Take one standard Citroën DS3 1.6 THP, add extra original equipment parts, create utter turbo-nutter Frankenstein
Words: Tom Ford
Photography: Jamie Lipman
In almost nonchalant flick is all it takes, like wafting away a mildly offensive smell. The merest forward brush with the fingernails of the right hand and the gearbox snaps down a gear, then another, mechanical teeth launching into one another with a savagery that belies the subtlety of the initial action.
The engine howls through what sounds like a straight-through exhaust, frothing what little vortices of dust remain undisturbed by the passing of semi-slick tarmac race tyres. The brake pedal is a solid block, with the travel, modulation and feel of the average doorstep – it takes a truly mighty stomp for any result – but when it comes, it has the effect of hitting the actual house. There’s a soft and entirely involuntary “oof”.
Five-point harnesses tighten just enough to remind you there’s a crotch strap, then it’s time for a sharp, violent turn of the Alcantara wheel and a long, pint-pulling yank of the yellow-topped staff of a hydraulic handbrake. The car is suddenly facing the other way. There is no lurch, or slack, or hesitation. It just… obeys.
Another little appreciative huff at the sheer, sinewy tightness of it all, and then, when the throttle is forced inelegantly to the bare-metal footwell with a clack, there’s the briefest eternity of dreamy aural respite before the engine shrieks, and the front differential fires the car away, reaming the tarmac clean in search of grip. The noise is industrial, the vibration ridiculous, the experience elegantly, intimately brutal. Welcome to the rally-car experience.
And this is the real deal. Actual serious rally car. I guarantee that if you like cars, you’d love it.
It’s also an experience exclusively reserved for professional rally drivers, or the professionally wealthy. We mortals will never get to drive a car like this rally-prepped Citroën DS3 R3, because it’s all bogglingly expensive, high-end rally tech that’s about as far removed from buyable road-car reality as it’s possible to be. Right? Not quite. Because you can order one from your local Citroën dealer. At least, you can in the UK. Cycle & Carriage, are you reading?
Today. Now. This is a scarcely believable, but entirely correct fact. Pop into your local Citroën dealer, and you can buy, off the metaphorical shelf, a DS3 with a 210bhp, 350Nm racing engine.
You can also buy, from Citroën and specifically engineered for the DS3, a six-speed sequential push-me-pull-you paddle-operated gearbox, a multi-point FIA-approved rollcage, fully adjustable coil-over suspension, a steering rack so direct it feels like it lashes your wrists to the steering arms, polycarbonate side windows and a whole raft of other slightly obsessive go-faster goodies that’ll make your rally-fan eyes water.
A manufacturer-backed Frankenstein. An Original Equipment monster. There’s even a neat little brochure, and a specific website where you can order all the bits. Fit everything, and what you end up with is basically a WRC car minus a slug of power and a driven axle. Which is a bit of a surprise, if I’m honest.
You can take a standard DS3 – a lovely if slightly flowery hatch – and butch it up with official equipment to the point even the most aggressive of supercars will gently back away from it in a car park, muttering about ‘things to do’. The two little characters ‘R3’ have the same effect Sambuca has on middle-aged women. It transforms something very happy and normal into a slavering, rabid, unstoppable beast.
There’s a reason. The DS3 R3 has been conceived as a fast-food version of a full-blown Citroën rally car, available from Citroën Racing. It complies with FIA ‘R3T’ regulations, so it uses the original steel monocoque of the production car, as well as the 1.6-litre THP four-cylinder turbo engine.
In fact, from the outside, if you remove all the jazzy decals, the only changes are rally wheels, a roof-mounted snorkel (the windows are all polycarbonate and don’t wind down, so it gets oven-hot in minutes), and the race-style mini wing mirrors. The other stuff is slightly more involved.
What Citroën Racing does, during a full 500-hour conversion, is hollow out a Citroën DS3 ‘Sport Chic’ 1.6 THP, scraping out the comfort and frailty of the road car and injecting essence of bull testicle into the rest. The shell is re-welded for extra strength, and roughly five kilometres of FIA rollcage is webbed throughout the interior, resulting in a torsional rigidity value somewhere above that of a four-metre block of granite. It’s like a colossal spider with a geometry fetish has gone bonkers with a pipe-bender. So it doesn’t flex much. In any direction.
It doesn’t bounce much, either – especially in this ‘tarmac’ set-up. An example: sit on the rear tailgate (noting in passing that the bonnet and boot are all held shut with pins and clips rather than anything as weighty as a ‘mechanism’), and the DS3 R3 doesn’t move. At all. It’s like sitting on a railway-sleeper bench. It’s laughably hard – and about the only way you can tell there’s any pressure anywhere in the car is that the plastic windows flex minutely. But it says much about the R3’s intentions. A bench-tested 1.6 is slotted in the front, rearranged and stripped naked to make ‘race maintenance’ easier. It sounds tough, but most of the major engine components are standard, or closely related to what you get in the normal car: cylinder head, valves, turbo, injectors, manifolds – all pretty much the same.
The air filter, camshafts, pistons, rods and flywheel are all competition-spec, though, and there are various upgrades to cooling. That amazing gearbox is a six-speed sequential, push to go down, pull to go up, press the little red button and push/pull to get neutral or reverse. It’s based on the ergonomics of the full-on C4 WRC and poles through a ZF self-locking diff that means you have to hang on for dear life when going fast on a bumpy road. Or overcorrecting wayward handbrake turns. Ahem.
The only really tricky thing about it is the clutch. The pedal itself is up and left in the footwell – you only really need it to start off during a proper rally stage – but try to do normal car stuff, like dawdle, or low-speed messing about, and it’ll shudder and grumble and complain, and, unless you’re mighty generous with the revs, stall.
You get used to it, but it’s a reminder that there are still compromises if you want the most instant reactions when going very quickly. You can monitor virtually any important parameters from the Magneti Marelli digi-module mounted in the middle of the dash, scrolling through six pages of multiple-channel information for everything from oil temperature to current gear position.
At one point, I’m almost sure it flashed up a panicky crimson message about excessive turbo temp, but seeing as it was in French and I couldn’t translate it, I was able to ignore it until it went away. In keeping, start-up is somewhat more complicated than the twist’n’go of the regular DS3. First, prime the master circuit with a flick switch in the panel between the seats, then arm the hydraulics with the next toggle along.
Once there’s sufficient pressure, press the starter button top left, and the motor bangs into life like a misfired mortar. The noise is ridiculous. A saw-toothed burr that vengefully burrows through your ears. And the vibration. As the engine idle waxes and wanes like a fast tide, the pitch and frequency of the wobbles that suffuse the cabin roll from dirty big chugs to a concerted attack from a flock of miniature dentist drills.
It’s like stuffing the top half of your body into a metal dustbin and lying on a belt sander with a broken speed control. At certain points, the vibration is… not unpleasant. At others – just as the clutch bites on take-off, for instance – it sets your teeth so far on edge you fear they may shatter. But the R3 makes the regular car feel like a complete pudding. It’s utterly addictive.
Actually painful, stupidly extreme for normal use, but so much fun it makes you extra pleased with your senses. The catch? Well – as ever – there are a few. Firstly, the kit is about real competition rather than real life, so it’s a bit raw for the daily grind. Were you to run one on the road – and yes, the car is entirely road-legal – you’ll become a fractured, crippled Gollum from winding yourself in and out of the rollcage, your thighs will become rectangular from the persistent ministrations of the tall Recaro seat bolsters and, unless you drive everywhere in a helmet and ear defenders, you’ll go deaf.
Then the incessant vibration will cause your skin to overload and simply fail, leaving you an inert pink blob wearing a helmet and mewling.
There’s one other slight yump in the road to pseudo-rally heroism: the entire basic tarmac kit costs 62,000 euro, or just under 110 grand in our money. Did I forget to mention that? And that’s before you include some of the more specific options, like the ‘gravel adaptation kit’, ‘64Mb data acquisition’ upgrade, a ‘bodywork spare-parts kit’ and specific ECU maps for race fuel.
You’ll need a support truck. And possibly a chintzy gazebo. Add the cost of the base vehicle, and you’re looking at a DS3 hatch worth somewhere in the region of S$175,000. Without truck, gazebo or umbrella girl.
Which will cause sharp intake of breath from most bank managers, followed closely by the word “No”. More interesting, though explicitly not encouraged by Citroën Racing, is the fact that you could, in theory, buy any of these parts separately.
You’ll have to buy a couple of ECUs and be handy with a spanner, but imagine a DS3R with the race engine and ’box, diff and suspension, but a half-cage, road-biased clutch and sound-deadening. Come on, Citroën. You know you want to. And we want you to. Today. Now.