One question that arises time and again, is why car makers build concept cars. And why the stuff that actually appears in the showrooms looks nothing like the wild design that appeared on a motorshow stand two years earlier.
The answers of course, are predictable. Things like mass-production costs and crash safety regulations limit what’s feasible. But often, there’s something else - a lack of management vision and a fear that the customer just won’t buy something that’s wild and different. So ultimately, the wild ideas get watered down.
Which brings us to the Citroen DS5. Which first appeared in 2005. That might be hard to believe when you see the futuristic-looking thing at the top of the page, but the DS5 is pretty much the production version of the C-Sportlounge concept, bar a few tweaks. And you’d have to say that, seven years hasn’t really aged it. We’d need a separate article to explore why it’s taken so long to get it here, but let’s just say that strategically, it’s important that this car wears a DS and not a Citroen badge.
Looks aren’t always deceptive
Finished in white, with a black roof panel, 19-inch black wheels and huge chrome "sabers" which run up into the A-pillar, most people seemed to agree that the DS5 looks striking. This is a visually intriguing design – there’s a detail or addition everywhere you look - a design approach that’s almost the polar opposite to the sobriety of German cars. If you’re one of those people who thinks “all cars look the same these days”, then the DS5 is definitely for you.
But while it looks wild, the DS5 has conventional underpinnings. There’s none of Citroen’s famed hydropneumatic suspension here. Instead it rides on regular coil springs and shares the same platform as the Citroen C4, DS4 and Peugeot 308 and 3008.
If you get on with the exterior, then what will appeal most about the DS5 is that the design approach doesn’t stop when you get inside. It’s sumptuous and very cool. Our test car looked, and felt, fantastic with its white and black scheme, and it did without the optional watch-strap leather design on the seats, which add an extra dimension of French style. There are lashings of chrome and aluminum finishes and the leather seems very high quality – which it is, because it’s supplied by the same company that supplies leather for some Aston Martins.
Our favourite features were the switches that flank the centre console - their asymmetric design is repeated on an overhead panel of switches used to control the sunroof blinds and head up display, too. If you’ve ever wanted to feel like an airline pilot when driving a car, look no further, this is a fantastic cockpit in which to sit.
But while it looks big on the outside, inside there’s less space than you might think. It will seat four happily, but ask the DS5 to double as a serious family hauler and we suspect it might struggle. All you really gain over a car like the Audi A3 Sportback is a higher seating position. And because we reviewed the hybrid model, the boot’s shallow because there are batteries under the floor.
A technological marvel too?
Having been so captivated by the DS5’s striking design, we approached the technological aspects of the car with some trepidation. On the DS4 (and DS3) Citroen’s navigation system, or more specifically the interface through which you operate it, had us tearing our hair out.
Yet with the DS5’s higher price and upmarket positioning comes an upgraded interface. The basic system and mapping is still the same and fine without much finesse in its appearance. But it’s now much easier to use and move between navigation, phone, radio and music because Citroen’s fitted a proper joystick controller on the centre console with shortcut buttons for all the things you’ll use regularly.
And while it’s an expensive car in the first place, on this top of the range model all that tech comes as standard - navigation, head-up display, xenon lamps, they’re all here.
We particularly liked the design of the centre bin and armrest too. It splits in two, with the upper tray large enough to hold phone, keys and wallet and, logically, it’s where the USB and aux port are. Below it is the main storage bin – which actually goes right under the centre console – creating a huge space and meaning you can fill it with (and potentially lose) numerous water bottles, CDs, kids toys etc.
But if you’re anything like us, you’ll not be paying attention to any of this, you’ll be doing your upmost to cruise around on electric power alone. For yes, one of the most interesting things about the DS5 is that it not only looks futuristic, but that you can buy it with a diesel-hybrid motor like the one fitted to our test car (diesel and petrol versions are available – and are cheaper to buy). All the DS5 had to do was drive well and in our book it’d almost be the perfect car.
On the road, things are not so good
There’s an inevitability, given the design and tech is so well sorted, that the drive lets the side down.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way first. The hybrid system is well judged, particularly for town use. As with all hybrids, at low speeds, tootling about on the electric motor alone is deeply satisfying and relaxing. In the DS5, there’s an extra edge to it because the design looks so sharp and futuristic, it’s the icing on the cake to be able to rock up somewhere making no mechanical noise. And when the diesel and electric motor are working together, the rather portly 1800kg DS5 is propelled down the road quickly and overtakes well enough.
But sadly, if you’ve been over any speed humps or road imperfections to get where you’re going, you’ll have a sore bum and fewer fillings. The DS5 rides very firmly, which we could probably deal with were it not for the fact that bumps and potholes cause the body to shudder and crash about in an uncontrolled way too.
The gearbox is also out of sync with the rest of the car, being a now rather outmoded automated manual. This means it’s actually a manual box, but there’s no clutch pedal - it judges that for you, leaving you to drive it like a regular automatic. Which would be fine, except it’s nothing like as smooth as a regular autobox or fast-shifting as the various twin-clutch units lots of manufacturers now use. Instead, it’s slow to change and if you’re pressing on, the change up adds a real lurch in momentum that’s likely to make your passengers think you can’t drive properly.
We saw 45mpg over 500 miles of mainly fast motorway driving. Which is okay, but not incredible. Most buyer will be more interested in the DS5 hybrid for its official 107g/km CO2 rating and the low road and company car tax benefits this brings. We suspect that better economy may come with more town driving, because you can make greater use of the battery power and regenerative braking system, as one trip back from a friend’s completed almost entirely on electric power suggested.
Citroen fits a drive mode selector to let you control the hybrid system and the way it responds. Flicking between EV, auto, sport and four-wheel drive modes, in practice we left the car in auto most of the time as it will work out what you want and need, while trying to use the battery power where possible. In EV mode, the car forcibly runs on electric power alone - but this is only possible below 30mph and the battery will be used up after a couple of miles.
It’s hard not to like the DS5. This is not a car for shrinking violets, it looks different and attracts attention but, more importantly i,t feels special to be in too. Yes, this top of the range hybrid model may costs about £32,000, but the surprising thing is that it feels like a car that costs more than that, particularly when you’re sitting inside.
But we know the UK is one of the most brand-conscious car buying nations in the world. And for many people, we suspect the words “Citroen” and “30 grand” in the same sentence will be why the DS5 drops off their shopping list. Which is a shame. For a start, in terms of perceived quality and material use, the DS5 is better inside than most current mid-level BMWs and Mercedes’. But also because the world needs more cars like the DS5. It’s the antithesis of predictable, the antithesis of “they all look the same” cars and the antithesis of German sobriety. And let’s face it, if we all end up driving a silver or grey VW or BMW the word’s going to become quite a dull place.
So for us, the DS5 is an automotive highlight, albeit one with a flawed drivetrain. If it rode better, had a better gearbox and generally wasn’t a bit clunky and heavy out on the road, then this would be a five star car. As it is, and with those faults, it’s an impressive car, an appealing car and one we recommend you try before defaulting to German. As the French would say, viva la difference.