Car reviews - Citroen - C4 - 5-dr hatch range
Ride and quietness, ambience and quality feel of spacious interior, steering, brakes, fun to drive, value for money
Room for improvement
Petrol engine’s lack of torque, clutch travel, fiddly stereo, silly digital rev-counter
11 Oct 2011
AS A replacement for the dull Xsara, the original Citroen C4 re-wrote the rulebook with its edgy styling and wacky interior with a fixed-hub steering wheel and a central instrument display flanked by dash-top glove compartments.
It also brought a new, younger breed of customer to the brand, helped by publicity generated through the car’s multiple successes in the World Rally Championship.
On first impressions Citroen appears to have gone a bit timid with a more mainstream look and feel for the second-generation C4, which looks comparatively anonymous inside and out.
It’s cheaper than before, opening at $22,990 for either a low-spec automatic-only Attraction variant with a 1.6-litre petrol engine or a more generously equipped mid-spec Seduction version (we see where you’re going with the nomenclature Citroen) with the same engine linked to a five-speed manual – the variant tested here.
That new lower price point – a cool $4000 less expensive than the cheapest previous model – puts the C4’s crosshairs on European rivals like the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Renault Megane, not to mention the related 308 from sister company Peugeot.
All C4s have a maximum five-star Euro NCAP safety rating and come with six airbags, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake assist (with automatic hazard light activation under hard braking), traction control, air-conditioning, a six-speaker sound system with auxiliary input and cruise control with speed limiter.
The Seduction spec car we drove adds 16-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth, USB, hill-holder, foglights with cornering function, trip computer, exterior temperature display, rear privacy glass, leather multi-function steering wheel and ‘favourite’ speed memories for the cruise control.
Mature is a word often bandied about to describe the new C4, which could be interpreted negatively as boring.
It has certainly become less distinctive, but is by no means unattractive. It has a thoroughly modern-looking, quite aggressive front-end with hints of Hyundai’s Veloster coupe about it while the rear is reminiscent of an Audi A3, resulting in a classy and imposing look.
It is easy to feel at home in the light and airy cockpit without too much meddling with the seat and steering wheel position. The seats are comfortable and supportive and most major controls fall easily to hand.
Though creating a car that is smaller than a Ford Focus but larger than a Volkswagen Golf, Citroen’s engineers have created a bit of a Tardis with the C4 as in the back there is plenty of headroom and legroom for even tall passengers to sit behind equally tall front-seat occupants.
The generous 380-litre boot is up there with the class best and is almost perfectly rectangular, with hooks for shopping bags and indented areas with elastic straps for securing other items.
Where the radical, technology-packed layout of the previous C4 was undermined by a disappointing plasticky finish, the new car has taken a considerable step upmarket, with acres of soft-touch material covering the top of the one-piece dashboard and instrument binnacle.
Slightly harder stuff is found on the door trims and lower down hard plastic can be found, but its solidity, quality and texture is impressive.
Chrome trim on the steering wheel, air vents and interior door handles appeared to be fashioned from real metal, adding an air of class, although the silver-coloured highlight strips on the door panels are obviously painted plastic.
The two identical cars we drove felt well-built and exhibited no trim squeaks or rattles.
The clever claw-shaped headrests offer plenty of adjustment and descend with a pleasantly premium damped action, mirrored by that of the grab handles.
Rotary controls for ventilation and audio functions are pleasantly weighted for a quality feel, although some of the buttons are a bit flimsy.
Opening the promisingly large glove compartment lid reveals a disappointingly small storage area, with at least a third of the space rendered unusable by an encroaching black plastic cube that perhaps contains some electronics.
There are storage bins on all four doors, a cubby-hole beneath the central screen, cup-holders and storage recesses in the centre console and map pockets on the back of the front seats.
On the move, the C4 is impressively quiet, with road noise, wind noise and engine noise effectively suppressed. The conventionally sprung ride is luxury limousine smooth without ever being bouncy or wallowy – even on typically hard low-rolling-resistance tyres.
Never feeling crashy, unperturbed by potholes, patchwork road surfaces or even mid-corner bumps, the C4 heralds a return to trademark Citroen waftability and shows the brand is back on top form when it comes to producing cars that glide effortlessly over bumps.
Cruising about and in traffic, the 1.6-litre petrol engine is smooth and quiet – and all but silent at idle, which initially fooled us into believing the car had idle-stop.
Once a hill is encountered, though – as many were in our drive in and around Sydney – the 88kW/160Nm engine’s lack of low-down torque requires it to be frequently revved well above 3000rpm, at which point it makes itself heard with a high-pitched mechanical thrash.
It is a far cry from super-flexible forced-induction units as found under the bonnets of Volkswagen-group vehicles.
As a result, hilly areas like Sydney really do require frequent stirring of the stick to keep up progress, with ascents regularly requiring a lower gear to be selected and too often a drop of two cogs on the widely-spaced five-speed ’box are necessary – meaning it’s not the kind of engine drivers can set and forget on the cruise control.
Unfortunately there were not enough diesel C4s to go around at the launch in Sydney, nor were there any automatic variants on offer, including the auto-only 1.6-litre turbo petrol only available in the top-spec Exclusive variant.
With a six-speed manual transmission, the 82kW/270Nm diesel engine carries a $4000 premium over the attractively priced $22,990 Seduction we drove.
The consensus among those who had the opportunity to sample it was that the diesel is worth the money, being quiet and refined like a petrol while offering the mid-range torque to conquer Sydney’s undulating terrain with ease.
Diesel buyers should be able to claw back some of the extra initial cost at the pump for it consumes as little as 4.2 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres on the combined cycle with the six-speed EGS automatic transmission (a $1000 option) or 4.6L/100km for the manual whereas the petrol version uses 6.2L/100km with manual or 6.9L/100km with the four-speed auto.
Forward visibility is refreshingly good, the angle of the slim A-pillars reducing blind-spots. Large and effective door mirrors help rearward visibility and an over-the-shoulder glance for lane changes is not too badly obstructed by the B-pillar.
Flagship Exclusive variants get a safety-boosting blind spot monitoring system that warns the driver if they are about to drift into a car driving beside them.
Owing to the oval aperture and height of the rear windscreen and thick C-pillars, accurate reversing can be a challenge, especially as parking sensors were not fitted to the mid-level Seduction-spec car we tested.
In typical French fashion, brakes on the C4 have a sharp initial bite that takes getting used to and can result in jerky round-town driving, but once accustomed it is possible to appreciate the great pedal feel and rapid retardation on offer.
However, under emergency braking it is easy to catch the accelerator pedal shaft with the sole of your shoe, which is a potentially dangerous situation if the clutch has not been simultaneously depressed.
Although the C4 has a conventional mechanical handbrake, it also has an automatic hill-holder to prevent roll-back when attempting hill starts.
On the subject of clutch pedals, the biting point on both petrol C4s we tried arrived too far up the pedal travel, making it hard to synchronise left and right feet for a smooth take-off – an annoying trend we have noticed in several new vehicles of late.
Another footwell-related issue is the lack of a footrest, although there is ample space for one beside the clutch pedal.
The gearshift – which, thanks to the engine’s lack of torque, requires constant use – has a long throw with a slightly vague, rubbery feel that resulted in a fluffed gear change or two.
To encourage economical driving, the digital rev-counter – which is slow to react to changes in engine speed and generally inferior to a conventional analogue dial – provides a reminder when to shift up a gear, but too often we found following its advice on undulating roads resulted in the engine labouring and the car slowing down.
While enjoying the C4’s smooth ride, we expected this to result in compromised handling but the electric steering is impressively well-weighted, accurate and responsive – although not so communicative – and there is a surprising amount of fun to be had when the going gets twisty.
The tyres hang on well under hard cornering and the comfortable ride does not translate into excessive body roll, making the C4 feel safe, stable and secure.
Its rear wheels – connected to what Citroen claims is the best torsion-beam suspension set-up in the marketplace as opposed to the more sophisticated multi-link arrangements in the Focus and Golf – can be easily encouraged to safely and controllably squirm and slide around at relatively low speed.
In this area the C4 provides a more rewarding experience than some overly competent competitors that only start to become fun at license-jeopardising velocity or slap the wrists of the enthusiastic driver with the too-early application of electronic safety aids.
No fewer than four thumb-wheels adorn the lightly padded but comfortable leather multi-function steering wheel.
In addition there are also 12 buttons on the wheel, meaning C4 drivers can control almost everything without removing their hands from the wheel, provided, as far as we could tell, the stereo or relevant function is already turned on.
The central control panel in which the stereo and other functions are found has too many buttons and is not intuitive to use. Once we found the menu for adjusting the bass and treble from their default settings, the sound quality went from painfully tinny to satisfyingly meaty.
We recommend the C4 buyer spends time before setting off getting familiar with how it works because it can be frustrating – not to mention dangerously distracting – if use by the uninitiated is attempted on the move.
A large, easy-to-read digital speedometer display lives within the orbit of the analogue dial and is the highlight of the instrument binnacle, which loses points for the pointlessly digital rev-counter and a fuel readout that only seems to display the amount of petrol in the tank and how many kilometres to empty, with the trip computer being a separate function accessible from the central screen.
The effective cruise control and speed-limiter – with a memory function for frequently-encountered speed limits – operate independently, meaning it is not possible to set the cruise control and have a speed-limiter at the same time and neither system can apply the brakes when gathering momentum downhill.
Previously a slightly expensive left-field choice, the Citroen C4 has matured into an attractive, competitively priced quality small hatch that is enjoyable to drive and comes with decent levels of equipment (if you avoid the basic automatic-only Attraction variant) and the promise of high technology (if you opt for the top-spec Exclusive variant).
We can forgive some of the C4’s flaws as French charm, especially given its party trick of delivering on old Citroen values of fantastic ride comfort and a quiet driving experience.
Coupled with the practicality value of having enough interior space and luggage capacity to keep families happy, there is a lot to like about this car. We can’t wait to drive the rest of the line-up.
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