Are we entering a new golden age of car design?
A time where the advent of modern production techniques and computer conceptualisation can let designers freely express themselves from beyond the sketch and clay model, to a drivable production reality?
The 2016 DS5 DSport would suggest we are.
Originally born as the Citroën C-SportLounge concept back in 2005, the DS5 is the first stake in the ground for DS, Citroën’s new premium brand proposition that will be marketed alongside the standard car and light-commercial range.
Essentially a mid-life facelift of the 2015 Citroën DS5, the new car is simplified in both name and offering, with just a single diesel variant available for 2016.
Put simply, it is a very interesting car. Initially, it looks like a modern but generic five-door blob, but then elements stand out and you realise that there is nothing quite like it anywhere else.
With a drag coefficient of 0.26 (the same as a BMW i8) the $56,990 DS5 steps boldly toward the future as first predicted in 1960s science fiction.
The chrome ‘sabres’ that extend from the leading edge of the bonnet to the A-and-a-bit pillar serve no functional ‘engineering’ purpose, they are there purely to provide a visually longer looking car.
Small DS logos litter the car, from the inside of lamp housings to the texture of the trim on the transmission tunnel. The multi-layer headlights are superbly intricate as are the 18-inch machined five-spoke ‘Twist’ alloy wheels with their textured inlays.
Things get even more interesting on the inside.
Designed to mimic an aircraft cockpit, the banks of switches on the console and the roof are again like nothing else on the road. The triple gauge housing in the instrument binnacle and specific display graphics within are really quite cool, as are the styled digital LCD readouts on the temperature controls.
Put simply, compared to every other car on the market, it’s bonkers.
There is symmetry in the console’s window switches and asymmetry in the dashboard stack itself.
The seven-inch infotainment touch screen is a familiar Peugeot/Citroen item though. The system offers a good range of features (including navigation, DAB+ digital radio and Bluetooth audio streaming) but crashed on us three times – each requiring the car to be switched off to regain any function.
At night, the interior lights glow red, but rather than the standard ‘paradise by the dashboard light’ approach, there are strips, beams and pin points of LED illumination. The coolest being the lights under the bottle holders in the doors than give your humble ‘Mt Franklin’ a funky red radiance.
Swivelling headlamps, harking back to the Citroën SM, exhibit more obvious behaviour in the DS5 than in many other cars, waggling with distinct emphasis even through suburban roundabouts. And the scrolling ‘chaser’ indicators on the front are just straight-up cool.
Then there are the heated leather seats (with massage function) and their awesome ‘watchstrap’ pattern design ($2,700 option). These, along with the ‘boxing glove’ headrests and their infinite level of adjustment feel more Kubrick future than actual reality.
And while the luxury treatment continues to the back seat, rear passenger room is cozy, with the sloping roofline limiting headroom for taller occupants. The non-powered tailgate exposes a 465-litre cargo capacity and the 60:40 split rear needs the bench folded up for full-flat access.
I lost count of how many different textures and button styles are used throughout the DS5. Where you expect to see generic PSA parts-bin elements, there are individually designed and created dials, buttons and dials with buttons in them.
It’s as if someone at Citroën received a 3D-printer for Christmas and went to town. More impressive is thinking that the whole dashboard construct is specific to either right or left-hand drive markets.
Even the analogue clock is a unique size and shape, ensuring it cannot be shared with any other car.
A kink here, a wraparound there, it is a design study in motion. A salute to the creative minds that recognise while aerodynamics and functionality govern much of what we see on the road, there’s still an opportunity to turn the crazy up to 11 and push the envelope.
For the right owner, you can picture driving the DS5 from a MOMA exhibition to your Lloyd Wright house, where you settle into an Eames chair and read Architectural Digest. It is the result of what happens when form leads function, and while it might turn heads, it isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Take intuitive interactions for example.
Citroën have approached the controls of the DS5 with a methodology of ‘one function, one button’, and while that seems to make sense in terms of a deign study, it translates to a mishmash of interfaces that end up confusing what should be a simple process.
Case in point, the ‘David Copperfield’ centre console has two buttons close together, click on the right for the small top bin with USB charge point, click the left to open the cavernous console bin that disappears under the transmission tunnel. Just another simple element that has been dealt with differently, resulting in initial confusion when trying to figure out how it all works.
In fact it look a long time to work out just what everything did. There’s still a button I pressed that I have no idea what it turned on, or off…
It’s the anti-iPad in terms of simplicity and machine-human interaction.
Much of this ‘Citroënness’ would be forgiven though, if the DS behaved as a Citroën should. But it doesn’t.
The 133kW/400Nm 2-litre turbo-diesel has the numbers on paper, but it feels hesitant and sluggish getting the 1,540kg DS5 moving. It’s noisier and harsher than you’d expect under load too.
Pop the six-speed automatic into Sport, if you can find the button which hides out of view on the left of the shifter, and things improve but you’d never go so far as to call the DS5 ‘sprightly’.
Once up and running though, the DS cruises well and given some country roads can actually be quite fun. There’s enough power the keep on pace, the brakes are strong and confident but you do feel that the car is much better suited to touring than urban running.
Economy is excellent too. We recorded just over 5-litres per 100km against the claim of 4.5L/100km for a week of predominantly urban use. We rarely disengaged the ECO mode setting (start-stop function) as it is hidden behind a menu on the touchscreen, rather than triggered by a button. Ironic really, that the one button we did want wasn’t there.
The cornerstone of any Citroën is its comfortable ride, and this too is lacking in the DS5.
More sporty than plush, the DS5 is heavy at low speeds (particularly parking), and is setup much too firm for a car of this calibre. You can feel the suspension working away over small bumps and despite a soft approach, it comes down quite hard on big ones (like speed humps).
There’s not too much oscillation however, and the car settles quickly, but a luxury focussed vehicle like the DS5 should have a luxury focussed ride. If Citroen had configured it with air or their trademark hydropneumatic suspension, it would tip the balance of ‘special’ in favour of the DS5. I can’t even describe how cool it would look, sleeping on its bump-stops with the suspension at its lowest point, the front lip mere millimetres above the asphalt…
Bottom line, the ride is not what I want from a Citroën. A Citroën should be smooth and comfortable and the DS5 can thump and crash, just like any other car… and that means it has lost some of its point of difference.
And it is this that is the real failing of the DS5. The by-the-numbers drivetrain and suspension does not befit the special nature of the rest of the car.
I wanted to like the DS5. I listened to Daft Punk and Sebastien Tellier to get into the zone, but the sci-fi prop thrill just couldn’t translate into a heart-felt recommendation.
“What does this button do” is an actual question, not a punchline – and while it still gives the DS5 an element of cool, you need to be the right person for the car.
If you are reading this (in your Eames chair), glancing at the DS5 parked outside in the brutalist-inspired glass and concrete carport, then you fit into a specific niche of buyer and I for one, do understand.
There’s French-car DNA in my blood, and I’ve spent years trying to talk my father out of buying ‘regular’ Citroëns, so that he save himself for the cool ones (1988 BX19 GTI for one).
The DS5 is the car you buy because you can’t buy a Saab anymore, but is too expensive to just be ‘different’ and not different enough to be truly special. For all its bespoke chic, the 2016 DS5 DSport is a machine that is fantastic and flawed in equal measure.
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