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First drive: 154kW Citroen DS3 Racing

Our UK correspondent, John Simister gets to grips with Citroën’s hottest hatchback, the DS3 racing, which is due in South Africa within the next month:

Some cars just shout “movement”. They look ready to go at a second's notice, unhappy at being made to stand still. Citroën's new DS3 Racing is a such a car. Look at it. You might think it ludicrously brash in its orange accessorisation (there's a calmer version in white with a grey roof and wheels), but you must surely want to try it out.

This Citroen packs a mean punch, thanks to 154kW 1.6-litre turbo motor.

The DS3 Racing and chequerboard logo on the flanks is repeated, much larger, on the roof, the better to alert passing helicopters. The carbonfibre you see all over it is real, and expensive. On the white-and-grey version, the front grille is made of the lightweight, ultra-strong weave as well as the wheelarch extensions. It's expensive stuff, which is part of the reason why it is expected to sell for around R340 000 in South Africa.

So, what exactly is this Racing car? It's the brainchild of Citroën Racing, the motorsport division that builds Citroën's crushingly successful World Rally cars. Its 1.6-litre, turbocharged, direct-injection engine produces a healthy 154kW, quite an increase over the standard Sport's 115kW. Recalibrated electronics, higher turbo boost and a freer-flowing exhaust are the chief power-liberators.

Those striking 18-inch wheels sit 15mm further out than normal. This, together with firmer springs and dampers (more so at the rear) and a 15mm lower ride height, should make this DS3 yet more chuck-aboutable than the already frisky Sport version.

The carbonfibre theme continues inside, and the orange cars get a matching dashboard. The front seats are racy-looking, and the thick-rimmed steering wheel is almost too busy in its design to hold in a relaxed way.

There will be just 10 DS3 Rs sold in South Africa, of the total international production run of 2000. Why so few? It's not just because the DS3 Racing is an image-building exercise, designed to create desire for other DS3s. There's a more pragmatic reason, which is that a carmaker can build no more than 1000 examples of a new derivative if it is to avoid costly recertification.

To build 2000 examples, Citroën Racing has created two slightly different DS3 Rs with fractionally different engine calibrations, one with a whisker more power - not that a driver can detect the difference. Which one you'll get if you buy a DS3 R is something you need neither know nor worry about.

For a lover of small, feisty French hatchbacks like me, the DS3 Racing's arrival is wonderful news. Given Peugeot-Citroën's recent return to the form that made my own 24-year-old 205 GTI still one of the greatest hot hatchbacks ever made, the DS3 Racing should be an absolute cracker.

Certainly its engine sounds great, with its deep, slightly crackly exhaust note. It has a strong, big-hearted thrust at low engine speeds not found in the Clio, which makes really rapid progress less effort-heavy to the extent that it doesn't feel quite as fast as it is. That's no bad thing. In corners it stays flat and grips hard.

But there is something missing: a transparency, a dialogue, the instant responsiveness that marks a Clio or my 205. The electric power-steering system has been retuned for the DS3 R, to give it a sharper feel around the straight-ahead, but it's not enough. The problem is not so much the weighting of the steering, more that it doesn't change convincingly with the changing forces acting on the front wheels.

Accelerate hard in a bend, or turn more tightly, and the steering should get heavier. It doesn't, and it's disconcerting. Accelerate hard on an undulating road, and the front wheels tug the DS3 R from side to side in a bout of the “torque steer” once all too common in powerful cars with front-wheel drive. Yet you feel none of this through the steering. That's disappointing.

So is the fact that bumpy roads make the suspension chop and fidget in a way the Peugeot-Citroën engineers used to be so good at avoiding. A Mini Cooper S JCW is worse here, but a Clio copes and so does a DS3 Sport. I love the idea of the DS3 Racing, but I couldn't live with one. It's an opportunity mishandled. And I'm rather sad about that. -The Independent on Sunday

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