A few months back, I penned a piece for Car Design News reviewing the Paris Motorshow (subscription required), and concluded by saying of Citroen:
This rather bold statement wasn’t unfounded. In Paris’s auto salon, Citroen unveiled two show-stopping stars – the Hypnos and ConceptGT – along with the production car of the show – the C3 Picasso. This after concepts such as the C-Matisse, C-Cactus, and production C4, C5 and C6 had taken the car design world by storm. Ask most, and they’ll tell you Jean Pierre Ploue’s team are close to the top of the automotive design pile.
Yet Citroen’s unveiling of the DS Inside Concept makes my praise look high-handed, and Citroen like they’ve fallen off the innovation wagon. Let’s be blunt. There’s nothing wrong with this car, it looks okay – nice even. Ultimately though, is it unfair to have expected more from a model which pillages the name of Citroen’s most beautiful, advanced vehicle ever? Not that I’d hoped for retro design cues - no, count me very glad they haven’t gone down the obvious retro route favoured by BMW (Mini), Fiat (500) and VW (Beetle)…
Instead, it looks on reflection that this vehicle has come straight from the minds of Citroen’s marketing department. And that is the antithesis of its 1950s namesake. As LJK Setright points out in his book Drive On!: A social history of the motorcar:
'50's DS (above) thought one of the most beautiful automobile designs of all time
In the early fifties, the car whose name is a shortening of the French “Déessee” – literal translation “goddess” – shocked the world with Flaminio Bertoni’s stunning styling, and a raft of technical advances including: high pressure hydraulics, self-levelling suspension, power brakes, automatic clutch, headlights that turned with the wheel, disc brakes and radial-ply tyres. Quite simply, it fulfilled Boulanger’s brief of being “The world’s most beautiful, most comfortable and most advanced car…”
It is arguably, as Stephen Bailey suggests, “the single greatest automobile design of all time”, but I believe it was the spirit of innovation and technical tour-de-force specification that Citroen should have paid homage to in any new model. In reinterpreting the DS, Citroen had the opportunity to do something truly innovative. The new DS didn’t have to be beautiful, it didn’t have to be retro – but it did have to be smart. And while it’s always dangerous to criticse a car before seeing it in the flesh, or driving it, I see little true automotive innovation going on in the DS Inside.
Are my expectations unfair? After all, Citroen stress ‘DS’ now stands for ‘Distinct Series', and will apply to a new range of (initially three) cars, that stand out as more up market, distinct Citroens. No one is in any doubt Citroen is chasing some of the Mini’s market here (frankly, who isn’t these days?) – they’ve even given it a white roof. Perhaps in part, that’s driven by a frustration that Citroen seems to have acquired a reputation as a cheap, value brand – one that shifts cars through constant cash-back deals or ‘pay no VAT’ offers in the UK.
So could the upmarket DS-line approach work? With ever cheaper, small car offerings not only from BMW’s Mini, but now Alfa, and very soon VW and Audi – it’d be a brave person to predict that the demographic of person who’s typical attracted to the premium, expensive, less-is-more car, will go for something from a maker of cheap, small French cars.
I’ll hold out hope the next two ‘DS’ cars will do the name more justice. But I can’t help think Citroen is both mis-judging this, and missing a massive opportunity. Of all the European brands, Citroen is best placed to ‘get away with’ experimental, innovative and even wild-looking cars. We know they are capable of creating truly intelligent, eye-catching and, yes, innovative designs – see the C3 Picasso – and redemption may be at hand in the form of a productionised version of the C-Cactus. Brands only get one attempt at raiding their historic nameplate bin. Screw it up with a modern model, and people will hate you for ruining an iconic name - bound up with romantic memories and historic baggage (VW Beetle).
To me, that’s what Citroen have done here. If the original DS was “the essence of petit-bourgeois advancement” (Barthes), then the new DS line simply says something depressing about the lack of sophistication of today’s car buyer (or rather, does if Citroen succeed with it). Ultimately, it says something ugly about the cynical nature of automotive marketing departments – and hints at so much that is currently wrong with the wider automotive industry at large. To have turned over the name DS, and allowed the marketing department – rather than engineers and designers – to oversee its reinvention, must have Bertoni, Boulanger and co. turning in their graves. As Mark put it to me: “if LJK Setright had still been alive, his beard would have fallen off”
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 19th February 2009
Images: DS Inside - Citroen; Black and White DS - Elchtest on Flickr under creative commons; all others Joseph Simpson