Car reviews - Citroen - C4 Cactus - Exclusive diesel
Excellent fuel economy, loping long-distance ability, interior space, comfy seats, planted and predictable handling, generous standard equipment, customisation potential, out-there personality
Room for improvement
Archaic transmission, over-zealous idle-stop system, poor ventilation and air-conditioning, painfully slow touchscreen interface, lack of drinks holders, dim headlights and interior lighting
21 Jul 2016
Price and equipment
The C4 Cactus range starts from $26,990 plus on-road costs for the 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol three-cylinder with five-speed manual, and $29,990 plus on-roads for the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder tested here with the six-speed single-clutch automated manual sending drive to the front wheels.
Just the high-specification Exclusive model grade is offered, with a generous amount of equipment centred around a 7.0-inch touchscreen housing controls for the satellite navigation, digital radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, single-zone climate control and reversing camera.
Other standard inclusions comprise automatic headlights and wipers, LED interior lighting, electric front windows and mirrors, cruise control, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels with a 15-inch steel spare.
The diesel adds an ‘aircraft-style’ manual handbrake and bench-style front seat with armrest.
The only standard exterior colour available is white, with other hues costing an extra $800, while a premium pearlescent white adds $1000.
Citroen’s patented side ‘AirBumps’ – with 4km/h resistance to supermarket trolley impacts – are black as standard, offset by the silver alloy wheels.
Other airbump colours are $400, black alloy wheels cost $1000, white roof rails are priced at $250, white or red door mirror housings are another $150 and C-pillar highlights can be had for $100. Coloured interior cloth or part-leather upholstery are $800 and $1600 respectively.
The priciest exterior option is a panoramic glass roof at $1250.
Our test vehicle had an $800 red paint job, white roof rails ($250), mirrors ($150) and Cactus-branded C-pillar highlight ($100) and black leather with purple dashboard trim ($1600).
As a weight- and cost-saving exercise in mostly hard plastic surfaces, Citroen has managed to put together a stylish and well-built Cactus cabin.
Compared with the unrelenting dark grey and black scheme of the car we tested in Britain last year, the purple interior of our Aussie diesel test car was much more convincing, with the eggplant-like hue adding quite a dash of sparkle to the luxury luggage inspired glovebox lid and door pulls, perfectly matched with the exterior paintwork.
Proving it can still think outside the (glove) box, Citroen has mounted the passenger airbag in the ceiling to liberate space for a low-profile dashboard for excellent forward visibility and an incredibly practical 8.5 litre top-loading storage compartment.
The minimalist digital instrument panel shows only speed, current gear selection, a rudimentary fuel gauge and a row of warning/status. Some passengers thought it looked ‘budget’ or ‘like an 80s computer game’.
Also minimalist is the amount interior lighting, with the front a dim effort even with the two map-readers activated and no illumination at all for rear passengers. This made loading children and their bulky seats into the back a chore.
Switchgear is limited to traditional wiper and indicator stalks, electric window controls, the big-buttoned multi-function steering wheel and a row of large buttons for the demister, hazard lights and parking sensors beneath the central touchscreen. Another for child lock activation resides above the driver’s right knee.
Unfortunately the technology behind the all-encompassing Cactus touchscreen is infuriatingly slow. Most annoying is the fact it takes so long to activate, ensuring a long wait for the reversing camera image to show after starting the engine. Did nobody at Citroen realise that people might reverse out of their garage, driveway or a parking space immediately after firing up their engine?Slow navigation address entry response also raised our ire when it would pop up a suggested location but respond to the last keyboard position we had pressed, usually resulting in an incorrect selection and forcing us to start again.
Also frustrating are the climate control options with plus/minus temperature settings that require repeated screen stabbing to slowly scroll through the half-degree increments.
The dashboard is also home to just three main vents, with the front passenger getting a slightly larger central outlet in lieu of one in their half of the dashboard. This, combined with the sweaty black leather seats and an air-conditioning system that takes forever to cool down, meant occupants got hot and bothered.
With the rear windows only popping out rather than rolling down and the front windows having no one-touch facility, Cactus cabin ventilation regularly gave us prickly heat in the still-warm Queensland autumn.
Perhaps a cold drink would help the situation? No. Front passengers have just a single, shallow cupholder to share between two (located so that only the smallest takeaway coffee cups can fit) and rectangular door bins that let bottles rattle around irritatingly.
But as if to acknowledge the pop-out rear windows, lack of rear vents and the fact the bench-style front seat blocks airflow from the front, the rear door bins can both take two large (1.5L or larger) drinks bottles.
To end on a more positive note, the seats are broad and comfortable (provided you avoid the sweaty leather) and there’s heaps of room in the back. The boot is also a useful size, but there is a channel that threatens to consume mandarins spilt from supermarket bags. There is a large lip over which to load heavy objects and folding the split rear bench results in a stepped load area.
Engine and transmission
The diesel Cactus engine develops 68kW at 4000rpm and 230Nm at 1750rpm, so it’s less powerful but torquier than the petrol. Having driven both engines back-to-back, this tells only half the story as the difference in the petrol’s performance feels far greater than even the figures suggest – something borne out by the diesel’s 11.4-second 0-100km/h time compared with the petrol’s 9.3s.
Neither figures are firecracker fast, but the low weight engineered into the Cactus means it at least has a decent amount of in-gear get up and go. Country road or motorway cruising is a breeze and we were impressed at the diesel’s on-test efficiency of 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres (the official combined figure is an unfeasible-sounding 3.5L/100km that we were unable to replicate even on a motorway run).
We suspect the 11.4s 0-100km/h acceleration time is largely due to the automated manual transmission’s deep breath taken between each ratio. A marked deceleration can be felt when changing up a gear, which for us was even worse when driving slowly uphill, when it would hunt between first and second, slowing down each time and making us feel like we were going to end up rolling backwards down the slope.
The transmission was also sometimes borderline dangerous, for example when attempting to merge onto a motorway. Trying to regulate our speed after accelerating to merging velocity, it would suddenly change up and slow the car down in the process. The natural reaction to ask for more power was met with another equally lazy upshift.
Another time it scared us was during our dynamic drive test, when it decided to change up part way round a fast bend we were taking close to the limit of grip.
The sudden deceleration caused some butt-clenching lift-off oversteer.
Using the horrible, cheap, bendy paddle-shifters attached to the steering column is all but useless as these inputs are quickly overridden by the transmission’s brain.
Small, slow manoeuvres are also a chore with this transmission, which tries to imitate the low-speed ‘creep’ of a regular automatic but in reverse this is a lumpy affair. Also, the over-zealous idle-stop system cuts the engine below 5km/h under brakes, which often results in the car coasting and makes parking a nightmare.
Deactivating idle-stop requires a search through the touchscreen, and every time the car is restarted the system is reactivated.
It’s a real shame as the transmission comes close to ruining the car and the diesel engine itself is a generally quiet, smooth and refined unit. We did get more used to it after a week but in this day and age of slick-shifting autos, it’s an unacceptably poor piece of technology.
If you want a Citroen C4 Cactus, get the petrol manual – it’s almost as fuel-efficient, quicker, more fun and costs less to buy. If you can’t drive a manual but are otherwise physically able to, learn. Failing that, your only other option is to buy something else with a proper automatic, dual-clutch or CVT – plenty of which exist.
Ride and handling
Citroen has set the C4 Cactus up for comfort rather than speed and, as such, it generally soaks up the worst excesses of Australia’s road-maintenance oxymoron with ease.
The more nose-heavy diesel does seem to crash over low-speed imperfections more than the petrol, as if the dampers have not been adequately recalibrated for the task, and when flung quickly along a twisty road it does understeer a touch more than the finely balanced petrol version.
On the upside, the diesel seems to roll less and feels the more planted of the pair overall and more confident in cornering. Both have rather vague, slow steering and there is not a great deal of grip but there is an admirable amount of feedback through the wheel that makes swift progress fun and fulfilling.
The ride, combined with the comfy lounge chair seats, makes the Cactus a cosseting long-distance tourer – and the diesel can achieve four-figure distances between fuel stops.
Provided unrealistic sporting expectations are left to one side, it is capable of entertaining on fun roads too.
Regardless of its looks, interior quirks or customisation potential, we are pleased to see Citroen engineer some character into how the Cactus drives. It certainly helped us bond with the car.
Safety and servicing
Aussie safety watchdog ANCAP has not yet rated the C4 Cactus, but their European counterparts did, and gave it a four-star score. The local Citroen importer reckons this is due to a lack of active safety tech and that ANCAP will award five stars, but time will tell.
Standard safety equipment includes driver and front passenger airbags, front-side and curtain airbags, front seat belt pre-tensioners, two rear Isofix mounting points and electronic child locking plus anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency braking assistance, hill-start assist and electronic stability control.
Citroen offers a six-year/unlimited kilometre warranty on all passenger vehicles, with roadside assistance for the same duration.
But the French brand’s six-year/90,000km capped-price servicing scheme is not cheap, with annual/15,000km maintenance intervals ranging from $370 to a steep $845 and averaging just under $630 a visit. For comparison the petrol manual Cactus averages $545 per service (prices correct at the time of writing).
The Citroen C4 Cactus certainly offers charisma and something truly different in a crowded small-SUV marketplace that will appeal to hatch and crossover buyers alike.
It rides well on Australia’s rough roads, handles sweetly enough to put a smile on even a cynical road-tester’s face and provides ample space for a couple or young family to travel in comfort.
However, some interior and technology shortcomings put a fly in the ointment and we couldn’t get over the automatic transmission’s failings. A question remains over the car’s ANCAP safety rating and servicing is costly.
Apart from the fact it comes with a six-year warranty and uses so little fuel, to buy a diesel Citroen C4 Cactus would be to allow your heart to rule your head.
Fiat 500X Pop automatic from $30,000 plus on-road costs
Compared with the Cactus this is base-spec for the money. Add that to the Fiat’s questionable interior quality and iffy dynamics and, while the transmission is better than Citroen’s, that is like saying a mosquito bite is better than a wasp’s sting.
Renault Captur Dynamique from $30,000 plus on-road costs
Similar in spirit to its Cactus compatriot, but with a decent – if not class-leading petrol-auto combination to better satisfy Aussie tastes. A lack of airbags for rear passengers might rightly put off some buyers. Citroen could do well to look at Renault’s more realistic capped-price servicing prices.
Nissan Juke Ti-S AWD automatic from $33,490 plus on-road costs
Gutsy performance, all-wheel-drive traction and lots of equipment help justify the higher price, but the interior is cheap, cramped and dated. But the Juke is the original quirky crossover and deserves credit for that. Where to from here, Nissan?Suzuki Vitara S Turbo 2WD automatic from $28,990 plus on-road costs
We had not driven the promising new turbo Vitara at the time of writing the Cactus test, but the equipment list, value pricing and credentials of the non-turbo bode very well indeed. Like the Juke, it proves Japanese compact does not have to equal boring.
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