Here is a car that can serve as a proud example of what the crossover segment stands for, with lots of originality, comfort, a higher riding position and capable of making you feel you’re ready to tackle anything the roads throw into the mix. Yet it also feels like Citroen is finally going back to its roots – fielding a model that could go down in history like so many others.
PSA Peugeot Citroen, everyone knows, is going through a complete company overhaul and is en route to recovery after being supported by China’s Dongfeng and the French state through a large infusion of capital. Economics are a thing of numbers and accountants, but also played a part in the Citroen C4 Cactus’ creation. Chief executive officer Carlos Tavares asked the brands to reposition in order to better cover the market – Peugeot goes upscale, the DS unit becomes independent and Citroen is the affordable brethren. The Citroen C4 Cactus has followed the new philosophy, but anyone taking the wheel for the first time won’t feel that, save for the fact that if he signs the bill it would be lower than for a comparable compact crossover. The cost savings are present around and we’ll point them out later on, but they’re done in a smart, unobtrusive way. And the recipe has proven successful – as the automaker is reporting stellar sales for a vehicle that belongs to a niche – a booming one, but still a niche. And in a mysterious ways, while the crossover is utterly modern in almost every aspect, over the course of the test drive I was sometimes suddenly reminiscent of the childhood rides I had taken in models such as the BX. But don’t worry, that’s only because the C4 Cactus seems to have finally found the misplaced sense of simplicity combined with originality that used to set apart the models ever since the iconic DS was released back in 1955.
Design, Interior and Gadgets
While long in the making – it was first envisioned as a concept back in 2007 at the Frankfurt Motor Show – the C4 Cactus features an appealing, modern and often uncommon design strategy, designed to be “appealing, modern and upbeat”. Those who shun the model from the start because of the odd front – which seems to follow a pattern that can be related to the utterly ugly Fiat Multipla or more recently the Jeep Cherokee – should take the time to see the car in person, as the front actually looks better in reality. It’s not going to give you any first love sentiments as an Aston Martin might do for example, but it’s an integral part of the car’s cool and disconcerting flair. And in the myriad of compact crossovers and SUVs that’s actually a good thing, because I really don’t want to see the booming segment filled with lookalikes like we can see with sedans or hatchbacks.
The design of the vehicle has been turned upside down on numerous occasions, as is the case with such uncommon designs, but I really appreciate the fact that Citroen dared to again lift its originality to high levels. Everything seems to fall in place – from the massive front lamps (the useful ones, not the daylight running LEDs), to the sides dominated by the original and hip plastic Airbumps and sloping roof, to the back that acts as the “traditional” spellbinder that holds everything together. While the off-road capabilities are severely limited, the owner might have the idea of going anywhere because the car is filled with plastic body claddings almost everywhere. They serve a different agenda though – protect the car from the inherent urban encounters with other car’s doors, street poles and other minor “injuries.” And they also build the crossover character, which is in high demand these days everywhere around the world.
As far as the interior goes, we have to signal that our test vehicle was equipped with an interior trim that is offered as an option for 322 euros – the Club Habana upholstery, a combination of fabric and suede that also influences the leather of the dashboard. And you might want to spend those extra bucks to have it because it’s one of the reasons the C4 Cactus might feel as a really different vehicle. My feeling was that I stumbled across a moving lounge that invited to relaxation and reflection. Speaking of the dashboard, it’s the element that will make you see the Cactus as a modern car – almost all buttons and knobs have been replaced by the multifunction seven inch tablet-like infotainment display. It’s a truly multifunction ensemble, because the access to the different features – from navigation to climate settings is made via the touch buttons located on the housing of the display.
I told you about the cost cutting measures that made the C4 Cactus an affordable option in the segment, so let’s get them out of the way. First off, insulation is a bit on the low side, which is apparent when closing the doors (they make a not so beautiful sound), there are lots of black plastics inside – which fortunately also look durable – and the infotainment center could use some software updates to improve touch responsiveness or overall resolution. There are other, under the belt measures that actually had a beneficial influence – such as lighter materials that lifted the car’s fuel efficiency. And there are the oddities – the front side passenger lacks a ventilation orifice – or the rather costly sunroof that has no way of being covered when the summer sun shines with full power. Yet, somehow, all these add up to paint the picture of a car that stands out of the crowd, and if that’s the effect you want to project (on yourself as much as on everyone else), you’ll gladly accept them – I found myself midway through the first day of driving before noticing that the control instruments panel (another nod to the world of technology – because the infotainment system mirrored a tablet and this one mirrored a smartphone) lacked a rev counter.
The trim makes a great impression also because the front and back seats have been designed in a way that intensifies the “lounge” appearance. The driver and passenger seats are reminiscent of armchairs – they are wide and you have a sensation of dive when first using them. That made them utterly comfortable and I was swift to forgive the slim lateral support they offered. And in the back, the three places also looked more like a sofa – aided by the fact that the back rest was not reclining in the usual 60/40 setup. I do have one point to argue – the luggage compartment is not the biggest in the class, at 358 liters, while access to it is not overly effortless – the liftgate is not very big and the high-cutting bumper is going to make life uneasy to a female driver.
As far as technology features and gadgetry is concerned, the C4 Cactus is well prepared to handle itself in today’s world of the connected car – we have the seven inch infotainment center giving access to anything, from DAB radio to applications. The model even featured assisted parking, another plus that would make it an obvious choice for women.
Engine, Transmission and Handling
In tune with today’s need to lower emissions and lift fuel economy and efficiency, the C4 Cactus can be had with a three-cylinder 1.2 liter engine when fueling with gasoline or with a 1.6 liter diesel. Both engines offer various stages of power and we had the entry level 1.2 VTi that delivered just 82 horsepower and was mated to a five-speed manual. While the 82 hp and 118 Nm won’t break any records and when mated to a compact crossover might seem underwhelming, the truth is the C4 Cactus handles well enough. That’s because of those optimizations I mentioned earlier, which ensured the model only weighs 965 kgs – which is less than certain subcompact hatchbacks can achieve with smaller engines. If you’re going to travel with the car fully loaded frequently, a diesel option – with higher torque if not higher power – would be an obvious choice. But if the casual drive includes a family with one kid, the engine setup combined with the low weight is enough to deliver satisfactory performance.
Reaching almost 170 km/h and jumping to 100 km/h in 12,9 seconds won’t win any performance aficionado, but the C4 Cactus is seeking a different kind of clientele – families, singles that like to stand out and of course, the women’s segment. The car only felt underpowered when trying to quickly pass other cars on highways and freeway driving at cruise speeds is still an option. The latter case will bring a rapid increase in overall noise because of the aerodynamics (and that insulation cost cutting), but the ride will remain enjoyable. The smallish engine is nowhere to be heard unless you drive “pedal to the metal” and will deliver very decent fuel consumption figures in and out of the city if the speed range will not exceed 120 km/h. The only impediment in calling the C4 Cactus in this engine version a true city dweller is the lack of a start/stop function – which is available for this engine depending on the market. Nevertheless, the consumption was not very high throughout the test – around 6,6 liters per 100 km with a mix of urban and highway driving.
The C4 Cactus is a true crossover – setting itself apart from the crop of sport utility vehicles in the compact segment by the lack of any terrain assistance or a four wheel drive system – which means you get to ride higher than in a normal hatch or sedan and have the car’s overall “G” center in an elevated position. Additionally, the rather overly assisted steering is not going to communicate a lot with the driver, while the five-speed manual transmission features a long drive for the changer, and also not one that is impressively accurate. Thus, any sportive tendencies will be ruled out after just a few kilometers, letting the river and passengers focus on comfort, which is delivered seamlessly – since the cost cutting moves didn’t seem to target the suspension system as well. The handling is intuitive if you don’t push the game up too much and the suspension is comfortable and most of all silent.
Pro: cool and appealing exterior design, airbump protections look good and seem useful, the interior invites to long journeys and is a statement of Citroen’s ability to deliver simplicity. Interior space is good for the car’s overall dimensions, technology features offer everything we need in terms of connectivity, the engine is silent and not very thirsty.
Against: the five speed manual is not very precise, some of the interior materials show the corner cutting, access to the boot is limited.
Starting price – Citroen C4 Cactus 1.2 VTi Live – 12,995 EUR
Tested Car – Citroen C4 Cactus 1.2 VTi Shine – 15,996 EUR/ w. optional – 19, 074 EUR
Engine: 1.2L three cylinder, gasoline (1199 cc)
Power: 82 HP (60 kW) at 5,750 rpm
Torque: 118 Nm at 2,750 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Dimensions: length – 4,157 mm, width – 1,729 mm, height – 1,480 mm, wheelbase – 2,595 mm
Fuel Tank Capacity: 50L
Trunk Capacity: 358 liters
0 – 100 km/h: 12,9s
Top Speed: 167 km/h
Fuel consumption: urban – 5,6L/100 km, highway – 4L/100 km, average – 4,6L/100 km
Rating: 4.3 / 5