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Car reviews - Citroen - C4 Cactus - Exclusive

Our Opinion

We like
Design, efficiency, charm, space, practicality, detailing, performance, economy, distinctiveness, warranty
Room for improvement
Unexpected and unnecessary spec shortfalls, no petrol auto, awkward driving position for some, unsettled urban ride

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Citroen logo17 May 2016

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

Price and equipment

CITROEN is back.

Well, it never really went away, but with just the Berlingo van and wildly underrated Grand C4 Picasso seven-seater the only models – and niche ones at that – to sell in meaningful numbers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the French brand has been absent from Australia.

The haphazard supply of C3 supermini (now on hiatus), as well as the C4 and C5 models (near invisible and ageing not so well) hasn’t helped. What Citroen needs is a breakthrough, one that stands out of the crowd yet appeals to the hordes of badge-aware buyers.

Welcome, then, to the C4 Cactus. In a nutshell, dimensionally think Golf on stilts, but sitting on a smaller and lighter platform, and packed with loads of smart solutions to cut some 200kg compared to similarly sized vehicles.

This car was created to capture some of the essence of the famous Citroen 2CV, which used ingenious simplicity to keep the kilos and pricing down. That’s why it uses a stretched supermini platform, with advanced downsized powertrains, aluminium for the bonnet and front and rear beams, a larger proportion of high-strength steels than usual, some smart manufacturing techniques, and even rear doors that don’t have wind-down windows, but a piece of single moulded plastic. Sound extreme? This is the supermodel of C-segment sized hatchbacks.

Only the single Exclusive variant is being imported for now, starting at $26,990 (plus on-road costs) for the 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol version driven here.

Though minimalism features strongly throughout the Cactus, it does include a 7.0-inch touchscreen, satellite navigation, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, a DAB+ Digital Radio with six speakers and amplifier, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a USB input, auto headlights and wipers, climate control air-con, cruise control with a speed limiter, front cornering lights, leather and chrome interior highlights, front power windows, electric mirrors, roof bars, centre armrest with storage, a massive dashtop storage compartment, 12 volt socket and cupholder, 60/40 split rear seats 17-inch alloys and tyre pressure monitors.

Note, however, that electronic driver aids such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) or adaptive cruise control are not currently available.

The Cactus is also big on personalisation, with a claimed 23,184 possible colour and trim permutations, including 21 possible exterior and six cabin combos. The trademark Airbump air-filled bubbles on the side can be ordered in four different colours, while a $1250 panoramic roof is also available.

Citroen reckons a wide range of premium small-car and compact SUV customers will be drawn to its newcomer, including Volkswagen Golf, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-3, and the in-house Peugeot 2008.

Let’s see what this fascinating French car (that’s built in Spain) is really like then.

Interior

Minimalist elegance is what the Citroen’s cabin is all about.

Long, wide, glassy (especially with the optional fixed sunroof that has no cover to help save precious grams), and with an abundance of room in most directions for a car of these dimensions, the Cactus’ interior immediately makes a positive impression.

And why not? The leather door pull hoops and glovebox lid (hiding an absolutely massive storage locker) look and feel like expensive luggage the two-tone leather-lined flat-bottomed wheel is a tactile delight the wide sofa-style front seatbacks promise sumptuous comfort and the various door, roof, and cloth trim textures ooze class. Your graphic designer friends would be agog with desire.

If restraint appeals, the Citroen obliges with a dash of exceptional simplicity. The BMW i3-style instrument screen is an exercise in purity, with just a large digital speedo sitting above a light bar denoting fuel and the world’s largest odometer readout. Everything else is black space, like a dead smartphone screen, save for the row of warning lights at start-up and a speed limiter/cruise control function-on screen to the left of the speedo.

Which means the Cactus does not have a tachometer, relying instead on a gear down/up change arrow on the right of the speedo.

It’s then you might also notice the other missing bits. Only one instead of two passenger-side face vents no one-press actuator for the driver-side power window switch (why?!) no steering wheel reach adjustment… and what’s this? No left-side airbag? Actually, yes. It’s there, but it is ceiling-mounted, ahead of the (mirror-less) passenger sunvisor. Clever. And thank goodness.

The central touchscreen, straight out of the latest Peugeot 208 and 308, is easily decipherable, and looks after everything else info-related, including trip computer data and vehicle settings, as well as multimedia access, DAB+ digital radio, digital amplifier, Bluetooth phone audio streaming, climate control, reversing camera with rear-parking sensors, and satellite navigation interface. Yep, the Cactus lacks some things but then surprises with unexpected features like that.

Then there’s more reptile-finish hard plastic dash shelving, complete with 32 ‘buttons’ to hold a mobile or tablet device in place on the move. Massive door bins, a centre armrest, and a cupholder complete the Cactus’ front-of-cabin experience.

Except this particular (178cm) tester could not find the right driving position, with an unsatisfactory seat/wheel/pedals compromise taking the shine off the cabin’s cleverness. Not helping was the cushion’s odd tilt-backward action. Who’s ever heard of an uncomfortable Citroen? The rear is remarkably roomy, and with said front centre armrest in place, is very reminiscent of your granddad’s bench-seat ‘60s family car. Which is really cool. But the pop-out rather than wind-down windows, and lack of grab handles, map pockets, and overhead lighting, further diminish this car’s designer awesomeness.

Further back, the 358-litre cargo capacity is surprisingly deep and wide, though the cool exposed metal trim is too easily prone to scuffing and scratching. Folding the unique-to-Australia split/fold backrest boosts the area to 1170L, though the rear seat cushion does not tip forward so the floor isn’t as flat as it could be.

So the Cactus’ cabin is invitingly, refreshingly esoteric for the most part, but also weirdly incomplete in others.

Engine and transmission

What a lively, lusty and gutsy little powerplant this 81kW/205Nm 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol unit is. Sparkling off the line, punchy soaring up through the revs, and always willing and ready to surge forwards, it makes the most of the Cactus’ incredibly lightweight 1020kg mass, to really feel alert and alive at all times. Love it.

Less lovable is the long-throw and at times sticky five-speed manual gearbox, though the ratios are smartly spaced and the shift itself is light and smooth once mastered. And the standard hill-hold system helps making crawling along hilly areas a breeze.

Still, no auto transmission option will keep this powertrain combo from popularity in Australia like nothing else. PSA Group does so offer a self-shifter in the related Peugeot 208, while the base 308s offer a properly more-powerful and even sweeter 97kW e-THP 1.2-litre turbo version with an Aisin six-speed auto, so why not here? Most buyers will choose the 68kW/230NM 1.6-litre HDi turbo-diesel with a semi-automatic automated manual transmission – but that’s not the type of automatic favoured by buyers in this country.

As it stands, the 81kW e-THP triple turbo is terrifically economical to boot, offering the sort of real-world economy that other crossovers can only dream of. No doubt the fast-acting idle-stop system helps in this regard. Therefore, considering how spacious and spirited the Citroen is, we’re more than happy to recommend the petrol-powered Cactus.

Ride and handling

More good Cactus news. Perfectly weighted steering is the entrée to excellent handling, defined by instant responses and plenty of feedback. Wide, low, flat, and planted, the Citroen is fun to punt around.

Being French, the suspension has a loping elasticity to it, even on the Goodyear EfficientGrip 205/50R17 tyres, that translates to impressive absorption properties over larger bumps.

However, around town, where there are lots of little sharp edges like train tracks and pot holes, the ride becomes far less satisfying, jolting over these in a tetchy and unsettled manner. It is as if Citroen engineered the suspension to work best on rural roads, which it does admirably.

But, as we said earlier, the dynamic payback is more than worthwhile if most of your commute is over smooth surfaces or out away from the inner-urban grind.

Safety and servicing

Yet to be tested in Australia, the Cactus scored a disappointing 4-star rating in the European New Car Assessment Program in 2014. While offers good adult and child protection as well as pedestrian impact protection, it fell down somewhat for not offering sufficient driver-assist technology like AEB Autonomous Emergency Braking.

Citroens come with one of the best warranties in the business, thanks to a six-year/unlimited kilometre warranty with six-year roadside assist. Service intervals are at 15,000km or 12 months, with prices varying between $355 and $580, rising to $855 for the sixth year/90,000km interval.

Verdict

The C4 Cactus is a celebration of individuality, efficiency, intelligence, and driving fun. At $27K plus on-roads, it is one of the least expensive, interesting and enjoyable vehicles out there.

But please consider that some of that ingenuity has come at the cost of convenience. No reach-adjustable steering column, rear windows that crack open rather than wind down, no driver’s side auto-down/up power windows, no overhead grab handles, and just one puny interior light up front that leaves your rear passengers in the dark, are annoyances.

Note, though, that none (other than the awkward driving position for some and an at-times busy ride quality) would be deal breakers, particularly if everything else about the Cactus has you under its compelling spell – and there is plenty to love here. Even the most level-headed analyst will admit that the specification and feature levels are more than competitive.

Just learn to enjoy the many plus points of driving a manual again.

So Citroen is back with something really quite different and special. A smash hit in Europe, it deserves to be popular in Australia too.

Rivals

Mazda CX-3 S-Touring 2WD manual from $26,990
Arguably the most pleasing new-gen Mazda this side of the brilliant MX-5, the stylish CX-3 aces almost every aspect of compact SUV life, with the exception of a noticeably vocal engine and limited side vision. A deserved best-seller.

Suzuki Vitara S-Turbo automatic from $29,990 Driveaway
Suzuki is back and how, with a good looking, nimble, comfortable, dynamic, roomy, versatile, and well-equipped compact SUV. The S-Turbo’s 1.4-litre Booster Jet four-pot turbo is a blast, combining strong performance with exceptional refinement and economy. Watch those front wheels losing traction in the wet, though!Fiat 500X Pop manual from $28,000
Big, bulky, but clearly designer-focussed, with one of the Fiat’s best dashboards to date, the 500X is roomy, comfy, and quite premium in look and feel. The rorty 1.4 turbo is fun to wring out too. But the handling is strangely uninvolving and the ride a tad terse.

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