It used to be simple. Normal cars were quite low. Sports cars and coupés were lower. MPVs were taller, with abbreviated noses.
SUVs, to use an American term for generally 4x4-shaped vehicles, are taller again. Then we had the "crossover", typically somewhere between a hatchback and an SUV. Now the genre-boundaries are dissolving yet more, and cars no longer fit into convenient categories.
Citroën's publicity material describes the new DS4 as a crossbreed. It also considers the newcomer "mischievous" and able to "dominate". The object of these assertions is a kind of upwardly-extended coupé with four doors, a tightly-drawn, sloping tail, rear wheels pushed far into the corners and a steeply-rising waistline. It looks squat and racy, yet the driving position is almost as commanding as an MPV's. Crossbreed indeed. But from crossbreeding can come powerful, healthy new genes. It works in animals, anyway. Can it work in cars?
The DS4 is the second ingredient of Citroën's upmarket and individualistic DS sub-brand. The DS3 hatchback, a racy three-door, came first and has proved quite a hit. The third will be the larger DS5, a particularly good-looking machine revealed at the recent Shanghai motor show. The DS4 is a different take on the notion of a mid-sized hatchback, with chrome accents and plush trim options to add to its unusual architecture. It is derived from the C4, a conventional five-door itself recently launched.
The C4 is a bland car by Citroën standards, lacking the obvious innovation by which Citroë* made its name. It is unmemorable both to look at and to drive. With the DS4's arrival the reason for this strategy is revealed: it is to brighten the halo around the new car, stress its advantages over the generic C4 and heighten its feelgood factor.
Which is considerable, it must be said. The DS4 looks assertive, muscular, ready to go. Grander versions – the hierarchy (from £18,500 to £24,000) goes DSign, DStyle and DSport – have leather trim with options of two-tone colouring or a "bracelet" stitching pattern said to resemble the links in a watch strap. It looks lovely, especially in combination with the stitched-leather dashboard covering. Top-end UK-market DS4s are to be denied this grand dashboard, however, because the UK marketing department thinks UK buyers won't be willing to pay for it. One other specification omission troubles the whole DS4 range. See those shapely, pointy rear-door windows? The glass can't be wound down, because it's too long to fit in the door below, nor can it be hinged outwards. To have made it do either would have spoilt the looks. On the plus side, however, the windscreen extends well into the roof for a panoramic view of the sky. Blinds obscure it if the sun proves too much.
Now, the driving. Various petrol and diesel engines are offered from Peugeot-Citroën's usual range, of which the two most enjoyable should be the 2.0-litre, 160bhp turbodiesel and the 1.6-litre, 200bhp turbo petrol.
First off, the DS4 THP 200. This a fine engine, and a frugal one given the effortless and engaging pace it provides. It sounds and feels crisp and keen, but the surprise is the extent to which the rest of the DS4 feels the same. The six-speed manual gearbox shifts precisely, the steering – geared for a quicker response than the C4's – is accurate and gives a focused picture of the road beneath. Brilliantly judged suspension damping means the DS4 stays both comfortable over bumps and composed as it nips into a bend; it handles like a low coupé, not a high one.
This is a genuinely entertaining car to drive. It tackles bends with brilliance, cruises with serenity. The turbodiesel can't quite match this flair with its nose-heavier feel and more lugubrious power delivery, but it too is a pleasing drive and has a lower CO2 output.
It's the THP 200, preferably in top trim, that best defines the DS4. Is it a new breed of car? Seems it is, and it works very well. Who would want a C4 now?
Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TFSI: from £22,045, 200bhp, 168g/km
Five-door A3 mixes pace with practicality and quality. Relatively sparse equipment at this price.
Ford C-Max 1.6 Ecoboost Titanium: £20,195, 150bhp, 154g/km
An MPV, but low and racy by MPV standards, and so a more pragmatic DS4 rival. Roomy and great to drive.
Mini Countryman Cooper S: from £21,245, 184bhp, 143g/km
Worryingly popular supersize Mini in Cooper S form. Low-power relative of DS4 engine. Equipment sparse again.