From DS to BS

The latest Citroën represents a depressing trend in car design – homogeneity masquerading behind double-speak branding. Hugh Pearman laments the leveraging of a once-great brand

It’s a bit rich, isn’t it, for Citroën’s marketing types to claim that its latest niche-model small car is ’anti-retro’? You can see the tortured thinking behind the campaign – at a time when Volkswagen, Mini and Fiat all sell cars styled to look like great models of the past, and with upmarket brands from Aston Martin to Rolls-Royce all sifting through their photograph albums in an attempt to recapture former glories, how can Citroën cash in on this market while still looking, you know, progressive?

It’s a fail, sorry. If they’re anti-retro, why call the new niche car the DS3 – DS being, as all Citroënistas know, the name of the greatest model the marque ever produced, a car so far in advance of its time (the mid-1950s) that it took the rest of the motor manufacturing industry the rest of the 20th century to catch up? Pronounced ’Déesse’, the name means goddess, of course. At this point, design critics of a certain age will always quote the philosopher Roland Barthes writing in praise of the DS, so I won’t bore you with that. Just take it as read.

And then, having nostalgically exhumed the DS name, why apply it across the range (there will be a DS4 and DS5, too, relating to the classification of Citroën’s models) when the original DS was just one model? Especially starting with a baby car that, while claiming to be anti-retro, is styled to appeal to the Mini market, many years after the new Mini (itself a bloated farrago of the original Mini) was launched?

Of course, Citroën can’t make it look too much like a Mini, for reasons of pride as much as copyright. So what they’ve done is roll out a car which is a bit funky, a bit youthful, and aimed at the same demographic – you can imagine how the buzzwords flew at the design meetings. But in fact, it’s just a standard Peugeot-Citroën platform, tightened up somewhat for sportier handling, with a different set of clothes to make it look not wholly unlike a Mini. Citroën used to make daring leaps forward in engineering, developing hydropneumatic suspension and headlamps that looked around corners, for example. The greatest innovation with the DS3 seems to be that you can choose strange colour combinations for the roof and the interiors. Really, that’s it.

But there is more. DS is a whole new Citroën sub-brand. It’s clear from the first offering in the range that we can expect no engineering and design marvels of the kind that Flaminio Bertoni and André Lefèbvre, designers of the great Citroëns of the past -from the Traction Avant and the 2CV through the DS to the Ami – routinely produced, from first principles, looking over their shoulders at no one. No – the new DS range will consist of cars produced by marketing departments. It’s design by metrosexuals with mood boards.

As it happens, I bought a new Citroën recently, from the utility end of their range (not being quite ready for the no-car lifestyle I pondered in an earlier column). It’s well thought-out, it looks mildly eccentric, but it is, mechanically, utterly conventional. Perhaps this is just part of the great levelling-out among car manufacturers. Hemmed in by safety and consumer legislation, it gets ever more difficult to be different. There aren’t the huge quality or styling differences among car makers that there used to be. So what’s left to do? Only cosmetic styling exercises like the new DS range. It may find a market, I don’t know. But please don’t insult our collective intelligence by calling it anti-retro. How about ’non-progressive’? Or just ’ultra-superficial’?

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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