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First drive: C4 ends Citroen's identity crisis

C 4 Credibility: hip styling and keen pricing should give C4 a better edge than its seven-year-old predecessor, the Xsara.

Citroen’s new C4 is its best chance yet to rock the hot premium small car class

26 Apr 2005

CITROEN has a shot at becoming a serious premium small car contender in Australia with its sharply styled C4.

Designed, packaged and priced to appeal to both Citroen newcomers and devotees, the C4 is now on sale after its Melbourne motor show debut in early March.

Sited above the C3 light car, the C4 replaces the seven-year-old Xsara range in the French car-maker’s local line-up.

Its $25,990 opening salvo sees the Citroen up against the VW Golf, Peugeot 307, Renault Megane, Honda Civic hatch, Subaru Impreza and upper-spec Mazda3, Holden Astra and Ford Focus models.

To that end every model includes six airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, air-conditioning, electric windows, remote locking, cruise control and a trick multi-function steering wheel.

The latter pioneers a fixed hub for greater airbag effectiveness that contributes to a five-star Euro ENCAP occupant-safety result. It also rates highest for pedestrian-impact safety. The C4 is available in distinct three and five-door hatchback guises (confusingly dubbed ‘saloon’ and ‘coupe’ respectively) that not only share virtually no body panels from the windscreen pillars back, they’re also equal for total interior space.

Like the Golf and 307 – which donates much of its PF2 platform and mechanicals – the C4 is a transverse-engined front-wheel drive hatchback offering (three) petrol motors and a (single for now) turbo-diesel variation.

The base hatch and Coupe VTR are propelled by a 1.6-litre, twin-cam, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine producing 80kW of power at 5750rpm and 147Nm of torque at 4000rpm.

This 1587cc TU5JP4 unit also serves several 206, C2 and C3 models in the Peugeot/Citroen catalogue.

Next up is the ex-206/307/C5 EW10A 1997cc 103kW/200Nm 2.0-litre twin-cam motor in the five-door C4, while the only 2.0 Coupe is the $36,990 VTS’ 130kW/202Nm variation also found in top-line 206 GTi 180 and 307CC.

This high-revving (to 7000rpm-plus) four-cylinder engine is the heart of the C4 Coupe VTS’ challenge against VW’s $39,990 Golf GTI. It can hit 100km/h from standstill in a claimed 8.3 seconds.

Citroen Australia will also have a tilt at the burgeoning Golf diesel range from about July this year, with its 80kW/240Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder HDI unit featuring a torque-boost device for an extra 20Nm kick when needed.

Although down on some numbers compared to the 77kW/250Nm 1.9 TDI VW unit, Citroen says its real-world performance is "more than comparable" – its claimed 0-100km/h time is 11.2 seconds. This is aided by class-leading aerodynamics (0.28 for the three-door and 0.29 for the five-door).

"(But) we’d love to have the automatic if it were actually available," lamented Citroen Australia General manager miles Williams on the 1.6 HDI’s surprising automatic-transmission no-show.

The lack of a 2.0 HDI turbo-diesel is also a blow, so to speak, for Citroen, as it’s currently only reserved for the prohibitively priced (and manual-only) C4 Exclusive in Europe – thus placing it out of contention against the 2.0 TDI Golfs with their acclaimed dual-clutch DSG automatic gearboxes.

However, whispers indicate a Sensodrive clutchless manual gearbox may be introduced in the HDI diesel models before too long.

So for the moment anyway only the 1.6 and 2.0 five-door petrol hatchbacks offer an auto in lieu of the others’ standard five-speed manual gearbox. It’s a conventional, electronically controlled, driver-adaptive four-speed unit.

Eschewing the trend triggered by the first Focus (and since adopted by the Golf, Mazda3 and Audi A3) for a sophisticated independent rear suspension, a simple flexible torsion beam set-up prevails.

Not the last word in sophisticated technical specification then, the C4’s conventional steel suspension addresses, like the Xsara before it, any lingering notions of Citroen ‘weirdness’ or expensive-to-replace bespoke engineering that has put off more conservative consumers in the past.

Sadly for the handful of long-time Citroen aficionados, you won’t find the hydro-pneumatic fluid suspension, hydraulic self-centring steering and brakes or air-cooled engines of the GS, the 1970s Citroen whose lines the C4 subtly hint at.

Nevertheless, the Citroen does bring new safety innovations to its segment that should help the C4 stand out.

The aforementioned fixed steering wheel hub’s asymmetrical airbag provides better protection while providing a repository for more-closely sited switches and controls for the driver.

Pedestrians also potentially fare better if struck thanks to bumpers designed to scoop people over not under the car, subframe absorbers that lessen knee damage, a strong aluminium bonnet and fewer engine hard points for reduced head trauma, snare-resistant clap-hand wipers, plastic front guards, headlights that yield easily on impact and an optimally angled windscreen.

The upshot is a three-star Euro NCAP pedestrian result, the world’s best for now, along with that five-star occupant rating.

33 center imageOther safety-leaning C4 applications include glare-resistant LCD instrumentation thanks to an ingenious translucent design, cruise control with a dial-up speed limiter, optional bi-Xenon, steerable headlights (shades of the latter Citroen DS here) that work on both dipped and high beam, and front and rear parking radar.

The headlights also have a remote-control function to keep them on in the dark for a period while the occupants make their way indoors safely.

A lane-departure warning system that warns the driver via seat vibrators when the car drifts off course above 80km/h will also be available.

It uses LED to ‘read’ white lines on the road. Still being calibrated for Australia, this device should arrive by year’s end as a $950, non retro-fittable option.

Of more dubious value, but still novel, are the C4’s optional glazed panoramic roof, perfumed air vents with nine changeable scented sachets, and a removable boot compartmentaliser that might come in handy keeping kittens separated.

On the maintenance front the multiplex electrics mean that servicing and fault-finding can be conducted over the internet and is thus connected with the latest diagnostic guides from France.

Citroen Australia forecasts to sell around 900 C4s this year, with the tally rising to 1200 in 2006.

Around 60 per cent of both the five-door and Coupe sales will be the 2.0-litre versions respectively.

When the diesel comes on board it should account for around 10 to 15 per cent of overall C4 sales.

Around 25 per cent of all C4s sold will be the Coupe, which is ahead of rival three-door models’ amounts, which traditionally run up only to about six per cent. However, many don’t include a base three-door like the mid-$20K Coupe VTR.

Many sales are expected to be ‘conquests’ from other makes and models. Since the Melbourne show debut the response has reportedly been strong.

"The C4 is not just bringing existing Citroën customers back to our showrooms, we are seeing a repeat of the European experience, where more than 25 per cent of customers are coming to Citroën for the first time," says Mr Williams.

Case in point: the Coupe VTS is also gunning for the Alfa 147, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series, Honda Integra, Hyundai Tiburon, Mini Cooper, Renaultsport Clio 182, Toyota Celica, VW Beetle, the new Mercedes A150 and forthcoming Astra Coupe.

Sales for the C4’s predecessor, the Xsara, were fairly evenly divided between three and five-door variants since the former joined the latter in 2001.

The Xsara’s best annual sales result was 503 units in 2002, with the annual figures averaging 314 units over its seven year run here.

Print will be the main advertising thrust, with perhaps a few metro cinema spots to take advantage of the ‘Alive With Technology’ UK TV ad (which sees a C4 transform into a dancing robot and back again) that has been so successful as a viral campaign via the Internet.

"The Citroen C4 is a remarkably important car for Citroen in Australia," adds Miles Williams.

"Over the past eight years Citroen’s position in the Australian market has transformed, with a ten fold increase in sales and our model range going from one model to five. Citroen has moved into new market sectors, such as (light) cars with C2 and C3, while the Berlingo has introduced businesses to Citroen’s commercial vehicle expertise.

"Our target for the end of the decade is for Citroen to have one per cent of the Australian market place and it is the C4 that will drive the majority of that growth ... it will ultimately double Citroen sales in Australia," he added.

2005 Citroen C4 pricing:
C4 hatch 1.6 $25,990
C4 hatch 1.6 (a) $27,990
C4 hatch 1.6 HDI $29,990
C4 hatch 2.0 (a) $33,990
C4 Coupe VTR 1.6 $25,990
C4 Coupe VTS 2.0 $36,990

But is it a real Citroen?

THE C4 is significant because it puts Peugeot’s resolve to make Citroen truly individualistic again to its biggest test.

As its representative in the world’s biggest passenger car segment, the C4 must be successful if Citroen is going to continue to grow.

Prior to its 1974 bailout by its one-time archrival, Citroen made madly idiosyncratic cars that were sometimes as beautiful (DS, CX) and iconic (2CV, Traction Avant) as they were often frustratingly over-complicated (GS, SM).

Citroen also went broke more than once maintaining and developing such motoring milestones, with the big 1974 CX finally doing it in just as petrol prices soared.

So by the mid-1980s Peugeot and Citroen’s model phases were twinned, resulting in reliable, dynamically capable and mechanically conventional models like the BX (1982), Xantia (1993) and Xsara (1997).

The thing is, nobody cared for the latter because it was too bland, just when small cars like the last VW Golf and first Ford Focus became interesting. Citroen lost its groove, as the current (2002) Renault Megane proves to its embarrassment.

So somehow then the C4 Xsara-replacement must find its niche somewhere between the cult of the segment-defining Golf, dynamic aptitude of the Focus, the Megane’s visual avant-gardeness and the utter dependability of Toyota’s Corolla.

Drawing from Citroen’s colourful past then seems to be the key, with shades of futurism outside as well as inside (elements of the C4’s dash are surprisingly reminiscent of the early DS).

And while the steel-sprung C4 continues Citroen’s policy of leaving its famed hydro-pneumatic suspension for mid-sized and larger passenger cars (C5 and new C6 gets it), there’s enough high-tech in there to create a buzz – namely the fixed-hub steering, lane-departure warning system and leading safety attributes.

In the end then the C4 is still a sort of compromise that, while not really appealing to die-hard traditional Citroen idealists, should at least push it to prominence in a fiercely competitive small car segment.

To quote a Citroen insider: "The C4 offers high technology with a practical application".

"Practical application" is a metaphor for corporate survival as well as consumer benefit.

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