Short story: Citroen C1 review

23 July 2014

Citroen C1 Airscape front view

Citroen C1
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: appealing looks, great fabric roof
Bad: noisy, very cramped in the back
Price: from £8,245
In June this year, the fledgling DS brand officially wriggled free of its Citroen parent, flying off to seek its fortune. The intention to spin off DS – establishing a sort of French equivalent to Lexus, with Citroen in place of Toyota – has been apparent for ages, but clearly the design team behind the new Citroen C1 city car didn’t get the memo. The C1 looks a lot like the little sibling of a DS3, resembling it much more than any other C-Line Citroen.

This is not a bad thing, for the C1 at least. If you’re going to echo another vehicle, the DS3 is a great choice.

True, the C1 doesn’t have a floating roof or a shark fin on its flank, but it does share the DS3’s distinctive blacked out screen pillars, vertical LED daylight lamps set at the edges of the front bumper, a shoulder line that plunges forward from the rear haunch and kicks up ahead of the door mirror, and a very reminiscent rear-end complete with infinity-effect lamps. When decked out with a contrasting roof and mirrors, the C1 looks very DS3 indeed.

Citroen C1 Airscape side view

The bits that aren’t DS-ish – the goggle-eyed headlamps, say – aren’t quite so appealing, though I have learned to love the C1’s frog face since I first recoiled from it. The styling also seems a big improvement over the outgoing C1, which looked like a startled spaniel in a wind tunnel. I’d also argue that the new Citroen is the best looking car in its little family trio, which includes the new Toyota Aygo and Peugeot 108. All three are built from much the same kit of parts, wrapped in different skins.

Inside the C1, any notions of DS-style upmarket leanings are quickly quashed. This is a budget city car featuring lavish quantities of inelastic plastic and painted steel. That’s not to say the interior is uninviting. Within its small car niche the C1’s cabin is appealing enough, enlivened by chunks of colourful glossy plastic in the centre of the car. Materials and finishes are not on a par with Volkswagen’s Up, but they are pretty close.

Citroen C1 Airscape interior

The seats, adorned in my car with a set of Paul-Smith-ish stripes, are flat but firm and clad in a sort of polyester cloth reminiscent of Nike running shoes. Supple, neatly styled black leather upholstery is a £650 option, available with the top trim level only.

It’s easy enough to get comfortable, although the steering wheel only adjusts for angle and not reach, and is inclined to flop down into your lap the second its unlatched. That’s because the bulky instrument cluster rides on the steering column, moving up and down along with the wheel. You’ll need to hold things firmly in place while you choose your desired angle.

Citroen C1 Airscape instrument panel

Once adjusted, the electric steering is accurate enough though it feels as if you might be twirling a daisy chain on a summer’s day. The clutch is equally away with the fairies. Neither provides a word of feedback, though the brakes are thankfully a little more gritty, and throttle travel is smooth and linear. Add in a five-speed manual gearbox that feels crisply cut and there is some driving involvement to be found in the little Citroen.

Two engines are offered – a 1.0-litre VTi offering 68bhp or a 1.2-litre PureTech providing 80bhp. Both are three-cylinder petrol-powered items blessed with a throaty growl. The exhaust note will add to the fun when you’re in the mood or perhaps annoy you when you’re not. Engine soundproofing is not a strong point, though the din does settle down at motorway speeds when wind blast takes over as the dominant noise.

The smaller of the two engines will haul you to 62mph in 14.3 seconds, while the bigger will do the job in 11 dead. The gap between the two engines feels a lot wider on a steep climb, due to the larger engine’s more usable reserves of torque – the 1.2-litre unit offers 116Nm from 2,750rpm, as opposed to 96Nm at 4,800rpm. In practice, that means less time spent thrashing the little C1 till your ears ring. In turn, that will probably translate to better real-world economy from the bigger engine, especially if you regularly tackle longer journeys, travel fully laden, or live at the top of a hill.

Citroen C1 Airscape rear view

The bigger engine costs £350 more than the smaller, and is not available at lesser trim levels. There’s also a fuel-saving Stop & Start option for the lower powered engine that costs £250 and cuts the car’s CO2 rating from 97g/km to 88g/km, with combined fuel economy rising from 67.3mpg to 74.3mpg. The larger engine is rated at 99g/km and 65.7mpg.

Both cars offer shift hints via the instrument panel, to aid economical driving.

There are three trim levels on offer: an entry level Touch spec, available only with the smaller engine and in three-door format. It starts from £8,245. Mid-range Feel and upmarket Flair trims are available with either engine, with three or five doors, and also with the option of an “Airscape” folding fabric roof.

Citroen C1 Airscape centre console

A three-door C1 in the middle Feel trim starts at £9,495 and features 15-inch steel wheels, manual air conditioning, a DAB stereo with USB input and wheel-mounted controls. It also features a 7-inch colour touchscreen that can be hooked up to a smartphone for displaying navigation and other apps.

Moving up to Flair specification costs from £10,185 and adds leather to the steering wheel and gear knob, plus a few other improvements to interior materials, 15-inch alloy wheels, a reversing camera and Stop & Start, while opening up the full range of options such as keyless entry and start, leather upholstery and automatic lights.

Citroen C1 Airscape fabric roof

Choosing an Airscape fabric roof, available in red, grey or black, adds £850 to the price of either a Feel or Flair spec car. The powered roof zips back quickly even while the car is on the move at motorway speeds, providing a genuinely open feel (and also quite a bit of noise and buffeting). Closing the roof again requires a double prod of the roof-mounted switch. Once to bring the roof two-thirds closed, after which you need to keep the button pressed (annoyingly) for the roof to cross the remaining gap. The closed roof feels as snug as the tin-top and is no more noisy.

The pictures in this review show a special launch version of the new C1, called the Airscape Feel Edition. For a modest £200 premium over the £10,745 price of standard Airscape Feel VTi 68 5-door, it gains 15-inch alloys – normally a £450 option – plus stripes inside and out, alongside various other small tweaks.

At 3,465mm from snout to tail, the new C1 is 7.5cm shorter than a VW Up and you will feel that difference most acutely in the rear seats. Legroom is in exceedingly short supply for adults, while anyone taller than about five feet nine will also bump their head on the ceiling. At 196 litres, the boot is also a tiddler, 20% down on the Up’s luggage volume.

Citroen C1 Airscape interior

The C1 also lacks a city emergency braking capability, which is available as a very reasonable £225 option with the Volkswagen. The Up (and its Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo cousins) gained five stars from Euro NCAP in 2011, and it will be worth waiting to see how the C1 fares in its tests, remembering that the five-star bar was raised substantially in 2012.

Despite some noticeable shortcomings in refinement and interior space, the new C1 feels like a very likeable little car that should be cheap to run and a lot of fun to own, especially when fitted with a folding fabric roof.

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