Upmarket Citroën brand’s facelifted family car is now in high-riding guise, but an increasingly crowded crossover market makes for stiff competition

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The recent past has not been particularly rosy for Citroën and its parent company, PSA.

Only in 2015, Europe’s second-largest car maker had to be bailed out of dire financial straits by the French government and its Chinese partner, Dongfeng Motors.

The first modern-day DS, the 3, was well received but other DS cars haven’t been

Tepid demand in Europe for new cars was blamed, although the group’s equally tepid product line-up could be rightfully identified as doing it no favours.

One remedy to the patent lack of elan was the formation of DS Automobiles, a large-scale rebranding exercise intended to inject some Parisian-style flair.

The exercise kicked off in 2009 with the very well-received DS 3 supermini and continued with the very good-looking (albeit slightly less well-received) DS 5 crossover.

In between the two, in 2010, we got the first DS 4. Based on the Citroen C4, it provided the DS project with the family-sized hatchback normally required to generate sustainable volume in Europe.

Despite its utterly conventional platform, Citroën insisted the car wasn’t conventional at all and described it as a hybrid of a saloon, a coupé and a compact 4x4 – in other words, just the kind of avant-garde amalgamation it had conceived the DS badge to deliver in the first place.

Unfortunately, the most unorthodox thing about the 4 was the decision to nail the rear windows shut. Otherwise, it was a modestly raised Citroen C4 under a modestly prettier body.

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The imprudence of Citroën’s attempt to sell this variant as more ‘sporting’ than its lower-to-the-ground sibling is reflected in the decision to split its facelifted replacement into two entities: the 4 (a standard hatch) and this, the 4 Crossback, a higher-riding variant for those interested in ‘urban adventure’.

That niche, you’ll hardly need reminding, is spoilt for choice, with a multitude of compact crossovers jostling for attention. We tested the 1.6-litre BlueHDi 120 to discover the 4 Crossback’s proper place among them.

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The version of the DS 4 Crossback on test is the BlueHDi 120

The 4, in either guise, remains more concerned with the ‘design’ bit of the equation than the ‘engineering’.

DS describes the model’s two distinct bodies as complementary versions, which is a roundabout way of confirming that there isn’t a dramatic amount of difference between what is ostensibly the same shell.

I wonder how many people walked away from the DS 4 when they discovered the rear windows didn’t wind down

The most noticeable change is the introduction of the signature DS front end, carried over from the 5 and a suitable replacement for the 4’s previous nose, which was too conspicuous in its retread of the Citroen C4’s design (right down to the Citroën grille).

Ridding the 4 of its sibling’s double crest and replacing the headlights does at least bring the model more noticeably into the DS fold, but previous accusations of close similarity to the C4 are still hard to shake.

Bespoke features – not least the relocating of the rear door handles into the window line – remain, yet so does the suspicion that the car just isn’t special enough to look at.

In this respect, the differentiated wheel arch trim, rear spoiler and roof bars do make the Crossback marginally more interesting to behold, even if its 30mm of extra ride height isn’t necessarily apparent on first inspection.

Mechanically, the facelift hardly gets any more profound. The exclusively front-driven model remains based on the second generation of the C4, so it’s still underpinned by the same outgoing PF2 platform.

Citroën’s chassis-based tinkering has been limited to the conventional passive suspension, where the springs and dampers have been revised in both variants, although it is the Crossback that has gained the softer settings its predecessor plainly needed.

The steering remains a curiosity, using an electro-hydraulic set-up rather than the electrically powered system common in Citroën’s range.

The engines are more familiar. A single turbocharged petrol unit, the 128bhp 1.2-litre three-cylinder PureTech 130, is available in either the 4 or Crossback, but the more powerful 1.6 THP four-pot (in 163bhp and 207bhp guises) is the preserve of the hatch.

Diesel options are split between the entry-level 118bhp 1.6 BlueHDi 120 and the larger 2.0-litre motor, sold as 148bhp and 178bhp variants.

A six-speed manual gearbox is standard (as fitted to our test car), leaving the latest EAT6 six-speed torque converter auto on the options list, unless you first go for one of the most powerful engines.


Inside the cabin of the DS 4 Crossback

Anyone half hoping for the sort of dramatic transformation enacted on high-spec versions of the 5 will be left disappointed by the thoroughly conventional cabin here.

Aside from the badge swap on the steering wheel, the vast majority of the 4’s fixtures and fittings are again shared with the Citroen C4.

The DS 4 is a throwback to a time when French cars had shallow footwells and poor driver control ergonomics

On the one hand, that’s no bad thing. The C4’s interior is perfectly presentable and usable and not found particularly wanting in build quality or finish.

But there is precious little cosseting, interesting or inviting about it, either.

And if the intention of the DS brand is to better compete against the droves of hatchbacks and small crossovers now built by premium manufacturers, the 4 falls at the first hurdle here.

Its second sin, as before, is access to the cabin. On opening, most of us tend to judge how much space to give a car door by where the handle is and how close our leg is to the bodywork.

Unfortunately, that discounts the trailing edge styling appendage at the top of each rear door, which subsequently jabs you in the chest or arm like a disgruntled bouncer.

You’ll learn the lesson quickly enough, but as with learning to live with the fact that the back windows still don’t open, it’s not a lesson you particularly want to be forced to sit through.

Predictably, given the carried-over platform and wheelbase, the 4 doesn’t fix its predecessor’s main shortcoming, which was a shortage of space. The front is acceptable if you’re below 5ft 11in tall, helped along in the Crossback’s case by the moderately elevated driving position.

But in the rear, it’s no better than most five-door superminis, offering knee and head clearance only to those of decidedly average proportions. Slide a six-footer into the equation and the car starts to feel cramped in a hurry.

On the equipment front, there are two to choose from the standard DS4 Crossback and the Terre Rouge. The standard trim comes with 18in alloys, hill start assist, LED and xenon headlights, auto lights and wipers, and rear parking sensors. Inside you will find reversing camera, cruise control, sports seats and a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with DAB radio, Bluetooth, sat nav and smartphone integration. 

Upgrade to the Terre Rouge trim and you will get leather seats, front parking sensors, bigger alloys, and aluminium sports pedals.

The new 7.0in touchscreen is a welcome addition to the 4, even if the software behind it lacks the verve and usability of rival systems. It is simple enough to operate, with physical shortcut buttons beneath the screen providing easy access to its major functions.

These include sat-nav (rudimentary in appearance yet perfectly serviceable), DAB tuner (ditto) and Bluetooth connectivity, including the hook-up to a mobile.

In this, Citroën has wisely gone the whole hog by including Mirror Screen technology, which duplicates an Android or iOS operating system on the display if you connect your smartphone via the USB port.

The manufacturer has also made its DS Connect box available. This provides automatic SOS assistance, servicing notifications, a car location service and a tracking system in case of theft.


The DS 4 Crossback's 1.6-litre diesel engine

Our performance statistics paint a picture of a fairly sluggish, one-dimensional engine and transmission here – and driving the 4 Crossback only confirms the accuracy of that representation.

Although the peak outputs look adequate enough on paper, this car is afflicted by a lack of flexibility of delivery and particularly long gearing, making it slower than it really ought to be both against the stopwatch and out on the road.

Spongy brake pedal makes it difficult to slow the car at once firmly and smoothly

Renault’s 1.5-litre diesel Renault Kadjar was the slowest new car we performance tested in 2015, taking more than 14sec to hit 60mph from rest.

But although the 4 comfortably beat the Renault’s mark from standing to 60mph, it’s only 0.1sec faster pulling from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear.

So long is the 4’s gearing, in fact, that it’ll only just pull fourth gear below 30mph and takes so long to muster much turbo boost and meaningful response to the accelerator at that speed and those revs that you’d struggle to keep up with the traffic.

It’s impossible to be sure at exactly what point in its rev range that 1.6-litre engine wakes up and hunkers down, because the 4’s digital rev counter is frustratingly small and dismayingly imprecise.

But it certainly does that at some point before 2000rpm, only to spirit the car’s mass forwards quite meekly in anything higher than third gear.

Overtaking on single carriageway roads requires plenty of space and determination, because the crankshaft isn’t particularly free-spinning above 4000rpm, either.

So what, DS Automobiles may say. This is the entry-level diesel option in a six-tier engine range, and customers will want it to be frugal above all else. To a point, we’d agree with the thinking (although other crossover manufacturers manage to deliver economy with much greater driveability). But the 4 isn’t desperately frugal, either.

It struggles to break through the 50mpg threshold in normal running, and recorded 49.3mpg for our True MPG testers (where a like-for-like Nissan Qashqai was a 53mpg performer, and an Audi Q3 returned 51.5mpg). 

The 4’s controls are fairly light and usable, although the lack of definition in the shift quality of the six-speed gearbox is typical of a car that’s only ever going to engage its driver somewhat unwillingly.

The engine is averagely refined for a small four-cylinder diesel, and wind noise is a bigger intrusion upon the cabin’s calm than anything else at motorway speeds.


The overly firm ride of the original ride of the previous DS 4 is gone with the new Crossback

Since rushing to flesh out its model range above and beyond the original DS 3 and becoming a brand in its own right, DS has implored its chassis engineers to think a bit more clearly about the tuning of its cars.

Those engineers now talk about a concept called ‘dynamic hypercomfort’ – a new, ideal blend of ride fluency, outright grip and handling response that only a French premium-branded car can provide, apparently.

Body control and balance of grip are decent despite the DS 4’s raised ride height

Be that as it may, what matters is that the effort is being made. And it’s paying off.

Having been one of the least dynamically sophisticated crossover hatchbacks on the market, the 4 now hits a broadly competitive standard.

The overly firm and reactive ride of the original car has been replaced, at least in the case of the Crossback, by greater suppleness and compliance.

Moreover, the use of softer, longer springs and more pragmatic anti-roll bars actually produces outright grip and balance for the 4’s handling, as well as greater progressiveness as that grip ebbs away, and costs the car nothing significant at all on body control.

The fitment of an electro-hydraulic power steering system, where almost all other PSA Peugeot Citroën models now use fully electromechanical equivalents, is an empty gesture, though, because at no point does the 4 steer convincingly well.

The variable-assistance rack is cloyingly, unhelpfully heavy at low speed (when feedback is all but useless) and light and uncommunicative at higher speed – with more than a hint of torsional column flex apparent in its initial response.

The woolly vagueness of that steering doesn’t prevent you from engaging with the 4 entirely, though. The car turns in with reasonable keenness, develops moderate grip as it rolls gently onto its outside contact patches, maintains decent balance as it goes and keeps enough suspension travel in reserve at all times to deal adequately well with mid-corner bumps. Most of that was beyond the ken of the pre-facelift 4.

The car’s ride is by no means brilliant. Sharper ridges and big intrusions thump through more harshly than they would in, say, a Nissan Qashqai or a Skoda Yeti. But it deals with average A-road and B-road intrusions almost as well as anything in the class.

Just as on most Peugeots and Citroëns, the DS 4’s electronic stability control is active above about 30mph whether you want it to be or not. Below that speed, you can disable it in order to make some helpful wheelslip on slippery surfaces.

It’s a bit of a shame, because the car’s new chassis tune actually deserves a fully switchable system. Its balance and poise survive duress quite well, and the car remains pleasingly controllable right up to the edge of adhesion — albeit only until the ESC detects that you may be beginning to enjoy yourself.

The body’s rate of roll is well controlled and its steering, although light, is consistent and precise enough to allow you to guide the car smoothly at high effort levels.

Dive is also fairly well checked under hard braking, although a spongy brake pedal doesn’t always help you to threshold-brake, rather than bothering the ABS unduly.


On test here is the DS 4 Crossback

The 4 starts at £19,495 for the PureTech 130 petrol motor in entry-level Elegance trim and prices rise to £25,495 for a BlueHDi 180 diesel in its more expensive Prestige format.

The slightly more costly Crossback is simpler still, a four-model line-up distinguished only by engine choices, starting at £21,745 for the petrol and finishing at £26,495 for the same automatic oil-burner.

The residual values aren’t pretty for the DS4, with the Nissan Qashqai and the Jeep Renegade exceeding it significantly

That puts an awful lot of competition – in both hatchback and crossover format – as direct rivals.

For the basic £23,495 price of our BlueHDi 120 test car, you could variously consider the Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi, Skoda the Yeti 2.0 TDI and the Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi. The entry-level Audi Q3 2.0 TDI, meanwhile, is less than £1000 more expensive than the priciest Crossback.

On CO2 emissions at least, the 4 makes for a worthy adversary. The BlueHDi 120, with a manual gearbox, emits 103g/km, making it the equal of the Renault-Nissan Alliance’s famously parsimonious 1.5 dCi.

Opting for the six-speed automatic incurs only a 5g/km penalty, too, thanks to its lighter and now more efficient design. Even the most powerful BlueHDi 180 emits only 115g/km.

The pick of the range, though, may well be the BlueHDi 150, which remains at 103g/km despite the extra power and larger capacity. Unfortunately, you can’t have it with the Crossback.

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The 3 star DS 4 Crossback
The updated DS 4 is perhaps a bad car by which to judge the new, out-on-its-own DS premium brand.

It’s a car based on a platform that many Peugeot and Citroën models have already left behind, one designed for the most part when crossovers and the DS brand were in their infancy.

But right now, the 4 is the freshest indicator we have of this emergent brand’s calibre and direction – and it speaks more loudly of strides yet to be made than of progress achieved.

Dynamics have improved, but otherwise still little more than an also-ran

The 4’s all-round quality, on-board technology and habitation levels still leave a lot to be desired. And although its ride and handling show improvement, a drab powertrain and some under-developed controls put a lid firmly on the car’s dynamic appeal – and then screw it down pretty tightly.

Although we have only one crossover class, any car within it for which a premium price is expected ought to merit a berth in our top five. Very few actually do, though – DS4 included.

Which means it falls shy of the class-leader the Nissan Qashqai, the practical and large Ford Kuga, the revamped BMW X1, the Skoda Yeti and Mazda CX-5.

If the DS 4 has any chance of breaking into our top five crossover list, then creating extra leg room in the front and back wouldn’t go a miss, as well as correcting the pedal routing for the right-hand drive cars and a less arcane looking trip computer.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

DS 4 Crossback 2015-2018 First drives