When Citroën re-engineered the C3, the company was replacing a car that had sold pretty well — over two million units since its launch eight years ago. The original car was roomy and blessed with a good ride quality; it also had a clear visual style which, though neat and attractive, lacked a certain dynamism. For the new model, launched last year, Citroën saw to it that this missing ingredient was added without losing the style of the original car.
There were no significant mechanical changes to the C3 when it was reborn, though there’s a new family of petrol engines developed in collaboration with BMW. The current petrol engine range consists of old 1124cc and 1360cc PSA engines, together with 1397cc and 1598cc PSA-BMW units; power outputs run from 61PS to 120PS. The diesels are the familiar Ford-PSA power-plants of 1398cc and 1560cc delivering 70PS, 90PS and 110PS.
In fact, there are two 1.6 HDi models that deliver 90PS, and they aren’t quite the same. One of them — the ‘Airdream’ version — is remapped to deliver better torque at low revs, and it drives through higher gear ratios. The result is better fuel economy over the European test cycles, with the CO2 yield dropping from 110g/km for the ‘normal’ car to 99g/km for the Airdream.
Economy specials that drive through high, wide gear ratios aren’t usually a great success, but Citroën has not burdened the C3 Airdream with particularly difficult gearing, and the adjustments to the engine mapping are more than enough to cope. The result is that, while you’re aware that the gearing is quite long, there is never any difficulty is hustling the little Citroën along at a good pace. The combination of good torque and tall gearing gives the C3 an easygoing personality in cross-country driving; third is an excellent B-road overtaking gear, while the engine feels quite happy to pull you along at well under 2000rpm in gentler going without any sign of the dead accelerator response that marks a loss of combustion chamber gas-flow. At the other extreme, flat-out acceleration is more than respectable.
The Airdream’s gearing is not a problem at urban speeds either. The good torque curve means that quite adequate acceleration is possible without the need to hang on to a lower gear than would be good for economy, and the lack of any uncomfortable resonant booms means that the engine’s flexibility can be exploited without pain.
The Citroën C3’s vast windscreen is a matter of taste.
While ride quality is certainly still a strength of the C3, Citroën has not succeeded in persuading this distinctly tall car to handle tidily. There’s nothing wrong with the steering: it’s well-weighted and accurate, though its contrived centring is a matter of taste; but any attempt to drive quickly on a twisting road results in substantial body-roll and rather untidy responses should you attempt to adjust the cornering line with your right foot. In this respect, it’s hard to imagine a car less like the C3’s sister, the DS3.
Refinement is pretty much par for the course in the supermini class — and nowadays that means that there’s not much to complain about. I’ve already mentioned the lack of boominess from the engine at low revs, while the HDi’s flexibility means that there’s seldom any need to hammer it. The engine does dominate in give-and-take driving, but it’s not particularly loud. The only minor annoyance is its slight buzziness, a result of the aluminium block, but it’s never really intrusive.
The C3 is quite an accommodating little car, though perhaps more in leg-room than width. The driving seat is well-shaped for comfort in a straight line, though — perhaps understandably — laterial support isn’t a great strength. The driving position is quite commanding, as befits the C3’s upright stance, and has all the usual adjustments. No-one of average height or less will have any trouble getting comfortable; but the pedals are slightly offset to the left, so longer-legged drivers will need to try the C3 for themselves.
One of the strongest impressions that the C3 makes on a newcomer is not the seat or the driving position but the huge windscreen, sweeping up over the driver’s head. There is a tinted area at the very top, but it’s more or less out of view, and the effect of this bold sweep of glass is striking. There is a system for deploying sun-visors, but it’s not simply a matter of reaching up and grabbing the thing — not least because the visors are directly above your head — and I have to confess I found the apparent lack of a screen rail quite weird.
Minor switchgear is not well placed or helpfully designed. The centre of the dash is taken up with air vents and an information screen, pushing the heating and ventilation controls and the radio down unhelpfully low on the console. The heater controls look neat but use push-buttons: you can’t really adjust anything without looking straight at the controls. Instrumentation is quite stylised but easily read nevertheless.
The original C3 does not have a particularly enviable reputation for robustness, so I hope that my initial impressions of the new car’s build quality prove to be mistaken. It my have been more to do with subjective things like design and choice of materials, but the Airdream’s interior seemed cheap.
The C3 HDi Airdream is an object lesson in how to tweak a car for economy without destroying its driveability. I suspect that its combination of sensible gearing and a flexible engine will mean that this little Citroën gets a lot closer to its claimed economy returns than most cars do. Add to this the accommodating body and good ride comfort, and it’s off to a good start.
The trouble is that the C3 handles like a bus, and it’s not just enthusiasts who will find its roll angles irritating: even quite sedate drivers could find their passengers complaining on cross-country routes.
1.6 HDi 90 Airdream
1.6 HDi 90
Urban MPG (l/100km)
Combined MPG (l/100km)
* DIN. EU kerb mass = DIN + 75kg.
Citroën DS3 1.6 THP
In essence, the DS3 is a C3 platform with new three-door superstructure. But of course that makes the two cars pretty different, not just in style and packaging but also dynamically. Kerb masses model-for-model are about the same, but a C3 stands nearly 60mm higher than a DS3, the people inside sit higher, and the torsional rigidity of the DS3’s low three-door bodyshell is considerably superior to that of the C3’s tall five-door structure. Throw in the inevitable changes to spring, damper and anti-roll bar rates, and you’ve got a very different car.
Another small but significant difference between the two small Citroëns is that there’s an engine in the DS3 range than you can’t get in a C3: the 1.6 THP.
The THP is a turbocharged verson of the PSA-BMW 1598cc petrol engine, a close relative of the Mini Cooper S power-unit. Generating 150PS at 6000rpm and 240Nm at a very creditable 1400rpm, this engine was never going to have much trouble propelling a quoted 1165kg plus me. That kerb mass, incidentally, is a full 75kg more than Citroën quotes for the HDi 110 version: that’s a lot, even taking account of the diesel engine’s aluminium block.
Citroën DS3 1.6 THP.
A C3 would need very stern anti-roll bars to cope with this engine, though anyone with a long memory might recall the strangely effective Visa GTI from 1985.
The DS3’s dash and switchgear are the same as you’d find in a C3, though the driver’s environment feels totally different: lower, snug without being cramped, and — critically — lacking the strange wrap-over windscreen that defines the feel of the C3. The driving position is good, with no real sense of any offset in the mounting of the pedals or anything else, and the lower eye-line doesn’t compromise the driver’s view of the road ahead.
The driver’s seat is comfortable and supportive. Either the side bolsters are a lot better than those on the C3 Airdream’s seat, or the comparative lack of body-roll renders them less important.
On a demanding road, it is hard to imagine a car less like the C3. The DS3’s ride quality is not so far removed from the C3’s — firmer certainly, but absorbent when it matters. And yet the three-door car handles impeccably, whatever you throw at it. Steering response, balance and grip are excellent. A cornering line can be adjusted easily and accurately with the right foot. Such is the competence of the chassis that poor surfaces don’t seem to make much difference to the car’s composure. In short, then, the DS3 is something of a driver’s car.
There is one minor annoyance: the artificial self-centring function of the power steering. It’s not really a problem, though — more a curiosity.
As you would expect from the raw figures, the turbocharged 1.6-litre engine doesn’t exactly struggle to shift the DS3. You can put a bit of effort into it across country if you really want to — the gearchange quality is good, and the ratios are well chosen — but there is not much point in extending the motor beyond about 4000rpm. Torque is ample to maintain a cracking pace on any road.
Despite the DS3’s overtly sporting character, refinement is more than competent. The engine dominates, particularly in brisk driving, but its voice is enthusiastic rather than coarse; it fades into the background during gentler motoring in any case. Wind- and road-noise are well muted.
The Citroën DS3 is an outstanding small car, and the THP is the king of the hill. If you want something a little more sensible, there’s a 110PS diesel version that actually beats the THP for maximum torque: I suspect that it wouldn’t actually be any slower in practice.
So Citroën has some laurels, but it shouldn’t rest on them. The new Polo GTI goes on sale soon. It’s very quick, comes with a paddle-shift dual-clutch seven-speed gearbox and handles every bit was well as the Citroën.