It’s a driving rite of passage and I’m genuinely nervous. Paris, morning rush-hour, the Arc de Triomphe. Multiple unmarked lanes, no rules, and lots of sleepy, grumpy French people late for work. Oh yes, and we’re in the equivalent of an England shirt with matching face paint – a British-registered Mini Cooper S.
Deep breath and head for a gap. John Hayman is acting wingman and shouts a volley of instructions. Just in time I spot a taxi joining the mêlée at about 40mph without breaking stride. Merde, that was close. Buses, scooters, Twingos and vans shoal madly around us and then, after 30 seconds, we’re spat out the other side, miraculously unscathed. This is not a conventional start to an evo group test…
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The reason we’re here is the primrose- yellow Citroën DS3 that’s waiting just along the Champs Élysées. John Simister’s pronouncement last month that he’d have one over a Mini caught everyone in the office on the hop. None of us had really expected the new Citroën hatchback to be a genuine drivers’ car. Happily, a swift call to Citroën to see if we could pitch Mini and friends against the DS3 elicited a similarly swift reply: ‘Yes. How would Friday suit?’ Very nicely. Trouble was, the car was in France and we could only have it for the day. Which is why we find ourselves executing a dawn smash-and-grab on central Paris.
Our DS3 is the 1.6 THP 16V 150 DSport, the top-of-the-range petrol version. Price as tested is £17,500, but that’s fully loaded, including air-con, sat-nav, Bluetooth and beautifully shaped sports seats that squeeze gently at the bottom of the ribcage. The small, flat-bottomed steering wheel is adjustable for reach and rake and there’s a lot more room inside than in the Cooper (particularly in the back), although the Citroën can’t quite compete with the Mini’s tactility and design flair.
The DS3’s dials are set in darkness in front of you, out of which the markings of the central speedometer glow a bright white. Everything else is fairly conventional except that, as I follow the sat-nav (complete with integrated speed camera warnings) towards the Périférique, I notice a small chrome knob set in the piano-black trim to the right of the steering wheel. An experimental twiddle makes my head swim slightly with the aroma of potpourri – it turns out to be an air freshener.
Although we’re in France we’d rather be in Britain. The weather is certainly doing its best to make us feel at home, a grey duvet of rain- clouds having positioned themselves overhead for the day, but what we really need are the right sort of roads. Fortunately we know of some nearby that do a decent job of replicating our wonderful brand of poorly surfaced, hugely cambered and dastardly tricky B-roads. They lie in the Compiègne Forest, north-east of Paris (where the Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in 1918) and fortunately it seems that no-one has tidied them up since we last called on them a year ago.
Driving along the network of narrow roads between the rusty-carpeted beech woods, the Citroën is displaying at least one reassuringly French quality – it is riding fantastically well. There’s plenty of wheel travel to cope with the bumps, and the damping is superb. Like the swan that appears serene on the surface, the body stays flat and unflustered whilst the suspension beneath works furiously, soaking everything up. With MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam across the rear, it’s not exactly a revolutionary design, but it’s a set-up that’s favoured by French hatchbacks. More to the point, it works.
Our rendezvous point for the next few hours is a small car park on the edge of the village of Saint Jean aux Bois, and waiting for the DS3 are the Mini, a Renaultsport Clio 200 Cup and an Abarth 500 Esseesse.
It’s a good-looking quartet. The Renault is functional; the other three are all trying quite hard. To my eyes the Abarth nails the retro chic and ahhh factor, while the floating roof, upright LEDs and shark-fin B-pillars make the new DS3, from the front at least, every bit as eye-catching as the now rather ubiquitous Mini. What the DS3 won’t do is tap into that rich vein of nostalgia plumbed by the Mini and 500, but apparently that’s the way Citroën wanted it, claiming it to be ‘anti-retro’.
Nostalgia was certainly a large part of the motivation for Fraser Whyte (who very kindly agreed to drive out to France at short notice) to buy his 500. He’s had a string of small Fiats in the past and when he retired from racing karts professionally decided to buy a new Abarth to tinker with. It’s unusual to see one without stripes, but I rather like the plain and simple approach. I like the Speedline-alike wheels too, even if they are a bugger to clean.
Whilst photographer Stuart Collins is arranging a shot, I pinch the 500 and head off for a drive. In Esseesse spec the Abarth is closest on power to the DS3 (158bhp versus 154), and it needs the little turbocharged 1.4 to be worked hard in a remorseless quest for every last drop of speed. You sit very upright as you blat along, big multi-tasking dial in front of you, fat-rimmed wheel in your hands, gearshift poking conveniently from the dashboard.
The 500 feels small and chuckable, with an engaging eagerness. It turns into corners with more enthusiasm than the DS3. Conversely, once into the corner, where the DS3 feels nicely connected, the Abarth loses all feel in the steering and you can suddenly be left guessing what’s going on. The ride is diametrically opposed to the French car’s too. Bowling along an unusually smooth bit of road in the 500, I gradually become aware that I’m still gently pitching up and down on its short-travel suspension. It’s as though the damping in the rear has completely gone to sleep; it’s a bit like piloting a space hopper.
Clio 200 Cup next. Renaultsport has sorted the gearing so that now the engine is a joy to rev, and although it feels rather torque-lite after its turbocharged competitors, the upside is that it doesn’t struggle to put its power down on these wet, bumpy roads and allows you a greater degree of finesse through long corners when the suspension’s loaded. The real joy, however, is the natural directness of the chassis. Several of the turns have crumbled away on their apex; sometimes the tarmac just drops off at the edge. Either way, in the Clio it’s an open invitation to hook an inside wheel and enjoy the feeling of being swung through the corner with added Gs. Catch the rear, stay committed on the throttle and listen for the beep of the change-up reminder… Yes, you could maybe drive the others like this, but it’s only the Clio that positively eggs you on to do it.
We’ve said before that the slightly softer non-Cup Clio 200 is a less brutal road car and that remains true, but the Cup’s damping is nonetheless so efficient that you can tackle these viciously bumpy roads with abandon and a large grin across your face. Where the Clio falls down in this company, of course, is that it feels like a smallish French hatchback rather than a stylish accessory. For some this might be a plus – as Stephen Dobie comments, ‘the fact it’s not a trinket means I’d care less about slinging it down manky roads’ – but for anyone in the Mini/DS3/500 market I suspect it could be a major stumbling block.
The Clio’s biggest rival up until now has always been the Cooper S, and that’s where I head now. You sit wonderfully low down in the Mini, with your legs stretching out more horizontally than in the other cars and the steering wheel pretty much wherever you want it thanks to a fantastic range of adjustment. The only blot is that the sports seats should locate and hold you better and you can end up clinging to the wheel tighter as a result. John Hayman has leapt into the DS3 and so I follow him out of the car park. To be honest I’d rather hoped to get in front of him. The Mini is quicker to 60mph and feels like it ought to romp away from the Citroën down a B-road. As soon as you pull away it feels involving – the steering is positive, the 172bhp engine feels like it’s bubbling over with more energy than the front wheels really need, and there’s a healthy positivity to the controls that makes you feel like the Mini wants to be driven. The Sport button, as ever, is a mixed blessing, as the steering feels better with it switched off, the engine better with it switched on.
By the first corner, though, it’s obvious that following the Citroën will be no easy task. The Mini is unsettled almost straight away. Bumps see it fidgeting and giving lumpy feedback through the steering, the traction control is constantly flickering until I turn it off, and the back end is all too happy to swing round slightly unnervingly. It’s exciting but slightly more so than it should be and it’s a relief to reach the smoother section of road further up, where the S becomes more consistent and enjoyable.
After ten minutes, the DS pulls into a lay-by to turn round (impressive turning circle) so I signal to John that I want to swap cars. Hayman looks utterly relaxed and unflustered as he hops out, despite not having had a Marlboro for at least five minutes. When I enquire how hard he was trying he says, ‘Not very. I didn’t even trigger the traction control.’
As I get into the DS3 I discover he’s even had the radio on. And the interior smells nice. I let him lead again in the Mini. Although they share a common engine, the turbocharged 1.6 isn’t as characterful in its detuned Citroën form and you wring it out a little more concertedly at the top end. However, there’s more than enough low-down torque to trigger axle-tramp from the soft, long-travel front end, and the DS3 doesn’t seem to lose any appreciable ground as we accelerate away down the first straight. The gearshift is excellent, with a nice natural feel around the gate and none of the floppiness we’ve come to expect from Citroëns.
In the corners it’s all very relaxed, almost a little too relaxed to be a truly involving drive, with the front end seeming a little aloof, but there’s absolutely no problem sitting behind the Mini and, indeed, it never even occurs to me to turn the ESP off. The steering doesn’t give a lot of resistance and confidence on turn-in, but as soon as the suspension is loaded up you get light and subtle feedback relaying a very clear picture of what the front tyres are doing. It’s hugely impressive.
All too soon, lunch has been eaten (mostly by Stephen), the afternoon has ticked by and the DS3 is due back in Paris. So what’s the finishing order? Well, the Abarth comes last but looks the cutest doing it and the Clio wins because for sheer driving enjoyment it is some way ahead – and we still rate substance over style.
In the middle you have the DS3 and the Cooper S – the two shapes that will be duelling on the WRC stages next year. The Citroën certainly looks competitively priced. While a fully loaded DS3 like this one comes in at around £17,500, a basic Cooper S costs £17,000 but that spirals well above £20K as soon as you add the sat-nav and the seemingly essential ‘Chili pack’.
The Cooper S feels like more of a drivers’ car because it’s got those weighty controls and that insatiable Mini character that makes you want to hurl it down a road. By comparison, the DS3, with its lighter steering and serene suspension, feels nonchalant and grown-up. The French car will certainly fly down a piece of road very effectively when you ask it to; it just doesn’t have quite the same verve that compels you to drive it like that. However, a faster version, rumoured to be called DS3-R, is expected soon with an extra 50bhp and sportier suspension. On this evidence, it ought to be an absolute blast on the sort of roads we love. And just fantastic around the Arc de Triomphe…