The 4,570mm long 7 Crossback is large for the Premium C-SUV class

The 4,570mm long 7 Crossback is large for the Premium C-SUV class

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Groupe PSA's three-year old attempt to create a premium division has been struggling. In China, PSA and its partner Changan recently had to recapitalise their JV after a collapse in sales. Now comes a reboot: the first properly new DS. Is the 7 Crossback good enough to tackle the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60?

DS Automobiles, to use the division's official name, was created out of a sub-brand, which initially did well with one model, the Citroën DS3. That car was an inspired move by PSA, its product managers seeing an opportunity to tempt Mini owners who wanted something different. The DS4 and DS5 were, and continue to be, less successful. They looked good but buyers hesitated to pay premium prices for them.

There was nothing much wrong with the rebranded DS 4 and DS 5 but it's a tricky task to hook people into a new brand. When it's one created out of a car from the 1950s which everyone recognises, except we are told that it was a DS. But it wasn't. It was a Citroën. Everybody knows that. So things become confusing. That might well be where 'DS' went wrong in many European countries.

Fast forward to early 2018 and here we are for the relaunch of DS in one of the most important of those countries.

The brand name is pronounced Déesse in French, as were, many decades ago, the DS19, DS21 and DS23. It's a pity that DS Automobiles hasn't used the arrival of the 7 Crossback to standardise the way it refers to itself in all markets. 

An official pronunciation of Déesse would lend the brand an air of the exotic.

DAY ess would lend the brand an air of the exotic. The recent UK media launch was heavy on links to French culture, so it's perplexing why we have ended up with Dee Ess.

The model line-up for the 7 Crossback, which DS categorises as a C-premium SUV, includes the words Bastille, Opéra and Rivoli in its interior trim levels - obvious references to Paris buildings and a street selling high-priced goods. Might this be all a little too contrived?

Surely with true luxury, less is more. PSA may yet get lucky though, the marketing campaign could find a way to cut through all the usual noise and reach those whom it seeks as customers. Even if the tagline, Audacity Drives To Excellence, neither rolls off the tongue, nor makes obvious sense.

The DS model range for Europe still contains the 3, 3 Cabrio, 4, 4 Crossback and 5. It isn't clear how these models will be replaced, although there were hints on the media launch of the 7 Crossback that the 3 will be succeeded by a 3 Crossback. Such a car would be extremely handy for the brand ASAP. Is it indelicate to ask why the highest volume model has been allowed to reach eight years of age? That's the reason why DS has been in a world of trouble in Britain and the rest of the European region.

ACEA data show the brand's registrations for EU and EFTA markets collapsed to 45,864 cars in 2017. Not only was this a 30.1 per cent plunge compared to 2016 (65,656) but last year, DS' decline was so steep that it only just stayed in front of Lexus (44,339). In December, things became worse: Lexus sold 3,723 vehicles, while DS numbers fell to 3,333 units. So things have been bad, but were I in PR, I would probably tell a journalist who digs into publicly available data that he isn't stating the full picture.

The 7 Crossback entered production at Mulhouse in October.

Is there any good news? Indeed there is. The 7 Crossback entered production at Mulhouse in October, and the first signs of success were visible in the ACEA numbers for December. The year-on-year decline for DS improved to 13.6 per cent. So yes, without the new 7, the plunge of 30.1 per cent for all of 2017 would have been a lot worse.

According to CCFA (Comité des Constructeurs Français d'Automobiles), DS ended up with a flat performance in December for the French market. The 3 and 5 saw their sales rising in the last two months of the year, helped of course by the media attention concerning the new 7 Crossback. Demonstrating how heavily skewed towards France the brand is, sales there were 21,323 units - almost half of the Europe-wide total.

At the time of writing, numbers for DS' performance in January were not available. Looking at the UK market, registrations fell by 52 per cent in December, and ended the year down 43 per cent at 9,082 cars. The 7 Crossback is going to be a welcome addition to dealerships. Officially, sales commence on 1 March for the new registration plate but cars will be in showrooms from the middle of this month.

The new 7 Crossback is certainly a capable enough model. It has three strongpoints which should help it in the battle against the segment leaders. The first has to be a distinctive appearance. That applies not so much to its silhouette but definitely to the front and rear ends. Also, the interior is like no other car's. 

The laser-cut rear lighting modules are meant to remind you of the scales of a crocodile's skin.

During the press preview, lead designer, Ivo Groen talked a lot about an emphasis on strong looks via headlamps and tail-lights, and he has certainly succeeded. The laser-cut rear lighting modules are meant to remind you of the scales of a crocodile's skin, and the way the headlights swivel as they come to life is a link to the DS19.

Strongpoint number two: rear seat head, leg and shoulder room is abundant. It's the same up-front, even though the console dividing those occupants is a touch on the wide side. This makes a feature of the gear selector, which has large, heavily-styled buttons for the windows either side of it. DS might well become famous for having an advantage over others in the class where the 7 Crossback competes.

Base Elegance versions have an eight-inch touchscreen. It's a 12-inch diameter one for the other three model grades, though. Standard specification extends to 18-inch diamond-cut alloy wheels, LED interior lighting, tyre pressure monitoring, plus leather trim for the steering wheel and gear lever.

Prices start at GBP28,050. They rise to GBP43,535 and are expected to reach the fifty thousand mark in 2019 with the addition of a 300PS plug-in hybrid. This will also be the only 7 Crossback to have drive to the rear axle as well as the front one.

The usual supposed luxury of leather is mostly absent, replaced by Alcantara.

My preference would be the next trim level up from Elegance, which is Performance Line. This has a lot of black detailing inside and out, plus the usual supposed luxury of leather is mostly absent, replaced by Alcantara. As it is neither slippery nor initially uncomfortable in extremes of heat or cold, this is the best material to cover cars' seats, headliners, dashboards and steering wheels in.

The other model grades are Prestige (from GBP34,435) and Ultra Prestige (upwards of GBP43,185). It will be a diesel-only launch in the UK, which won't exactly thrill the dealers. They will be happier to note that a petrol option is to be added soon after the arrival of the 130PS (95kW) & 300Nm 1,499cc and 180PS (130kW) & 400Nm 1,997cc BlueHDi engines.

Groupe PSA now uses PureTech as a sub-brand for pretty much all of its petrol engines. In this car, the sole offering is a 225PS (165kW) & 300Nm 1,598cc unit. As with the diesels, it's turbocharged and has four cylinders.

Only the diesels were available during the press preview. The 130PS with manual transmission isn't too slow, reaching 62mph in 10.8 seconds and having a top speed of 121mph. Weight is 1,420kg, CO2 is 107g/km in Prestige trim and the Combined economy is 68.9mpg.

The 180PS diesel with an eight-speed Aisin automatic is a much better alternative to the 130PS.

The 180PS with an eight-speed Aisin automatic which all PSA brands label as EAT8 is a much better alternative. The additional 100Nm makes all the difference. You'll see 62mph a second sooner, v-max rises to 134mph, CO2 is 128g/km and Combined MPG is 57.6. In Performance Line form the weight is 1,535kg.

There is a lot of tech with this car, and the list includes Active Scan Suspension, which reads the road via a camera mounted on the rear-view mirror. Does it work? Indeed it does. The messages sent to the central ECU helped to deliver a ride which is properly cushy. Crucially, that doesn't also mean floppy cornering.

Strongpoint number three is that excellent ride. Don't suspect it could be down to narrow tyres and small wheels either. Both cars driven were on 19-inch wheels. An equivalent Audi Q5 in Dynamic mode isn't nearly as comfortable for driver and passengers alike, so well done DS.

I drove to the 7 Crossback launch event in a Vauxhall Grandland X. Which made it interesting to see how different the new DS is compared to a model with which it shares Groupe PSA's EMP2 architecture. The 7 is 4,570mm long and yet somehow it looks like a bigger vehicle. The 555 litres of boot space is excellent and it definitely has more room in the back seats.

Verdict

The newest DS does look and feel like a premium vehicle in most ways.

Getting back into the Grandland X made me see what a good job PSA has done with the 7 Crossback. It looks and feels like a premium vehicle in most ways. However, as Infiniti Europe has discovered, that's no guarantee of success.

What really needs to occur, is for the brand's existing models to be rapidly replaced. Unfortunately that won't happen, with PSA having decided that it will only be funding the release of one new DS car a year.

If the 7 can begin to shore up sales, it might be enough to get DS through 2018 and ready for the arrival of higher volume vehicles from 2019 onwards. Groupe PSA is answerable not only to the Peugeot family but also Dongfeng Motor. One of these shareholders might not be as patient as the people who have always run what is these days called Groupe PSA. Therefore it's crucial that DS sales volumes head much higher in 2018 than what can only have been around 50,000-60,000 units in 2017.

Can CAPSA become profitable?

Europe is one concern but there is an even greater one: a Chinese market model range which needs sorting out. There are too many rebodied old Peugeot or Citroen vehicles, and not one of them is a strong seller. The brand ended 2017 with sales of 5,847 vehicles, a 64 per cent plunge compared to what hadn't been a great year in 2016 either, when deliveries numbered 16,156.

Some of us had been wondering if PSA and Changan would decide to give up on their DS project. That doesn't look like it will happen, as CAPSA, their JV, has recently had a cash infusion of CNY1.8bn from the Chinese side. Changan Auto told the local media that Groupe PSA will be injecting an identical amount, the aim being to repay debt, stabilise manufacturing operations and help fund future electrified vehicles.

DS should be formally relaunched in China at the Beijing motor show in April, which is when the Shenzhen-built 7 Crossback is expected to be introduced to the market. The older cars will be gradually phased out, and the model range aligned globally. Which should mean an 8 Crossback (4.7m long SUV) and probably even a 9 Crossback (5.0m long SUV) by the early 2020s.

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