DS4 E-Tense review: premium plug-in hybrid brings new balance between avant garde and approachable

France’s answer to the BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class remains an unusual choice but might be the brand’s best car yet

In the past, DS cars have been willfully eccentric in design and execution, making them interesting but often irritating. The DS4, however, seems to have found the balance between avant garde and approachable that’s needed if it’s to challenge the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes A-Class.

Visually it still has a unique design language that makes heavy use of a diamond motif and angular lines to striking effect. The sharp creases and slimline lights help emphasise the car’s proportions and give it a confident low and wide appearance that puts it somewhere between a hatchback and crossover, and disguises a surprisingly spacious interior and boot.

The interior is where DS’s focus on being a premium brand is most obvious. Apart from a couple of elements shared with the likes of Peugeot and Citroen, the cabin is clearly a step above the mainstream. There are lots of nice soft-touch materials, including Alcantara on the dashboard and doors, plus smart metal or metal effect finishes on the switchgear. Care and attention have gone into the details and there’s a pleasing flow to the interior lines that run from door-to-door, wrapping around key dashboard elements such as the digital instruments and 10-inch touchscreen.

On the centre console there is a weird little second touchscreen that acts as a shortcut panel for that main display. It allows you to save up to six frequently used functions - from favourite phone contacts to navigation destinations or climate controls - then sweep them up to the main screen to activate. It falls neatly to hand while driving so you’re not stretching out to reach the main screen but hints at a badly thought-out main screen system.

A lot of effort has gone into creating a premium feel for the DS4 interior

The DS4 comes with a choice of a single 128bhp diesel engine, three petrols offering 128bhp, 178bhp or 222bhp, or a plug-in hybrid. That PHEV offers 222bhp, the usual ridiculous 235mpg claims and an EV-only range of 38.5 miles. Sadly, in our time with it, and after multiple full charges we never saw more than 22 miles of indicated range and economy was in the mid-40s thanks to a mix of lots of motorway and A-road driving.

Performance is punchy thanks to the system’s combined 222bhp and 266lb ft of torque, with 62mph coming up in less than eight seconds. The power is delivered smoothly and quietly but handling isn’t a match for its straightline pace, even in the nominally sporty Performance Line spec. Like all DS models it is more about comfort and this shows in the softly sprung ride - controlled by the camera-controlled predictive active scan suspension - and steering that’s light but lacking in feel or feedback. At some points in our time with it the back and front ends didn’t feel entirely connected and there’s no dynamism or performance to speak of. On the plus side, previous DS models combined poor handling with poor ride but this new DS rides well and handles better than its forebears.

The DS4 starts at around £28,000 but once you specify the hybrid motor things escalate quickly and our test car came in at £41,050 before options. Performance Line + models get a host of visual upgrades including gloss black 19-inch alloys and exterior trim plus an intriguing mix of Alcantra and corduroy on the sport seats. There is also plenty of kit and tech, including adaptive matrix headlights, a smart extended head-up display, and the usual suite of driver assistance tech. Strangely, though, £40k still doesn’t get you heated seats or a powered tailgate, and if you want the unique-to-the-class night vision, it’ll set you back £1,500.

It’s fair to say that DS’s success so far has been limited partly due to badge snobbery and partly due to some pretty disappointing cars. The new DS 4 does offer hope, however, that things are on the up. It looks great inside and out and offers a comfortable and refined driving experience with a decent drivetrain. However, rivals from BMW, Audi and Mercedes offer the same, along with undoubted badge appeal, meaning the DS remains a pretty leftfield choice.

DS 4 Performance Line + E-Tense

Price: £41,050 (£41,945 as tested) Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol with 80kW electric motor; Power: 222bhp; Torque: 266lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 145mph; 0-62mph: 7.7 seconds; Economy: 176.5-235mpg; CO2 emissions: 27-35g/km; EV range: 34.8-38.5 miles