The French have always been a funny bunch. A language that can make the worst relationship dispute sound like a love poem, food that could make peace in Afghanistan and flair like no other nation in the world. Their cars are unique, too. Citroën has always been the most loony of the big three French manufacturers, but the nineties and early naughties saw the madness toned down and a more sombre double-chevron than when the maker was producing cars like the 2CV.

But recently, my goodness – someone must have walked around the Citroën offices in France with a bag of grenades, threatening to make some headlines if les garçons et les filles didn’t pull their fingers out and come up with something amazing. And it’s worked. Citroën has recently shown the world some of the most incredible designs and concept cars ever seen, and slowly but surely these awesome party tricks are creeping into production models.

The first of these is the DS3, whose name is derived from the original DS of the 1950s. Based on the new C3, DS3 is like a meaty, pumped-up, jou-ma-se version of the tame 5-door hatchback. And Citroën will be using the DS moniker for other models as well, with images of the new DS4 showing the same lunacy being applied to the forthcoming C4.

But why? What’s the point of extra fins, extra air vents, extra sportiness and extra madness? Well, have you ever seen a MINI? The DS3 is aimed directly at it, and it’s coming out with its boxing gloves on and a craving for blood. Which is actually odd, because the DS3 shares the same engine as a MINI. It even sounds like a MINI. And in my opinion it’s also better than a MINI…

The engines in question are Peugeot-Citroën 1.6-litre 4-cylinder units, with the normally-aspirated version doing fine duty in the DS3 1.6 VTi Style, while the turbocharged unit, found in the MINI Cooper S and the Peugeot 207 GTI, sits in the DS3 THP.

Having driven both versions of the DS3, both engines are great, and their sound tracks are amazing (punchy transmission whine in the normally-aspirated DS3 and a gorgeous turbo orchestra in the THP) but the THP is obviously my choice. The turbo just adds so much tractability, it’s free-revving and it’s got plenty of go! Shoving 115kW and 240Nm to the front wheels through six forward gears and perfectly-placed pedals, it’s smile-a-minute motoring all round!

Design wise though, DS3 is a complete oil painting. From the shark-fin B-pillar, funky wheels and daytime running lights, to the stunning DS3 badge, wide-open mouth and contrasting roof and mirrors, every aspect of the DS3’s body is jaw-droppingly gorgeous! Metals flick and fold and lights lick and wrap, creating automotive design that you’ve never seen before, and dare I say it, only Citroën could pull off. It’s just stunning, and it gets you plenty attention. I’m not joking when I say I got as much attention in the two DS3 models I drove as I did driving the award-winning Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG. And this is a compact little hatchback! I also took the VTi Style to Melrose Arch for a few hours and, while snapping pictures in the Piazza, countless people stopped me asking what it was and telling me how amazing it looks. No other car has ever done that for me.

On the inside, it all just continues. The dashboard is gorgeous (when last did you hear that?) and the steering wheel is like a Rembrandt with a hooter. A bit of a drawback is that all the usual multifunction controls like cruise control, audio controls and hands-free telephony are all on boss-mounted stalks; they work fine, you just can’t see them as the spokes are in the way. The dials are also great to look at, with a chrono theme and funky layout.

Sports seats are superbly comfy, and the driving position is great, with everything in the right place. Rear space is of course a bit limited, this being a compact three-door, but it’s much better than in a MINI, and on one trip with three adults behind me, nobody complained. Well, except me, maybe. Because there is one massive problem with the DS3: cup holders. The normal 1.6 has one. Yes, one! And the THP? Well that has an armrest, so there are no cup holders of any sort, anywhere! Apparently the French don’t like them, so be prepared to fit the passenger seatbelt to your crate of McDonald’s watery Coke if you’re doing the lunch run.

To beat a MINI though, you have to be special. You need to be funky, and you need to be customisable. And, well, DS3 sits on the couch with its legs open, a Cuban cigar smouldering away and a smirk on its face like no other, because you can personalise almost anything on the car. From the roof to the wheels and from the dashboard and to the little Citroën wheel caps, the world is your escargot and please, go wild! There are so many amazing combinations for the car that you really can go mental. Even the key gets a unique colour disc to match your car!

The grey DS3 you see in these photos didn’t have the best colour combination, in my opinion, but the black THP was right on the money, with gorgeous metallic black paintwork, striking black wheels and the white mirrors and roof. Topping it all off was the white dashboard, which is really unique.

Features-wise both variants are well-specced with the usual audio gizmos and Bluetooth for both telephony and audio streaming (which I thoroughly enjoyed), electric windows, auto-aircon, lights and wipers. The daytime running LED lights are super-mean, and you can spot one of these cars from a mile away. It’s just a pity they go off when the main lights are switched on (Citroën, please, make a plan!) so you’ll end up switching your headlights on at the very last minute just so you can drive around with the white “fangs” on for a little while longer.

It’s a big claim though, saying the DS3 is better than a MINI. Having arranged a photo shoot with the DS3 THP and a MINI Cooper S, it was easy to see how the two cars are so different despite sharing so many components and ideas.

The MINI is harder, faster and more meaty, but the DS3 is more friendly, more comfortable and more practical. Where the MINI wows you with outright speed and handling, the DS3 thrills you with its quirkiness, its equally-impressive (albeit less direct) handling and the fact that driving the two cars side-by-side the MINI falls away and becomes almost invisible. And that is the MINI’s biggest problem – it will always have to subscribe to the original Issigonis idea, and there is only so much BMW can do to keep it fresh. The DS3 is its own invention, and so there are no limits to its adaptability and I see it being produced for a very long time.

The best part is the price. For a smidge over R200 000 you can get the DS3 1.6 VTi Style (also available in automatic) and for R257 993 you can get the DS3 THP. That’s R30 000 less than the equivalent MINI, so if you weren’t convinced already, you should be now!

I fell completely in love with these cars and I would most definitely buy one. I’m thinking a white DS3 THP with a black roof and mirrors and black wheels. Oh and a white dash. Well done Citroën, thank you for allowing us the opportunity to see your wild side again. I’m smiling from ear to ear!

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