FROM THE COMPANY WITH A PROUD HISTORY OF VEHICLE INNOVATION, THE 2016 CITROEN C4 CACTUS DOES THINGS DIFFERENTLY.
Evoking the minimalist but rugged 2CV, this modern interpretation seeks to deliver simple but clever weight (and resource) saving solutions, packaged into the body of an SUV.
Not just any body though, but one that, thanks to its AirBump plastic cladding, is able to resist the inevitable small knocks and bumps of city-living, setting itself up as a truly urban-ready compact.
Vehicle Style: Compact SUV
Price: $26,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 81kW/205Nm 1.2 3cyl turbo petrol | 5sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 4.7 l/100km | Tested: 5.8 l/100km
Although it looks generously proportioned in photographs, the Citroen C4 Cactus sits on a surprisingly compact footprint.
It’s also the lightest vehicle in its class, over 170kg lighter than a CX-3 and 310kg lighter than a Mitsubishi ASX - again only the Vitara comes close on weight, but even it weighs 55kg more.
Thanks to the small dimensions and low weight, the C4 Cactus is able to run a smaller than expected engine, a 1.2 litre three-cylinder turbo, almost as powerful as the Suzuki, but more torquey than the Mitsubishi and Mazda 2.0 litre engines.
The only problem for Australian buyers could be that the C4 Cactus petrol, despite its clever packaging and engineering, only comes with a five-speed manual transmission, with auto buyers having to opt for the diesel variant.
But with a bold and confident look, and a daring new interior, the C4 Cactus is bound to attract plenty of attention from small SUV shoppers, so we jumped behind the wheel for a closer analysis.
- Standard equipment: Cloth seat trim, climate control, leather steering wheel, digital instrument cluster, front power windows, rear pop-out windows, rain-sensing wipers, auto-on headlights, rear privacy glass, cruise control with speed limiter, 17-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen, USB and aux inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, DAB+ digital radio, six-speaker audio
- Options fitted: Black alloy wheels $1000, glass roof $1250, C-pillar “Cactus” decal $100
- Cargo volume: 358 litres minimum, 1170 maximum
While the trend is to bombard drivers with information via ever-larger multi-function instrument displays, Citroen has done the exact opposite with the C4 Cactus.
In front of the driver sits a petite LCD display offering just two measurements: speed and fuel, another tip of the hat to the simple 2CV. There’s also a segment for the speed limiter and gear-shift indicator but that’s all.
And its refreshing, taking the Cactus back to a time when the task at hand was driving, not monitoring a trip computer, or navigation instructions, or the tuning to the audio. In the Cactus, those functions are there, they’re all handled by the 7.0-inch centre touchscreen.
The simplified interior sees clutter entirely removed. There is no barrage of buttons or controls, just neat, simple surfaces with a centre screen that handles almost all the heating, navigation, radio, and trip computer functions.
That doesn’t mean the interior is sparse, far from it in fact, with the vintage luggage-inspired dash setting off one of the most innovative interior looks for a long time.
Thanks to its manual gear lever and regular handbrake the C4 Cactus does without the lounge-like front bench seat of the automatic diesel, but the seats, in inviting two-tone fabric, are still modelled after the comfort and space of an armchair.
Even though it sits on a compact footprint the rear seats offer more space than you might expect. There’s enough room for long-legged passengers, and plenty of headroom too, although the narrow width makes seating three-across a struggle.
To keep things simple, easy to produce, and lightweight the C4 Cactus does without a passenger air-vent or rear face-level vents. The optional glass roof also goes without a blind of any kind, and while the thermal glass does reduce heat and UV transmission, it isn’t always completely effective.
France can be hot in the south, but if you have doubts about it coping in Australia's summer, best you test drive it on a hot day.
The rear doors are able to hold a massive amount of items thanks to dual door-pockets, but the windows are pop-out style and don’t roll down, again to save weight. That might be a deal breaker for young families, but anyone only occasionally using the rear seat won’t mind.
While the build quality and fit and finish of our test car were precise, there is a definite sense of lightness to the interior. And, despite the top-shelf looks, the interior plastics in some areas, like the upper doors, aren’t as well finished as we would normally expect.
Boot space won’t be a problem thanks to a hefty 358 litre capacity with the rear seats up, and 1170 litre with them folded. It is worth noting though that the seat backs don’t fold flat, making the available space a little less flexible.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 81kW/2015Nm turbocharged 1.2 litre three-cylinder petrol
- Transmission: Five-speed manual, front wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Brakes: Front ventilated discs, rear drums
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering, turning circle 10.9m
- Towing capacity: 825kg braked, 545kg unbraked
The holistic approach taken by Citroen to the C4 Cactus’ development means that while the engine may only be small, the overall weight of the vehicle has been scaled down to accordingly.
A lighter car is not only quicker to accelerate, but also requires less fuel burnt bringing it up to speed, and requires less energy to brake to a stop.
That’s not to say that the C4 Cactus is a traffic light hero, it takes a relaxed approach to all-out speed, but maintains a robust mid-range, more useful for urban commuting.
It really does feel lighter from behind the wheel, a sensation backed up by light but responsive steering, and a pleasantly light gearshift action and clutch pedal.
I don’t think I’ve ever described a vehicle as being cheerful to drive before, but the C4 Cactus truly is a cheery little thing to cruise about in.
With 81kW of power at 5500rpm and 205Nm of torque from 1500Nm, the engine is at its strongest down low and can happily amble about town calmly, quietly and with just the right amount of zoom.
With no tachometer in the cabin it’s hard to know exactly how hard the little three-cylinder engine is working, but there’s no need to wring it out, and the gear shift indicator suggests you shift earlier, rather than later.
But, despite the urban-friendly leaning, the C4 Cactus isn’t out of place on the open road. There’s a little bit of tyre noise, but at the straight-ahead the agile steering settles down, and engine noise is low.
Long travel suspension tuned towards comfort sees the C4 Cactus blot out the worst of what Australia’s variable conditions can throw at it; from speed humps to potholes the C4 Cactus can comfortably absorb most road imperfections.
That comfort bias means that there’s more body roll through bends, and plenty of front-end dive under heavy braking, but it’s so rare to find a car that’s tuned for comfort that those side effects are forgivable.
To match that easy-going driving feel, the gearshift is a little loose through its shift gate, and there’s a hint of vagueness from the clutch pedal at the top of its throw - but, since the C4 Cactus isn’t set up to race, it all feels about right.
Of course, to really do well in the Australian market Citroen desperately needs a proper automatic. While the automatic transmission available in the diesel Cactus is something of a solution, a well-mannered petrol auto would really push sales along.
ANCAP rating: The Citroen C4 Cactus has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Six airbags including curtain, front side, driver, and a roof mounted front passenger bag that also inflates over the centre tablet in an effort to increase passenger protection, stability control, ABS brakes, electric rear door child locks, front seatbelt pretensioners, tyre pressure monitoring, rear park sensors, and a reversing camera are all standard.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
While the C4 Cactus is certainly distinctive, it doesn’t match the all-out brash looks of the Nissan Juke, and while that car is available with a pair of punchy turbo petrol engines, it’s the dated interior that lets it down.
The Suzuki Vitara sticks to a lightweight chassis and small engine, and, like the Cactus, is a better drive than you might first think. Both it, and the Renault Captur offer a range of cool colour choices and personalisation options to suit your style.
Solid value hunters might turn towards the Mitsubishi ASX; it’s getting on in years now, and has nowhere near the flair or style of the new up-and-comers in the compact SUV segment, but it represents strong value.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The attention grabbing looks mean you’ll either love or hate this newest Citroen. In our time with the car, passengers and onlookers were split down the middle.
Few can find fault however with the idea of a car that can protect itself from errant shopping trolleys, universally praising the clever AirBump system's functionality, if not its looks.
But - and this is a big but - the value side of things is just a little bit wide of the mark. It's the price that lops half-a-star off our rating.
Yes, the C4 Cactus is well equipped, and boldly styled, but at $26,990 the car needs to come with an automatic transmission at least, or be a few thousand dollars cheaper. (Just put on your hard face when talking to your dealer, it's worth the effort on this one.)
And in Australia where urban buyers demand easy-to-commute automatic transmissions, the lack of an auto and petrol engine combination will do the C4 Cactus the most harm.
Therein lies the real shame, as this bright little package deserves the attention of Australian buyers. We really like innovative, frugal and pared-back engineering approach.
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