The SUV, universally adored around the world, has finally taken an unrelenting hold on Europe, driving manufacturers like Citroen to ditch their compact and space efficient mini MPVs in favour of more adventurous compact SUVs.
The new Citroen C3 Aircross has been designed with global appeal in mind and takes the place of the roomy C4 Picasso minivan in the manufacturer’s range. The goal is to create a vehicle with genuine sales growth potential for the brand, and with the rampant success of small crossover vehicles that won’t be hard to do.
Citroen invited TMR to Corsica, off the southeast coast of France, to experience the brand’s newest compact model - the latest in a revitalised range of compact Citroen models.
Vehicle Style: Small SUV
Price: $35,000 (estimated) plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 81kW/205Nm 1.2-litre 3cyl turbo petrol | 6sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 5.6 l/100km
The new Citroen C3 Aircross wears a familiar face, part of the brand's new design direction, with themes adapted from cars like the C4 Cactus and new C3 hatch. As an SUV it also stands taller, more upright, and wears the usual plastic protective cladding expected of the class.
Personalisation is the key, which is why mix and match colourways for the main body, roof, and accents (including the roof rails, headlight surrounds, and C-pillar louvres) are available in everything from subtle white and silver to searing high-vis orange.
European specification models that we drove in Corsica also featured bright and colourful interiors with expressive use of fabric elements on the dash and doors, another new Citroen hallmark, though it’s too early to say which variations Australia will get.
If you’re impatient to get your hands on Citroen’s new baby crossover, Australian customers will face a lengthy wait. While European sales have just started, mid 2018 looks like the most likely starting date for the funky compact crossover locally.
Citroen claims the C3 Aircross is the most spacious and flexible car in its class, and packaging was a number one priority when Citroen’s designers set to work replacing a small minivan with a crossover.
To ensure interior versatility, the rear seats can be slid up to 15 centimetres and reclined, a feature that’s usually reserved for larger SUVs. The front passenger seat can also fold flat for a load length of up to 2.4 metres.
Considering the effort put into cargo space, it’s disappointing to find that Citroen has ditched front cupholders, instead opting for a wireless charge pad which techy owners are sure to love - right up until they buy their first can of Coke on the run.
As with Citroen’s previous new introductions, the C4 Cactus and C3 hatch, the C3 Aircross follows the same interior design principles, with an extraordinary selection of fresh fabric trims and colour combinations available.
Similarly the interior goes without most of the usual buttons that live in a regular car interior, replaced by a 7.0-inch touchscreen that controls climate control, audio, navigation, and vehicle settings as well as housing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.
The layout for the instrument panel is clear and classic, and while there’s a large colour display between the speedo and tacho, most critical info can be viewed on the colour head-up display which even remains visible through polarised glasses where most other similar systems don’t.
Citroen has also applied some of its ‘Advanced Comfort’ features to the C3 Aircross, which results in soft and comfortable seats that made it easy to put in a couple of hours behind the wheel.
The seating position is naturally high thanks to the SUV stance, and forward visibility is good, although the rear quarter window louvres do eat into what would otherwise be extra viewing space out the sides.
ON THE ROAD
When the C3 Aircross does eventually arrive in Australia it will share its 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine and six-speed automatic with other small models in the range, including the C4 Cactus and C3 hatch.
Good for 81kW and 205Nm the little engine is a ‘just right’ fit for the class, and in the C3 Aircross feels a touch more lively than the similarly-powered Toyota C-HR, though thanks to its slightly heavier weight the Aircross never feels as nimble.
Unlike the C3 hatch version, the Aircross does a better job of keeping noise and vibrations from the character-filled engine out of the cabin, making it a more serene cruiser.
Beneath the surface, the Aircross uses a newer platform than the hatch, co-developed with GM, with obvious improvements to refinement and noise suppression factored into the structure.
The narrow and constantly winding Corsican roads also revealed a very light steering weight, but with surprising responsiveness, making the little SUV feel every bit as agile from behind the wheel as class benchmarks like the Mazda CX-3 and Toyota C-HR.
A final verdict on ride will have to wait for a thorough analysis on Aussie roads, but across similar surfaces and conditions the C3 Aircross once again showed its dedication to comfort, riding out patchy sections of road with a plush ride quality that’s sure to impress.
Interestingly, despite utilising a traditional torque converter automatic, the six-speed transmission in the C3 Cactus tends to behave more like a dual-clutch auto, with a slight pause before engaging from standstill, but less low-speed jitteriness.
Citroen also had an 88kW diesel version on hand paired with a manual transmission. The engine itself is an outside chance for Australia, and although it’s smooth and quiet with a decent shove of torque, the narrow power band makes it less flexible than it should be.
The manual transmission is also a decent one, with a well weighted clutch and free gearshift, but as Aussie buyers continue to shun manuals don’t expect to see it locally.
For when the going gets tough, the petrol C3 Aircross comes with Grip Control to further its moderate off-road abilities even if it is only available with a front-drive configuration.
Focussed on the stability control system, Grip Control allows either more wheel slip for progress in sandy conditions, or tighter control to allow controlled takeoffs on ice, with settings for mud and gravel too. Downhill Assist Control is also part of the package.
Although Grip Control won’t magically allow the C3 Aircross to tackle tough off-road packages, it can at least help out over light-duty variable terrain.
Citroen’s toughest trick will be getting the C3 Aircross comfortably positioned within its range. Although the C4 Cactus is bigger, the Aircross is likely to follow the lead of the recently announced C3 hatch and come highly-specified with premium pricing.
Unlike in Europe, where Citroen has positioned itself as an accessible brand, Australians continue to be served a near-premium price and while final details are a long way from being announced Citroen’s local distributer has suggested that the Aircross could sit above the $29,990 plus on-road price of the Cactus automatic in Australia.
That’s a shame, as where fellow small SUVs often start at no more than the $25k mark, Citroen looks to have turned its back on volume once again. Buyers that are prepared to spend that kind of money will no doubt be impressed by what they get, but they will remain in an exclusive group.
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