Loeb’s brakes on fire after a night stage on the Monte Carlo Rally) and the DS3R’s stoppers are world-class. No spongey feel, no dead travel, just instant bite with complete controllability.
The gearbox feels a tad loose at times but it’s quick and effective in use when you’re piling on the speed. There’s very little body roll, the DS3R remaining impeccably stable. Hit a tight corner and the Citroën reacts instantly to braking input and practically begs you to get back on the gas so it can gun out of the bend onto the next one.
It doesn’t feel quite as urgent as the Cooper JCW but its chassis is so refined that it doesn’t matter. This is a hot-hatch extraordinaire.
It might not possess the bulletproof build quality of BMW’s MINI (although it is very well made) and it might not have the raw edge of the Clio Cup 200. It might not have the sheer ferocity possessed by the Focus RS but bloody hell it’s a laugh. And that, these days, is a very rare thing indeed. As a first step by Citroën Racing you couldn’t ask or wish for anything more – if this is the shape of things to come it will be a very bright future for the hot-hatch, indeed. This comes highly recommended.