WHEN Volkswagen wanted to reinvent the Beetle, it designed something that evoked the bug but looked modern: the New Beetle. It was the same story when BMW made over the Mini and Fiat updated the 500.
In each case, it's all about the look. You don't get 1950s engineering or comfort, and they're not chasing mass market appeal. Yesterday's poverty pack is today's fashion statement.
Explore the 2010 Citroen DS3 Range
- Citroen DS3 Dstyle 2010 review
Retro design has been a boon for those carmakers lucky enough to have a suitable model in their back catalogue because it solves two problems at once.
First, it attracts young buyers who reject everyday wheels but who lack the petrol-head gene; people for whom every purchase is a lifestyle decision, who agonise over a party outfit, or the accessories for a Mini.
Second, retro allows car companies to charge premium prices for small cars, which to the industry is akin to alchemy. In the past, small cars meant small margins. Large cars were where money was.
But led by Europe, everybody is downsizing madly to avoid fuel bills, congestion headaches and punitive taxation. Pretty soon, if you can't make money out of small cars you won't be in business.
If you don't have a candidate for rebirth you're going to have to do it the hard way. Before long, there will be a wave of new small cars from the German luxury brands aiming to stretch their appeal, and price resilience, lower in the market than ever. Next year's Audi A1 will lead the charge.
Meanwhile, Citroen has got there first. The DS3, Citroen says without the hint of a smile, is anti-retro. It looks like nothing that has gone before. European TV adverts for the DS3 use clips of John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe wondering why people "live in the past''. Retro is sooo yesterday.
It's a bold stance for a bold car and it has been well received in Europe. It's a verdict I'd echo after a test drive via the scenic route from Sydney to the Hunter Valley last week.
The DS3 is entertaining from behind the wheel. It feels solid and secure on the road, tips eagerly into corners and can carry a fair bit of speed before running wide. For a short car with standard hatchback underpinnings, it also rides fairly well, certainly better than a Mini. Although with quite a lot of wind and tyre noise entering the cabin, it doesn't set a new benchmark for small car refinement.
The steering, brakes and gearshift all get pass marks or better. The test fleet were all Dsport models, which run a similiar turbocharged 1.6-litre to the Mini - it was a co-development between Peugeot-Citroen and BMW - and it's a fiesty unit with enough low-down torque to propel the car with conviction.
With this engine, the DS3 is a similar weight to a Mini Cooper S and about as fast. The automatic, with just 88kW and four speeds, may not be as convincing but does have a similar equipment level.
The DS3 is slightly bigger all around than a Mini and makes use of the extra space to offer better accommodation in the rear and a much larger boot. But it has borrowed some of the successful bits of the Mini design, despite its disdain for retro.
The four-square stance of the Mini, with the wheels at the extremity of each corner, is echoed here, and so is the "floating roof". As with the Mini, the roof can be specified in a contrasting colour to the body, and the DS3 offers similarly high levels of personalisation and options.
Citroen will be only too aware they are a boon to the financial bottom line. The DS3 does have some original moves, though. The B-pillar is an unusual shark's fin shape that works well with the wraparound look of the rear glass.
It's a less upright shape than a Mini and the DS3 face, with a vertical cascade of LED lights and distinctively kinked Citroen chrome, is appealing. The cabin continues the theme, with seats, vents and dials that are unique to this car and at least as funky as the exterior.
Only the audio controls and wands are off-the-shelf Citroen. On price, it's line ball with a Mini so you're paying Commodore money for something less than 4m long. Citroen has modest targets of 35 buyers a month, about one-fifth of Mini's.
Citroen sales have been in the doldrums here and the DS3 should help. This car also heralds a new strategy for the brand, with a premium line-up badged DS that will parallel its mainstream offerings and share engineering.
A new C3, the poor relation of the DS3, arrives soon and late next year the next generation C4 arrives with its rich cousin, the DS4, alongside. The DS moniker will be familiar to Citroen aficionados as the badge on its groundbreaking car from 1950s.
Read more about prestige motoring at The Australian.