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Future models - Citroen - C4 Cactus

First drive: Citroen’s C4 Cactus charm offensive

Minimalism: A seven-inch touchscreen replaces almost all traditional switchgear in the Cactus cabin.

Citroen returns to form with C4 Cactus but design and charm can’t hide flaws

Citroen logo1 Sep 2015

TASKED with re-establishing the Citroen brand in Australia and many markets around the world, the C4 Cactus is an artful combination of head-turning looks, funky interior and surprisingly fun handling from its oh-so-French wafty suspension tune.

A crossover in the truest sense, the front-drive-only Cactus perfectly straddles the popular small hatchback and light SUV segments, looking bigger in the metal than its 4157mm length, 1729mm width and 1530mm height would suggest – dimensions similar to obvious rivals like the Renault Captur and Nissan Juke.

Despite the prickly, desert-dwelling connotations of the Cactus name, its bulbous shape and squidgy bubblewrap-esque AirBump protective panels make it more akin to a succulent.

On our test car these black panels teamed up with the turquoise ‘Blue Lagoon’ paintwork plus more black on the roof pillars and door mirrors to create a striking and – from the reaction of other road users and passers-by – head-turning vehicle.

We enjoyed the cosseting ride quality, the quiet and refined cruise and addictive three-cylinder thrum from the 81kW/205Nm 1.2-litre turbo-petrol engine. The Cactus was a generally a joy to drive, although it took several days to win us over.

The rubbery, vague, long-throw gearshift provided a poor first impression but soon became second nature while the engine remained punchy as it span happily beyond its 5500rpm power peak and sat comfortably at Britain’s unofficial, turn-a-blind-eye 130km/h-plus motorway speed limit.

A downside of the distinctive protective plastic AirBump panels was their magnet-like attraction for detritus from Britain’s inexplicably grimy roads, meaning our Cactus soon started looking shabby. Perhaps the grey, brown or cream colour options among the extensive list of personalisations would fare better.

The spacious interior is a weight- and cost-saving exercise in hard plastic surfaces, albeit a stylish and well-built one with several clever and attractive flourishes such as the ceiling-mounted airbag that both enables a low-profile dashboard for excellent forward visibility, a sense of airiness and a huge 8.5-litre top-loading glovebox.

Minimalism is the name of the game here, with a simple digital instrument screen displaying only speed, a fuel gauge, a row of warning/status lights and occasional advice on which gear to select (at least on the five-speed manual example we drove).

Compared with brighter, classier colour schemes for the Cactus interior, the unrelenting dark grey and black scheme of the car tested was less convincing, especially on the luxury luggage-inspired glovebox lid and door pulls. We found the lighter grey areas also caused distracting windscreen reflections on sunny days.

Switchgear is limited to traditional wiper and indicator stalks, electric window controls (without one-touch facility), a basic multi-function steering wheel and a row of buttons for demister, hazard lights and parking assistance beneath the central touchscreen.

That is all fine, but like the similar unit in a Peugeot 308, the Cactus touchscreen is distractingly slow, unresponsive, unintuitive and clunky to use on the move. Especially 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. On hot days this fact was not lost on people riding shotgun.

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 air-conditioning outlets, the each of the rear door bins are shaped to take two large (1.5L or larger) drink bottles.

Passengers, both front and rear, became hot and bothered by our test vehicle’s poor air-conditioning performance on British summer days, too, but Citroen Australia assures us that locally delivered cars will have a special hot-climate AC setup.

There will also be an accessory blind for the optional panoramic glass roof – a good job as we wondered how its claimed heat reflective properties would hold up against the Australian sun.

Despite these concerns, seat comfort all round was good and the Cactus was a pleasant place to spend long days travelling British roads, the authorities over which share much with their Australian counterparts in terms of patchy maintenance and penchant for coarse-chip surfaces.

After two weeks of cut-and-thrust urban driving, country road blasting, hauling boxes for a house move and motorway dashing, our Cactus used less than six litres of premium unleaded per 100km. For comparison, the official European combined figure is 4.7L/100km.

By all accounts the turbo-petrol is pick of the Cactus bunch, so it is a shame there is no automatic transmission option. Australians demanding a self-shifter will have to go for the 68kW/230Nm 1.6-litre turbo-diesel, paired with PSA Peugeot Citroen’s ETG six-speed automated manual and paddle shifters.

Helping achieve the Cactus’ low fuel consumption is a lack of weight. The spec sheet accompanying our top-spec test car claimed 1190kg and some variants come in at well under a tonne.

Australia will get a split-fold rear bench for extending the generous 358-litre boot to 1170L, but we doubt it will solve the stepped load area or high boot lip we had to negotiate while loading.

But naturally, low mass aids handling and while the design brief of the Cactus was obviously never to create a thrill a minute, it was a lot of fun exploring the limits of grip from its skinny 17-inch tyres.

The Cactus is quite roly-poly during quick directional changes and the steering is vague but it is possible to feel – and delight in – the shifting mass causing the outside tyres to dig in. It’s like a modern-day 2CV in that respect.

Once this stage is breached, the balance is delightfully neutral and the tyres break away into a gentle and utterly controllable four-wheel drift rather than a sudden refusal to do anything but plough screechingly onwards. It is a different approach to safety-first understeer and highly enjoyable to exploit.

Little wonder, for the Cactus shares its PF1 platform with the sweet-driving DS3 and Peugeot 208, albeit extended to accommodate a longer 2595mm wheelbase closer to that of the C4 hatch from which it derives its prefix.

A couple of questions remain about how the lack of ventilation might compromise the Cactus in Australian conditions and the showroom disadvantage of the petrol version lacking an automatic transmission, not to mention the fact that Aussies now expect a five-star ANCAP safety rating and the Cactus only received four stars from Euro NCAP.

Through the Cactus’ sheer force of personality and driving enjoyment, many of the things we found annoying about it faded into the background after several hundred kilometres, while the recently revealed Australian spec and pricing plans (see separate stories) promise to deliver affordability and competitiveness – something we couldn’t say about the British spec sheet that came with our test vehicle.

Before we drove the Cactus we really wanted to like it. After initial disappointment, it had to try hard to win us over. But it did.

We look forward to welcoming the innovative, individual Citroen we knew and loved back to Australia.

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