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First Oz drive: C3 seizes sales for Citroen

Good looker: The C3 is a stand-out in city traffic because of its pleasing style.

Citroen has high hopes for its C3 hatch which goes on sale this week

3 Dec 2002

CITROEN is on the way back in Australia and the rounded little five-door hatchback you see here is a key part of the turnaround.

It is called the C3 and this week as examples roll into Citroen's 20 local dealers it becomes the first mini-car the French company has offered for sale in Australia. Vitally, it offers Citroen a sub-$20,000 passenger car entry point here.

Okay it is by only $10, it does not take into account on-road costs and it's only for the base model 1.4-litre SX manual. But $19,990 is a powerful advertising tool that you can bet Citroen Australia will exploit in 2003 when it racks up its 80th continuous year selling cars in Australia.

Next year the company expects to sell 1000 C3s here - it has already pre-sold 200 - and be the big seller in a grand total of 2800-3000 sales for the range, with the rest pretty equally split between the updated Berlingo commercial vehicle which gets here in February, Xsara small car and Citroen C5 mid-sizer.

Just a few years ago a figure like that would have seemed impossible. Consider that in the sales desert that was the late 1990s, Citroen managed 201 sales in 1996, 302 in 1997, 461 in 1998, 562 in 1999 and 652 in 2000. Last year the upturn was underway with 1005 sales and this year the expectation is the marque will top 1700 sales.

So what is it about the C3 that has Citroen predicting it will drag it the next big step up the sales pile? Is it a revolutionary take on the small car? A prescient mechanical concept evoking Citroens of the past? Or even a styling adventure that has some scratching their heads and others scrawling their names on cheques?Not really. While the rounded profile launched at the Geneva show last March vaguely evokes the 2CV, one of Citroen's most famous models, it is in fact a very straight-forward small car of the modern genre.

Citroen is actually part of PSA Peugeot Citroen and Peugeot is definitely the bigger player in the partnership. That means platform and componentry sharing. So while the C3's shape is interesting, underneath is the new Platform 1, which will underpin all the group's entry level cars, including Citroen's forthcoming C2 three-door hatchback.

So there's no quirkiness, just a straight-forward MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension. The 1.4-litre engine we get here first is mounted transverse driving the front wheels - and pretty slowly too as indicated by the figures.

The single overhead camshaft eight-valve unit shared with the Berlingo produces just 55kW at 5400rpm and 115Nm at 3300rpm. That translates to a glacial 14.2 0-100km/h claimed time. That's with the five-speed manual gearbox. Go for the four-speed auto and settle in for 17.7 seconds before three figures are reached.

Unsurprisingly, the combined fuel figures of 6.2L/100km for the manual and 7.1L/100km for the auto make far more appetising reading.

The 83kW 1.6-litre engine due to reach these shores around mid-2003 looks far more interesting. That engine will be available only with a five-speed sequential gearbox called Sensodrive, which is based on the Magnetti Marelli Selespeed sytem seen in Alfa Romeos. Expect a price around $23,990.

A 1.4-litre turbo-diesel is also under consideration for Australia. While it's an intriguing prospect, don't expect it anytime soon.

Other important aspects of the mechanical package include variable assistance electric rack and pinion power steering, disc brakes all-round, 15-inch wheels and a spartan - for this age - kerb weight of 1005kg for the 1.4 manual and 1039 for the 1.4 auto.

Over the top of all this is a body designed by Citroen's Styling Centre which is almost as high (1519mm) as it is wide (1667mm), while it is only 3850mm long. Wheelbase is 2460mm.

For its size, the C3 has excellent luggage capacity - 305 litres with the rear seats in place and as much as 1355 litres with the rear seats removed. Citroen is making a big thing of the optional Moduboard, which separates the boot into compartments for day-to-day use.

So what's the equipment level like. The base model manual-only SX kicks off the line-up with air-conditioning, dual airbags, remote central locking, six-speaker audio including CD, power windows and mirrors.

Go up to $20,990 and the C3 Exclusive manual and you can add ABS brakes with EBD, front foglights and velour trim. The auto version of Exclusive adds $2000 and climate control air-conditioning.

So how does that compare with the competition in the "premium light" category? We would call it better value than the Volkswagen Polo, but perhaps a touch behind the Renault Clio, Peugeot 206 and the Honda Jazz. The car still coming that could shake all this up, of course, is the Mazda2, which is launched this week.

Citroen C3 SX 1.4 manual: $19,990
Citroen C3 Exclusive 1.4 manual: $20,990
Citroen C3 Exclusive 1.4 auto: $22,990Options pricing
Leather trim $2500
Sunroof $1500
Metallic paint $400
Moduboard $100 (estimate)


STYLE over substance. It's a lot of what the C3 is about. It's got a fair amount of the former and some of the latter. But not as much of the latter as we would like.

Start with the style. There's no doubt the C3 is a good looker. From almost any exterior angle there's a cohesiveness to it that's very pleasant.

The potential slabbiness of the sides is broken up by large bump strips and the rising window line, the Ford-like wheel arches add strength and the way the roof curves in an unbroken line from A to C-pillar is neat and effective.

Perhaps from dead straight-on it's a bit van-ish with its slatted grille, big headlights and tall-boy attitude, but there's no doubt C3 is really distinctive in traffic.

Inside there's also been a real attempt to differentiate the C3 from the small car norm. It's bright and cheery with a bunch of helpful touches.

They include the very simple but effective air vents, height and reach adjustable steering wheel, big height-adjustable driver's seat and storage compartments that include unde-seat trays.

But it's not as cohesive and impressive as the exterior. The instrument pod is dominated by a digital speedo, which means the very narrow curved tacho that sits at the top of the display is hard to read - particularly because the binnacle does such a poor job of shielding reflections.

The Clarion radio has fiddly controls and there's the hard and cheap-feeling plastics - no slush-moulding here - that include a flimsy hinge arrangement for the top glovebox. Poor finish of trim edges and bare metal in the boot also weren't up to scratch.

Interior space is also a curious mixture. There's plenty of headroom, of course, but rear seat passage for adults would be a painful and hopefully very short experience.

Seating one six-footer behind the other meant the rear seat passenger actually had to splay his knees either side of the seat back, grinding the outer leg into the hard plastic of the window winder. Ouch!The drive experience is a similarly conflicted experience. The best of its is the suspension, which is long-legged and capable, rarely thrown off line by the same rough and rugged northern Sydney roads which had us battling the Honda Jazz a few weeks ago.

But the C3 is no more than solid and reliable in terms of chassis dynamics. The steering is heavier than we would have expected for a car like this, which isn't at all a problem, but it is devoid of feel and has lack of linearity at higher speeds that made accurate cornering a challenge. At around town speeds there's no dramas whatsoever.

And around town speeds is what the C3 is best at. The engine is flat-knacker keeping up with the pace, at its best once its got a few revs on board at its worst when asked to accelerate from low in the range. It is nicely quiet though, only getting intrusive and a little breathless above 5000rpm.

It mates to a manual gearbox that is a rubbery, two-stage, long-shift affair that also lacks feel and decisiveness. The clutch also feels vague and the throttle has quite a dead zone.

The brake pedal is much more responsive - too much so for one journalist who managed to activate the EBD system and its hazard flashers during one moderately hard stop in traffic.

The auto box slows things down further, but proved itself a reasonably decisive and capable unit in city traffic, You'll find yourself using the Sport mode for extra revs and the semi-manual shift as well at times to stir things along.

So we do we like the C3? Unsurprisingly the answer is yes and no. It's a cute and cuddly looking thing with a positive spirit and eagerness that will endear it to fashion conscious buyers who aren't on a tight budget.

But it is let down by the design and execution issues we've already mentioned. As significant as C3 is for a number of reasons, our first experience indicates it does not advance the small car genre in any important way.

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