It might weigh 1,856kg but the Combined average is a remarkable 74.3mpg (3.8l/100km)

It might weigh 1,856kg but the Combined average is a remarkable 74.3mpg (3.8l/100km)

Who says the British won't pay premium prices for French cars? Citroen has been quietly moving itself upmarket in the UK, enjoying much success with its DS line vehicles. Glenn Brooks tries the latest model, the diesel-electric DS5 HYbrid4 in new 88g/km form.

I've wanted to get behind the wheel of the DS5 ever since I first saw one. That was at the 2011 Frankfurt motor show, where a fleet of HYbrid4 variants silently collected and delivered sore-footed journalists to the many halls that make up that vast event. Here at last, I thought, is a hybrid car that you'd buy for its looks. And the first Citroen for many years with both the styling and the engineering to set it apart from class rivals.

Of course when you admire a car without driving it, you tend to build up often unrealistic expectations. Remember the smart roadster coupe? I wish I had never put myself behind the wheel of that. It was an awful car and yet it looked, to my eyes at least, perfect in every way, especially in Brabus form. Having just been given the opportunity to drive the latest range of Citroens at a UK media preview event, I knew it was time to run the risk of having a similar experience with the DS5. Could it possibly live up to its looks?

There was a presentation from the PR department of Citroen UK ahead of the driving. The brand looks like having a busy year, with a variety of new engines just launched in various models. A 115hp version of PSA's existing diesel engine is new for the recently facelifted C3 Picasso, while the C3 is the first Citroen to be powered by the group's 1.2-litre PureTech three-cylinder engine, and the 200hp 2.2HDi diesel is equally new for the C5 saloon and Tourer (wagon). Meanwhile, the DS4 can now be ordered as a diesel automatic.

Creating the DS line has been an inspired decision for Citroen. Since the first model was launched in 2010, a combined 300,000+ units of the DS3, DS4 and DS5 have been built, with the UK having taken over 43,000 of those cars.

The SMMT figures I checked showed me that DS3 sales totalled 17,160 units in 2012, a YoY surge of 47%, making this Mini rival the country's No.32 best selling car, up from 51st place in 2011. To put that in context, it was more popular than the Skoda Octavia, Ford C-MAX, VW up! and even the UK-built Honda Civic. The DS3 is also the best selling Citroen in these islands, ahead of, in this order, the C1, C3 and C3 Picasso.

The DS4 was another model that saw its sales rise significantly last year. They were up 94% to 3,040 units, while the total for the DS5 range, which includes the £33,000 Hybrid4 that I drove, was 1,454 cars. Considering how poorly all non-German brands have traditionally done at trying to sell premium-priced cars to British buyers, Citroen's achievement is pretty remarkable.

A media relations spokesman backed up the SMMT's data by telling me that around 30% of all Citroen passenger cars sold in the UK last year were DS models. Citroen's man also mentioned that 70% of DS3 sales have been conquests, which seems believable. My own guess is that a lot of former Mini owners have been drawn to the DS3, just as they will be to the Cabrio variant that will be in showrooms from the Spring.

I've driven the DS3 on a few occasions and from the moment you sit in the car, you can see why it sells so well. The interior is to me so much better than that of a Mini (for design and feel of materials), and if you have kids, they'll be far happier in the roomier back seats than they would be in the cosy confines of the baby BMW. I had a go in the new 115hp diesel version and reckon its combination of easy torque and superb economy could make it the most popular variant yet. Interestingly enough, there won't be any diesel versions of the Cabrio at launch, but these might come later, the PR man told me.

The DS3 might be great for B-roads but as the media event I attended was based close-by some A-roads and a junction of the M40 motorway, the conditions were ideal to try the updated DS5 HYbrid4 in its natural company car habitat. Citroen has just given this model added appeal by lowering the C02 average from 91g/100km to just 88g, thanks to newly available 17-inch alloy wheels and a few other tweaks. You pay no car tax with this vehicle either, due to its ability to operate as an EV at low speeds, while the BEK rating is just 10%. Average fuel consumption is 67.0mpg (Urban cycle) or 69.0 (Combined).

If you're not fully familiar with PSA's HYbrid4 powertrain, it consists of a 163bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder HDi turbo diesel engine which drives the front wheels, plus an electric motor which acts on the rear axle producing an additional 37bhp. These two propulsion systems allow all-wheel drive operation.

The DS5 is manufactured at Rennes-la-Jannais alongside the Peugeot 508 and Citroen C5 with which it shares its PF3 platform. The modular hybrid rear drive axle is also assembled in France: it comes from PSA's Mulhouse facility. The electric drive system is supplied by GKN Driveline with batteries courtesy of Sanyo.

There are multiple other innovative components systems in the DS5. One of these is plastic glazing for the rear quarterlights. Teijin Chemicals is the supplier behind this lightweight polycarbon resin, the Japanese firm having partnered with Saint-Gobain Sekurit subsidiary freeglass GmbH to develop this product, which is called 'Panlite'.

From the driver's seat, it's immediately obvious that the stylists set out to use glazing as something to mark out this car as something a bit different from the class norm. Wherever you look, there is an unusual view: from the two-piece rear window with its tiny wiper on the lower section, to the deep side windows and windscreen, or up through a sunroof that has been split into three sections - one large panel for the rear passengers with a shade that slides forward, plus two smaller, separate panes in the front either side of an overhead console.

The roof console immediately makes you think of an aircraft, with its multitude of switches either side of a separator panel, so your front seat passenger gets to feel special too. Not that the driver misses out. She or he has a perspex panel ahead of them which rises out of the dashboard as the car starts up and is the backdrop for a colour heads-up display. One of the many switches I found to play with adjusts the pitch of that display so whatever your height, you get the perfect view of your speed and other essential information.

The driving experience itself is on the firm side, which was a surprise for a biggish Citroen, but that's probably due to buyers in this class being used to the ride you get in a BMW 3 Series or 5 Series. The diesel engine+electric motor powertrain works away silently and automatically but if you want to, there's a rotary switch on the centre console marked HYBRID CONTROL. This has four settings: Auto, Sport, ZEV or 4WD. I stayed mostly in Sport which explains the level and firm ride, but automatic did seem to soften things up somewhat so you can almost pretend your ride is hydropneumatically sprung (sadly, the C5 is now the only Citroen to have the famous magic carpet air springs).

Faults? Well, you couldn't call the boot space generous but at least there's a lower section which is revealed when you pull on a handle in the boot floor. The overall capacity of just 325 litres is the price you pay for having the components of the hybrid system packaged behind the back seats. Maybe we'll see an improvement at the time of the first facelift, which is due either next year or in 2015.

Is it too much of a stretch to think of the DS5 as a rival for the Audi A5 Sportback? I kept trying to think of what buyers would be cross-shopping it against and the five-door Audi kept coming to mind. Perhaps the BMW ActiveHybrid3 would be a more logical competitor, even without the more practical hatchback boot of the Citroen. Or maybe the DS5 HYbrid4 occupies its own unique slot in the market? With sales likely to top 1,500 this year (that's more than some premium brand vehicles such as the Volvo XC70), Citroen UK seems to have quietly become a modestly successful seller of premium-priced cars.

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