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Car reviews - Citroen - C3 - 1.6 HDi 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Outstanding fuel economy, low emissions, torquey performance, great styling, eager handling, individuality
Room for improvement
Feeling its age, patchy interior presentation, tight rear seat, expensive, no ESC stability control

23 May 2008

IN MANY ways, the Citroen C3 is the French version of Volkswagen's New Beetle, but better done.

When the C3 was rolled out during 2002, it was touted as a sort of modern-day 2CV – the iconic Deux Chevaux low-cost economy car that mobilised much of France after World War II.

Of course, sharing a platform with parent Peugeot (that eventually underpinned today’s 207) meant that the C3 could in no way replicate the sheer manufacturing simplicity and versatility of the 2CV, but the curvy styling and narrow, tall proportions hint at the charms of the “Escargot” in a way that most boxy little light cars cannot hope to emulate.

Indeed, one of the C3’s great strengths is its enduring design, which still looks great six years on. The secret here, we suspect, is that Citroen did not go retro or post-modern with the styling, but instead selected to look forward. Nissan did a similar thing with its equally pleasing and utterly distinctive Micra.

Mind you, the C3’s thick and curvy A-pillar wreaks havoc with your forward vision while parking. Rear vision isn’t too bad, but all roof supports sprout up from the shoulder line like a row of thick tree trunks.

And we don’t think the cabin’s execution holds up nearly as well as the exterior.

Far from looking chic or charming, the dashboard just seems old and austere. This interior was updated a couple of years ago, with revised trim, more metallic accents and a palpably higher-quality appearance, but the result is still a hard, cold and unfriendly fascia.

Early Citroen aficionados may appreciate how the instrumentation’s strip tachometer is reminiscent of an early DS’s. Disney fans might find the round vents look suspiciously like early Mickey Mouse renderings, and owners of the Peugeot 206 will definitely feel déjà vu since so much of the low-rent switchgear is from one.

The lower half of the dash is finished in plastic with a particularly repellent goosebump finish the glovebox is small. The front passenger airbag is entombed behind a flap that looks like it could be prised open the cupholders are useless in size and placement and small exterior mirrors instantly betray the C3’s advancing years.

Worse still, we could not find a comfortable driving position. Both front seats have reclining mechanisms that are easier to operate from the back seat. The seat-height adjustor is on a tilt and lift axis that never seems right the lack of a driver’s left-foot rest is literally a pain after even a short spell behind the wheel.

Taller folk will find the lack of front legroom constricting. And though entry and egress in the front is easy due to the tall styling, the back doors are small, tight and meagre in opening angle.

Yet the rear seat is reasonably comfortable – if a little tight for longer legs and knees. Nobody is going to complain about a lack of headroom unless you are a Conehead. Nothing rattled. The steering wheel is lovely to hold and behold.

The under-seat drawers go some way in making up for the almost-useless glovebox. The boot – though not especially long – is cavernously deep. And the digital speedo is big enough to see even with your eyes on the road.

Which is a very useful thing because the C3 heart and soul is its brilliant 1.6-litre HDi turbo-diesel engine.

Noisy at start-up and idle, it settles into a strong, smooth and gutsy performer the moment you press on the accelerator. There is instant acceleration in every one of the five forward gears, and there’s enough torque for fewer cog changes than in most baby cars. This is a good thing because the manual is not particularly slick to use, although it is easy enough.

On the open road, this little lion-hearted Citroen provides an indecently quick turn of speed, cruising effortlessly as the diesel din dies away into a distant thrum. Too bad there is no cruise control or a speed limiter. This is a mean omission.

Of course, the brilliant fuel economy and outstandingly low carbon dioxide emissions figure (118g/km) are the HDi’s party tricks. On the highway our reading dropped below 5.0L/100km, and rarely went beyond 5.5 even after some spirited driving shenanigans.

The lack of traction and stability control is another giver away of the C3’s age, but the brakes are strong and progressive, while the car tracks steady and true over most road surfaces.

Firm describes the damping, but the ride is not hard or uncomfortable, and it is impressively isolating from the outside world.

Better still, the C3 seems to steer with a little more adroitness than we remembered. We expected understeer and lots of bodyroll, but what we ended up with was a progressive and measured cornering attitude, backed up by surprisingly responsive turn-in and lots and lots of grip. A ridiculously large turning circle won the Citroen no favours though.

But time for some perspective here: with the (admittedly hugely appealing) diesel engine out of the picture, this isn’t a fun car to drive. Wooden instead of elastic is how the dynamics feel, with little feedback and no verve or life to egg the enthusiastic person on.

Any number of similarly sized rivals eclipse the C3 in this regard: Fiesta, Swift, Mazda2, VW Polo, Proton Satria, Peugeot 207... there is an odd inertness to the Citroen’s driveability, despite the best efforts of the fantastic HDi.

So the C3 ends up as pretty standard light-car faire beneath that bulbous exterior. An outstanding and characterful runabout in patches best describes it. That cliché about the Curate’s Egg has rarely applied more aptly. This is how it’s most like the New Beetle.

Furthermore, this little baby is near its use-by date and the competition is far, far too fierce for the C3 to leave its mark on the market, no matter how pretty the styling still is.

Sealing the C3’s fate is the fact that Citroen charges $23,990 for a vehicle that – engine aside – is roundly beaten. Like the egg-shaped VW, it must be said...

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