Soft focus: Citroen C4 Cactus reviewed

17 September 2014

Citroen C4 Cactus

Citroen C4 Cactus
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Good: Light, frugal, comfy, agile
Bad: Rear seat not split
Price: from £12,990
When you first meet a Citroen C4 Cactus, you can’t help but give it a prod. The big squishy Airbumps that protect the flanks and corners of the car seem to possess a tractor beam for fingertips. They’re not quite as soft as they look, though, more yielding plastic than rubber-ball elastic.

The polyurethane bumps not only guard the bodywork from wandering trolleys and outflung doors, they also dominate the styling of the car. No other vehicle appears quite as bubble wrapped as the C4 Cactus, although the rest of the shape is keenly reminiscent of another distinctive Citroen – the C3 Picasso.

Citroen C4 Cactus Airbumps

Just like the French company’s smallest MPV, the Cactus makes full use of generous curves and rounded rectangles to project an open and friendly demeanour. The resemblance is particularly clear from the front, where both C3 Picasso and C4 Cactus offer up a rounded bonnet, a double-chevron badge centred on a smooth nose rather than integrated with the grille, and an oblong mouth flanked by bold square cheeks.

Plenty of other Citroens have arrived since the C3 Picasso rolled out five years ago, but the C4 Cactus is the first to echo it. Personally, I think the pair look great, and I’m not surprised to learn that the same exterior designer, Frédéric Duvernier, worked on both cars.

Climb aboard the C4 Cactus and you’ll sink into a front seat that is unusually soft by modern standards. It’s as comfortable as a sofa and, in cars with automatic transmission, it’s designed to look like one too. Despite a tall, off-road stance on the outside the inside of the C4 Cactus feels snug and surprisingly shallow from floor to ceiling. You sit with your feet out ahead rather than tucked under your knees, more saloon car than SUV in posture. Deep scoops in the front seats provide reasonable room for lower limbs in the back – enough for this average adult to get comfy.

Citroen C4 Cactus interior

The back of the cabin is also the focus of a couple of design decisions that seem to sharply divide opinion. First, the rear windows sit flush with the bodywork and pop out a little at the rear, rather than winding down for ventilation. Secondly, the rear seatback is not split into separate sections, so you either fold the whole thing for additional luggage space or lump it.

Both features may seem penny pinching, but a tight fist is not the explanation. As the Cactus name suggests, this is a car intended to flourish despite modest resources. Simpler windows and simpler seats are just two facets of a wider attempt at cutting complexity and reducing weight. A genuine less-is-more approach.

Citroen C4 Cactus side front view

A panoramic glass roof that’s tinted and absorbs UV, rather than requiring a motorised sunshade, is one more example of trying to cut the kerfuffle. Washer jets integrated into the wipers might seem unusually fussy, but they use 50% less water so you’ll need less fluid and the reservoir can be smaller and lighter.

As a result of such measures, the C4 Cactus rolls out with a starting weight of just 965kg, which is a remarkable 10kg less than the substantially smaller DS3 hatchback. The DS3, incidentally, donated its underlying platform to the Cactus, suitably stretched in all directions.

With its trimmed weight and sitting on low-resistance tyres, the C4 Cactus range dips as low as 82g/km, with a combined cycle score of 91.1mpg, for the base diesel model with 15-inch wheels. All diesel editions fall below 95g/km, and the worst case petrol car, with 17-inch wheels and a 110bhp engine, fares no worse than 107g/km and 60.1mpg.

For those results, in a car that looks as good and feels as inviting as it does, I can forgive the back seat and windows.

Citroen C4 Cactus side view

You’ll also forgive the odd omission when you drive the C4 Cactus. It feels genuinely light and nimble. I suspect reduced mass has also helped the car’s engineers deliver an excellent suspension setup. The new Citroen provides a supple, forgiving ride without rolling like a dinghy through corners. It will sail over choppy surfaces that would make most other cars feels as if they had run aground.

Lack of mass also helps performance too. I tested both a PureTech 82 petrol car and BlueHDi 100 diesel, and both cars felt surprisingly eager. With 80kg less weight over the nose, the petrol car did feel noticeably more agile, however, even if it is ultimately slower. Citroen’s figures put the 0-62mph times at 12.9 and 10.7 seconds respectively.

The PureTech 82 option is a 3-cylinder, 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine offering up to 82bhp and 118Nm of torque. The BlueHDi 100 is a Euro-6 compliant, four-cylinder turbo diesel of 1,560cc capacity, delivering up to 100bhp and 254Nm. The range also includes both lower and higher output petrols, plus a lower-powered diesel engine that is available only with a six-speed automatic gearbox.

Citroen C4 Cactus driver's view

The default manual gearbox provides just five gears, and is not the smoothest box of cogs I’ve ever encountered, but it’s by no means the worst either. The steering has a pleasant bit of heft and the brakes, aided by the car’s lightness, feel sharp and reassuring. All-round vision is excellent, helped by the slimmest windscreen pillars I’ve seen in a very long time.

The steering wheel adjusts up and down but not for reach, though it’s very easy to get comfortable and still see the instrument panel. This is a neat slab of black plastic jutting up from the dash, featuring bright digital numerals and a range of functions that’s stripped to the minimum. There’s no rev counter, but there is a very large and unmissable hint about which gear you ought to be in.

Secondary items of data, such as the trip distance or fuel consumption, are relegated to the 7-inch touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, which is fitted as standard. As well as selecting options by fingertip, you can also flip from screen to screen by prodding the end of the right-hand stalk.

Citroen C4 Cactus door pull

The rest of the interior is notable for not really looking like a car interior. The upholstery would not seem out of place in a living room, the door pulls are reminiscent of suitcase handles, and there’s a big breadbin of a glove box.

The airbag housing that normally stares a passenger in the face has been shifted into the roof, without noticeably chewing into headroom. While I was ferreting about overhead I did notice that there are no grab handles and no vanity mirror in the passenger sunshade (though there is one for the driver). That’s presumably down to weight saving, or perhaps mirror arrangements have not been swapped over for right-hand drive.

Some interior surfaces are hard and scratchy, but then the Cactus does not pretend to be a premium product. Prices start at £12,990 for the entry level, 75bhp petrol car in pared-back Touch specification. The grey car pictured is a BlueHDi 100 in the top Flair trim, starting at £17,990. The yellow PureTech 82 car in mid-range Feel spec starts at £14,590.

Citroen C4 Cactus rear view

Eye-searing, high-visibility yellow paint is a no-cost option, while a sober metallic grey costs £495. Airbumps are black by default, while pale grey, dark grey or brown bumps cost £150. Mirrors in white or red are £50, and gloss white roof bars are another £50. In short, a little colour customisation will not cripple your credit card.

Among more substantial upgrades, a glass roof costs £395, navigation complete with hi-fi upgrade is £495, and £395 buys a reversing camera and rear parking sensors.

In summary, I’m a big fan of the C4 Cactus. Light weight, low consumption, bash-proof, comfortable, good looking and not exactly hard on the wallet. What, as they say, is not to like?

Citroen C4 Cactus rear badge

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