(Pocket-lint) - DS Automobiles continues its march into independence, dropping the badges of its Citroen heritage as it tries to mark itself out as something different. The aim is it awaken the "spirit of avant-garde" in DS' words. It's about being French, about great design and looking to offer something different.
In the Performance Line model on review here, there are decorative touches inspired by racing cars. But don't make the mistake of thinking a Performance Line DS4 is anything like a Focus ST or Golf R on the road: this is still very much the rebadged Citroen that it's trying not to be.
DS Automobiles DS4 review: Design
One of the big shifts from Citroen to DS has been the promotion of the DS badge from the bonnet to the front grille. With the Citroen chevrons gone, the big DS badge sits front and centre, in a design that gives you plenty of chrome highlights to pick out points on the car.
There are bodywork creases that emphasise the wheel arches, a rake to the windscreen that makes it larger than some rivals and rear door windows that taper into a point. This is matched by the shape of the rear door, making it a little small, but with a neat hidden rear door handle.
All this might sound familiar: we saw it in 2011 and 2013 and in many ways; the DS gloss of this model sits on that older car. All this results in a design that gives this little hatch slightly more coupé looks and that's something Citroen originally put forward in its marketing of the DS4 some six years ago.
The Performance Line brings a boost to styling with some stripe decals, but in a very subtle way. The rear window spoiler and mirrors get this flash of sporty detail to make this model a little more interesting to look at.
The other big styling point is the black roof that helps the DS4 again look more exciting than an old Citroen DS4. With dark tinted rear windows and 18-inch black gloss wheels as standard, there's plenty of kerbside appeal for those who want something that escapes the commonplace profile of a VW Golf.
Around the back, the rear bumper looks sporty with chrome looking to frame the exhaust pipe, but this is visual flair only, and fake detailing. The exhaust is actually hidden behind this piece of bodywork. But hey, if it's good enough for Audi on the Q5, then it's good enough for the DS4.
DS Automobiles DS4 review: Interior flair
The thing that's perhaps surprising about the interior of the DS4 is that the interior is essentially the same as it was in 2011. What's remarkable about this is that other cars of that era have not stood the test of time so well. That's a testament to the DS design flair in some regards, and admittedly, the centre console layout has changed to be much better than it was, but the age does bring some problems with it too.
The sports seats - standard on this model - combine leather and cloth, with contouring that we really like. There's firm supports at the edges of the seat and the back to stop you rolling out, but not so narrowly set that they'd be uncomfortable. In reality, you're unlikely to push this car to the point that you'll need that support, but it gives immediate appeal once you're inside. We especially like the headrest and the Performance Line stitching, which looks great.
The interior elsewhere uses a wide range of soft and hard plastics, with leather touch points where needed. The gear stick and steering wheel feel great and the soft touch finish on the top of the dash and door is smart enough, although on sunny days the dash does tend to reflect in the windscreen giving a lot of glare - the downside of that slightly shallower rake.
One of the details we like in the plastics is the DS badge being subtly incorporated, giving texture to what would otherwise be a piece of silver plastic. The central DS Connect Nav system with 7-inch touchscreen sits above a bar of buttons that give the main controls for this system - navigation, music, calling - with a central volume and power button.
This bar sits above dual climate controls and that's about it, meaning the DS4 succeeds in being fairly tidy inside. The smaller dimensions do impact on the layout slightly: there's a 12V socket and USB that sit at the base of the centre console and in front of the gear stick which are pretty hard to access - not the sort of thing you can easily connect to when driving, as you have to reach around the back of things.
It's also worth noting that the pedals are fairly tight, so this isn't a car for driving in massive shoes. Oh, and there's one the weird feature in the back: the rear windows don't open, suggesting that you'd never really have anyone sat back there (if they do open then the buttons are invisible and we never found them).
DS Automobiles DS4 review: In-car tech
That DS Connect Nav system is standard, with the Connect part bringing some connectivity in the form of Apple CarPlay. Sadly, there's no native support for Android Auto, but there is MirrorLink support, so some Android users will be able to hook up. Naturally, Bluetooth will take care of calling, as well as allowing Android users to access music stored on their phone, but this is one area where this DS lags behind. You can also add a USB drive if you'd prefer a more permanent stock of music.
Navigation is standard, too, but we found that it was address-based only, with no sign of postcode support - perhaps another 2011 throwback. Of course, those using Apple CarPlay might be better served sticking to smartphone navigation, making the absence of Android Auto all the more acute. The built-in navigation system is ok, but only ok.
There's DAB radio as standard too, but we didn't find the reception to be strong, failing to find some common London stations and occasionally jumping to the next station on the list when it decided the one we were listening to no longer existed.
There are rear parking sensors, but you have to step up to the Prestige trim to get the front sensors or reversing camera thrown into the features mix, although you can specify those options for a few hundred pounds extra. That's one of the areas you'll find the DS4 is more appealing than its German rivals - the spec list isn't too pricey, with the Denon sound system only being a £450 upgrade, for example. However, there isn't a huge range of options on offer.
DS Automobiles DS4 review: On the road
The DS4 Performance Line is also the model that lands itself with the largest number of engine choices, with two petrol and three diesel configurations.
We tested the 1.6-litre diesel mated with the 6-speed manual gearbox. This engine gives you 118bhp which isn't huge, seeing the DS4 hit 60mph in over 10 seconds. Now you see what we mean when we say it's about sporty looks, rather than sporty performance.
The sporty feel comes in the form of sports suspension. This makes for a slightly firmer ride which some will relish, as it feels more like a hot hatch when you hit a bump. It's not spine jarring, but it does stop body roll in corners, keeping the car flat when you turn at speed. That, paired with a good steering feel, makes this car ride and handle fairly well.
Once underway, you could probably convince yourself that you're in a sporty hatch, but you'll really feel that small diesel engine at low revs. It's noisy when pulling away and there's not a lot of poke in low rev ranges, meaning that this diesel doesn't really feel more spritely until you hit the turbo somewhere over the 2,000rpm mark.
That's something that manifests itself when you slow down; this isn't a car that likes to potter along in third gear through slow moving traffic and it doesn't like it when the revs drop as you get stuck behind a truck heading uphill. The result is that you'll be changing gears a lot when driving in busy traffic, which makes the manual slightly more tedious.
Hit the motorway and the story changes, feeling smoother and more refined as you sit in fifth and sixth gears. That positions this model as one for those who get access to the open road. If you're more often in town then a petrol automatic might serve you better.
That said, the fuel economy of our test diesel was good, something that the DS4 has hung onto throughout its life. Even in rough town driving, we were averaging just under 50mpg; out onto the motorway and the high 70mpg figure given by DS Automobiles might not be too unrealistic. Emissions come out at 103g/km CO2.
The DS4 succeeds in offering something a little different. There's a lot to like about that if you want a break from the Ford or VW options that dominate this segment.
Good looks and a comfortable ride make the DS4 a nice place to sit, with the interior a particular highlight, especially the seats.
However, the small diesel suffers and the performance won't match the sporty looks of this particular model. That might not matter, though, as there's enough flair to compensate.
The reality is that you can get a lot of car for your money these days and the DS4 feels like it's ready to be updated and replaced. For this money you could have a Mini Cooper, which is a lot more fun to drive, you could have a Ford Focus with change to spare, or even the ubiquitous VW Golf.
The DS4 isn't without its charms, but its competition includes some of the best-selling cars on the road - and they're best-selling for a reason. Flair and individuality, in the case of the DS, will cost you.