Succulent: Citroen C4 Cactus review

citroen logo

Paradigm shifts don’t frequently occur in the car industry, a sector so conservative that it still thinks The Rolling Stones are what the young kids are listening to. Which is why it’s taken the Cittoen C-Cactus six years to make the transition from coo-able concept car to double-take road merchant.

When it was first announced, back in 2007, the C-Cactus concept was so radical that it appeared to have a dock for a Sonic Screwdriver. Looking back it’s equally difficult not to be impressed by Citroen’s foresight – the concept looks remrakably similar to the current trend for jacked-up supermini SUV cars such as the Renault Captur, Vauxhall Mokka and Range Rover Evoque – as it is to not be amused by the sometimes-wonky visions of the future. Ford Nucleon? Aston Martin’s Lagonda SUV? Renault Avantime?

At the time, along with an all-electric powertrain, a diesel-electric drivetrain with a combined fuel economy of 69mpg was mooted. Such a figure seemed the stuff of a Bond villian’s dream at the time, so it’s odd seven years later to look at the raft of new cars that are capable of such figures from petrol engines. The new C1, for example, officially returns up to 74mpg without any diesel or electric trickery. This figure, it transpires, will crop up again later.

What’s interesting is that these seachanges in the industry rarely happen by accident, or without an imperative. The economic crash of 2008 brought with it a sudden new awareness of CO2 and MPG that had little to do with saving the planet and more to do with saving a few coins when it came to renewing tax and filling the petrol tank.

EU emissions targets – fought tooth and nail by the industry at the time and written off as dangerous, unachievable and possibly insane – forced manufacturers to think differently. Hybrids became a serious consideration, as did electric cars (as did biofuel, but let’s move swiftly on). More significantly, for the C4 Cactus, came a rethinking of what a modern car needed and didn’t need. Clever-clever new powertrains were all well and good, but what if the unthinkable happened – a new car was actually lighter than the ones it replaced?

cactus front quarter

The C-Cactus concept also boasted panels made of recycled material, and while the car industry hasn’t quite gone that bonkers, the production model does have rubber panels along the sides to protect against scrapes and bunts in supermarket car-parks. What’s more they’re easily replaceable at a nominal cost, so theoretically they’ll save money on potential repairs. Opinion seems split at the moment on the airbumps, but why the heck not?

The ‘Airbump’ technology consists of pockets of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) filled with air and will protect against errant supermarket trolleys, says Citroen. Quite who will be brave, stupid or important enough to test this out remains to be seen – for now my money is on a young, thrusting blog called TorqueSteer! or The Sun’s motoring correspondent.

One of the things that marks this car out as a Citroen is the ability to choose two-tone body panels. For example, there are Cacti that wear bright lemon, deep purple or a lovely pearl white metal, but have contrasting Airbumps. Amusingly I found myself in one car that boasted a Shark Grey body colour with Stone Grey Airbumps, bringing to mind an episode of Red Dwarf where Rimmer paints and repaints the ship in Metallic Grey and Gunmetal Grey to the point where he can’t tell which is which.

All of this does beg the question as to whether we’ll see the likes of Airbumps adopted more and more on cars – as we have with the DS3’s personalisation – and I can’t see why not. It’s presumably cheaper than steel, it’s a smart way of styling a cost-saving and it will cut down on weight. And as our cities get more and more crowded – and resources more scarce – why not kill several birds with one stone? Without actually killing birds – or polar bears for that matter.

My money is on a new Citroen sub-brand, rather like Dacia is to Renault, even if it’s unofficial. Think BlueMotion and the like that volume marques went with a few years ago to delineate their ultra-efficient models. With the DS range already selling to the premium end of the market and in the process of being spun-off as a brand in its own right there’s a further opportunity to refocus Citroen as an mid-level brand while having a new budget brand. It’s having cake, eating it and then buying another cake.

Ultra-efficient, funky and inexpensive variations of platforms already used across the Peugeot, DS and Citroen brands make sense from a volume perspective and a brand perspective – particularly in the current business climate. It’s interesting that, following years of European brands trying to head upmarket to escape the squeeze from the likes of Hyundai and Kia, the volume players are now embracing the high-volume, low-margin sector and developing genuinely interesting cars.

airbump

Consider the Citroen C5 – a car so forgettable that I seriously doubt most car-buyers even know it still exists. Now consider the C-Cactus – a car as individual as it is fascinating. Which one speaks of Citroen – the brand as it is understood by car buffs and even the general public – more?

The answer is as plain as the nose on Gerard Depardieu’s face. None of this means anything, however, if the car is rubbish. Previous models that speak of design insanity – the Nissan Cube and Daihatsu Materia to name but two – have flattered to deceive. Sure, the Cube turns heads, but get inside and you’re faced with the insipid mid-Noughties Nissan fascia underpinned by the Sunday-afternoon 1.5 dci. Mutton dressed as Snail Porridge.

I was cautious when I got to sit inside a production C4 Cactus – indeed, I conducted a whole podcast from within the Cactus with MajorGav of PetroBlog – as I suspected this might be the case. For all the airbumops and lovely clean console and luggage-inspired grab handles I suspected a weedy engine and rough transmission and a driving experience less interesting that being a passenger in a Hyundai Sonata. And without going for a Clarkson-style bait-and-switch, I was wrong.

The Cactus is rather lovely to drive, if you accept that there will be no hooning and simply enjoy it for what it is. There are problems. Of course there are problems – there are with any car. But that shouldn’t put you off, just as indigestion is unlikely to put you off demolishing a delicious meal.

So, the rear pillars are incredibly thick – as thick as the rear screen is tiny – and make rear vision very difficult. Rear visibility is horrendous when parking as a result.

Look up and there’s a lovely blue vista of sky, assuming you’re in the UK during one of the few days when the sun is out. If it is, ultra-violet screen or no, you’re going to get hot. Whether it’s driven by the need to save weight, open up the cabin or it’s designed by a man who yearns to feel the sun on his bonce while at the wheel, the C4 Cactus will get rather warm with the sun streaming in. Thus far I have been very hot both times I’ve been in the Citroen oddity.

What else? Well, there’s no spare tyre and the rear bench doesn’t splitfold. Instead it folds down as one in a style that’s bound to stir memories of the nineties as efficiently as Wayne’s World. There is more, depending on which model you choose. My friend, should you go with the autobox, you and the Cactus are not going to remain on good terms, airbumps or no.

The autobox in the Cactus is the worst I’ve ever come across. Every gear change is accompanied with the sort of rocking motion you might try and woo child to sleep with, only rather more vigourous, while the pause as the gear disengages suggests a toddler sucking in a breath prior to a huge screaming fit: you brace yourself.

The overall sensation is literally nauseating as you roll back and forth. Meanwhile the car’s wafty suspension means that lateral movement is akin to a rollercoaster. It’s quite the most unusual, unpleasantly unusual, experience I’ve had while driving a car – certainly one I’m willing to admit to anyway.

cactus light cluster

While the sideways rocking that accompanies any sort of tight cornering is still present with five-speed manual transmissions, the jerking of changing up or down is not. It’s not a particularly direct or precise gearchange, but it doesn’t need to be in a car like the Cactus. This is a car built for comfort and to buy one – with it’s ickle engines and Posh Spice kerbweight – and then whinge about the driving dynamics would be as fruitless as a hot-hatch Prius.

Get up to any speed on a B-road and the Cactus takes on a character not unlike I’d imagine driving a runaway tea-trolley would be like. It’s simply not set up for it, which makes the ability to turn off stability control even more bemusing. All becomes clear within seconds of disengaging the active safety aid, however. Reach any sort of revs – or seemingly speed – and ESP simply re-engages itself. It’s a definite Gallic finger-wag, but it probably has the right idea.

Oddly enough, the powertrains feel up to a bit of abuse. The 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine has 110bhp but an eye-catching 151lb-ft that propels the water-retaining legume along at a fair lick. While the gearing is quite long, meaning it has to be worked quite hard during overtaking or any thrashing, it doesn’t feel strained when the revs are up.

It will happily coast along at around 30mph in fifth gear too and anti-stall means you can gentle the car along at a shade above tickover without the car complaining. If you have a mind to you could probably hypermile all the way to the 60mpg that is claimed in mixed driving. I still managed 40mpg after some fairly expressive driving, so suspect that mind-50s will be possible. There are 107 CO2s, which is impressive for a car of this size and good for running costs. Big ticks for this powertrain.

The real gem in the engine range, however, is the Blue HDi 100 – a four-cyinder 1.6-litre diesel engine mated to a five-speed manual. The stats speak for themselves: 88mpg on the combined cycle and 89g/km. Should that prove insufficient you can spec the Cactus with smaller, low-rolling resistance tyres that eke another three MPGs out of the engine. 91mpg. I am wont to scoff at claimed mileages, which are not the fault of manufacturers who make the most of an impossible job in homolgating fuel efficiency figures, but tend to be absurdly overstated. As a rule of thumb, if you’re getting two-thirds to three-quarters of claimed fuel economies in everyday driving you’re doing well.

I managed just over 74mpg in normal driving conditions – a mixture of curvy B-roads and swooping A-roads with some urban driving in beautiful Aylebsury and moderate traffic – without really trying. 74mpg. That is stupendous. On a full tank – not a large one especially at under ten gallons – you could travel almost 750 miles. From Elgin to Penzance – a gnat’s chuff shy of the fabled Land’s End to John O’Groats – for £65. Quite possibly for less, depending on the weight on your car, your driving style, traffic, route and more. If you cycled it would cost more to refuel you over that distance.

citroen cactus mpg

Where the Citroen C4 Cactus succeeds isn’t really in its nifty touches – scratch the admittedly lovely surface and you start to notice some nasty hard plastics, gaps between materials, poor rear legroom, vast rear pillars, no splitfolding rear seats… there are things that could get on your nerves here though I suspect the baggage-strap-like handles, surface bevels and lovely unadorned dashboard will always pull you round. The trim levels are called Touch, Feel and Style – they should be Touch, Feel and Fondle.

No, where this works is in the fact that it does work. That name isn’t simply a handy bit of greenwash marketing. If ever a car deserved a name that promises so much it’s the C4 Cactus. Personally I’m hoping it’s joined by a larger model called the C4 Camel. Either way, this is a car that sips petrol like I drink Laphroaig (neat, slowly and while flirting with a Russian spy).

There are issues, to add to the flea bitings I mentioned above. To buy the Citroen C4 Cactus will cost from £12,990 to £18,190, the latter for the worst of the lot – the abysmal ETG6 autobox with the less frugal of the diesels. Realistically to spec it to the levels that I enjoyed during a day’s driving around the Chilterns you’d pay closer to £20K – all three cars that I drove cost a smidge shy of that landmark.

Most of the cars I drove came with a lovely metallic paint job (£495), insulated sunroof (£395), leather trim (£695), different-coloured Airbumps (£150), City Park (an absolute must at £325), Citroen’s eTouch Emergency & Assistance System (£250), body-coloured mirrors (£50) and a spacesaver spare wheel (£75). Two-and-a-half grand’s worth of extras on a car that starts at £13K. And I wonder what the stripped-out model will be like. Alas, the three cars I drove were all of mid- or top-range spec – Feel and Flair respectively – so I can’t enlighten. But I’d like to drive that base spec model before I committed completely to the Cactus.

cactus profile

But I do love the car for what it is and what it looks like. It looks different and it’s been built by people who have managed to drag themselves out of the the same headspace to which aerodynamics, cost, weight, fuel economy, drivers safety, pedestrian safety, prevailing design tastes and a dozen more factors anchors them. I celebrate cars that are different and I celebrate cars that are genuinely good at what they do. Citroen’s Cactus falls into both of those categories.

Some people ask me how I can think that a silly Citroen is a better car than a Porsche Cayenne, or why I’m more interested in curios than exotica. It’s because I’m a fan of genuine innovation, wit and flair rather than a slave to horsepower and cock-waving design. How many cars do what they say on the tin?

The C4 Cactus fulfils on its touchstone promise: it’s economical. What’s more it does it with a cheekiness that’s irresistible and may just redefine a sector as conclusively as the Qashqai did a few years ago. Consider my curiosity pricked by this French succulent.