The French, I don’t get. Love ‘em of course: mad as snakes and randy as hell, but I just don’t get them. Too many contradictions. Take Gerard Depardieu for instance.
He’s got a head like a Burbank potato, yet, in France, is considered a sex symbol. But also a sex symbol is the knees-meltingly gorgeous Audrey Tatou. (Explain to me one day how they get those two under the one heading.)
Take Citroen. Gave the world the double helical gear (which kinda made modern differentials possible); gave the world the astonishing DS 19 and 2CV, but also gave us the BX19GT which fell apart one millisecond after the sun raked across its panels and melted the interior.
But, to be fair, the BX was light as a feather and went like stink. With adjustable hydro-pneumatic suspension, it was a comfortable and swift inter-city tourer (provided you drove it in the dark – then you couldn’t see the bits falling off and bouncing away down the road).
So, how do you explain such flawed genius as the French? So many contradictions, so much flouting of convention. So damned Gallic.
This brings us to Citroen’s Picasso.
Its packaging is brilliant, yet it’s not. It’s both. It’s filled with great ideas and dopey ones. It’s like they did the good bits in the morning, knocked off a bottle of Bordeaux’s finest with cassoulet over lunch, then finished things off in the afternoon.
Dynamically, it’s the same mixed story. It has fabulous long-travel suspension that, at highway speeds, soaks road imperfections like a magic carpet.
But at low speeds it ‘thucks’. Over small breaks in the road it sounds like you’re carrying a dodgy strut. And it’s a tad irritating. How did they do it? How did Citroen get the ride so right, yet not?
Now before we jump to any conclusions, let’s just pause for a minute and go over things sensibly. It’s important we do, because this car, Citroen’s Picasso, is intoxicating. It’s a little maddening - sure – but also sophisticated, clever and versatile.
It’s one of those cars that when you first see it, because it’s ‘boxy’ and a little odd, you’ll think you won’t like it. But give it time - spend a day or more behind the wheel, and its eccentric Gallic personality may find its way under your skin. It’s also, in its diesel form at least, surprisingly adept on the highway.
Open the door and you’ll be amazed at the sense of space and uncluttered look and feel inside.
There is no handbrake wedged between the seats (replaced instead by an automatic electric parking brake), nor is there a centre console or gear lever - it sits behind the fixed-hub steering wheel.
Driving position and forward view is like sitting at the front of the Starship Enterprise. Citroen calls it “panoramic”, and it is beyond eye-catching. Few cars command such unobstructed visibility and such an expanse of glass – in front, to the corners and above. (Yes, above. The sunvisors slide back to expose the curve of the windscreen into the roof. It’s fabulous at the wheel. )
The dash appears to stretch away and in front, almost to the nose of the car. It’s as big and deep as a park bench. (One day you’ll open the door and find a wino sleeping there.)
But here’s another thing. While the dash has clever stowage boxes up top (big enough to hold an old Stones LP record) and a side compartment that, in some models, holds a six-stacker CD, it is a patchwork of angles, nooks and little plastic corners. There is also a covered cool-box (for the Semillon Blanc) in the console, right about where you might have expected to find the gear-shift.
You can’t help but feel there are too many parts to it; too many bits to break or bend in the sun, or get loose and rattle. And the controls are not where you might expect them – centralised into the centre console – but spread to the corners of the dash. They’re easy enough to use, but finding them is so counter intuitive you’re forever fumbling about.
Sometimes simplicity in form and function is best. (But then, maybe that’s not the Gallic way... maybe – in cars – it’s the quirks that create the personality.)
Less quirky, and definitely one of the more surprising strong points, is the way the Picasso goes about the matter of driving. It soaks up kilometres as effortlessly as Citroens of old. It is impressively quiet: traffic noise, cabin ‘boom’, wind and road roar, and the rude intrusions of the hoi-polloi are all held beyond the glass.
Thanks in part to the Picasso’s ‘acoustic windscreen’, panel sound-damping and hydraulic mounts on the rear axle bushes, mechanical noise is also banished. For interior refinement, it’s more like driving an expensive luxury saloon than a ‘square box’ family bus.
Adding to the appeal in the top-of-the-line model is the willing, free-spinning 2.0-litre HDI diesel engine. With 100kW and 320Nm of torque at just 2000rpm courtesy of Citroen’s latest-generation injection system and variable-geometry turbocharger, and mated to the excellent six-speed automatic gearbox, it shuffles things along very nicely.
It feels very eager under the toe, swallows highway kilometres and hills effortlessly and will push that pregnant armadillo shape to a very respectable top speed of 195 kmh. And, on the open road, return a very family-friendly fuel consumption figure of 5.9 l/100 km. Combined fuel use is claimed to be 6.1 l/100 km, though we averaged 8.1 l/100km on a ‘tight’ motor. (Such a thing would have been unthinkable just five or ten years ago.)
As a bonus, that HDI mill is one of the better sounding diesel units you’ll come across in a day’s driving. Clatter... there is none. When working hard it emits a tuneful, rounded groan. On the highway, just a pleasant hum tells you it’s there.
The soft suspension and high centre of gravity means there is a fair whack of body roll when pushing on. But it’s a bit like older Citroens (and Renaults) here: it can take a lot of ‘corner lean’ before it feels unstable. Some reviewers haven’t twigged to this (or have never driven a Dyanne or Renault 16). But let’s face it brothers and sisters, we’re not talking sports handling, but we are talking a competent handling package for a car of such versatile function.
Wherever you choose to take them (and the Picasso has seating for seven), you will get the family there capably. There are stowage boxes and cup holders everywhere; door bins; sun screens cleverly integrated into the passenger doors; rear luggage cover, and, if you need to carry some serious luggage, the capacity of the back rises to 1951 litres with the seats folded away.
In summary, there is a lot to like about the Picasso. It’s an intriguing car – no doubt you’ll get used to its quirks: its slightly oddball lines, the unusual dash, the unfamiliar ergonomics, its low-speed ‘bumps’ and soft ride. You’ll get used to them, because you’ll enjoy driving it.
Its price though, at the upper-end of its segment, is likely to make the going tough in the showroom. At $39,990 for the 2.0-litre petrol, and $44,990 for the HDi 2.0-litre turbo diesel, the Picasso is competing against the likes of Territory, Commodore Wagon, and Kluger. Citroen will have to sharpen the pencil here.
Of course, for families, the value proposition is helped by the five-star adult occupant rating (Euro NCAP testing), dual front, side and curtain airbags as well as a driver's knee airbag, traction and stability control, ABS with EBD and brake assist.
At the end of the day, the Picasso will have its own buyer – someone who values its differences, its frugal thirst, its effortless highway cruising, and, yes, its quirks. You can’t assess the Picasso on a quick blast. You have to spend some time with it. Do that, and the further you drive, the more you’ll like it – guaranteed.
At the risk of gales of derision from some of you out there, it is one of the more surprising cars we have driven this year. It’s one of the few that, when we handed it back, it was impossible to avoid the thought, “Heck, I could live with one of these for domestic duties… be useful, and good to drive.”
The Insider's Big Statement
“Driving the Picasso, you know you are driving the future. Part wagon, part family bus, part urban commuter, this car makes a lot more sense than those stupid SUVs that clutter the roads outside schools and kindergartens. Fuel prices will ensure that the ‘penny will drop’ – sooner rather than later - for young Mums and family drivers. They could do a lot worse than the clever, capable, individual, Citroen Picasso. Provided Citroen does something about that price.”
- The performance of the HDi diesel
- The sound the diesel makes (and the absence of intrusive clatter)
- Its magic-carpet highway ride and near-silent cabin
- Its ability to effortlessly soak up kilometres
- The amazing panoramic view from the driver’s seat
- Brilliant seven-seater packaging
- The fiddly style to the dash
- Funny little gear stalk (at the top of the wheel hub)
- Suspension ‘thunking’ at low speed on bridge breaks and road joins
- The counter-intuitive ergonomics and controls
- It’s not Citroen’s most stylish offering
|Engine:||2.0 litre (1997cc) diesel HDI|
|Valve system:||DOHC 4 valves per cylinder|
|Fuel system:||Common rail direct diesel injection|
|Output:|| 100kW and 320Nm - HDI |
(103kW and 200Nm -16V petrol)
|Performance:||Ample quick enough (untimed)|
|Bore and Stroke:||85.00 mm × 88.00 mm|
|Transmission:|| AM6 six-speed auto - HDI |
(AL4 four-speed auto - 16V petrol)
|Consumption:||9.5 l/100km (claimed combined average)|
|Brakes:|| 4-wheel discs |
Front: 302mm ventilated discs
Rear: 268mm discs
(ESP, ABS, EBD, EBA)
|Suspension:|| Front: MacPherson strut, lower wishbones |
Rear: flexible transverse beam and anti-roll bar
|Wheels and tyres:|| 17inch Roskilde alloys, tyres 215/50 R17 |
(16inch steel, tyres 215/55 R16)
|Price:|| HDI: $44,990 RRP |
(2.0 litre 16V: $39,990 RRP)