Motorsport

European Review: Citroën C4 Cactus 1.6 BlueHDI

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Thanks to endless regulations surrounding crash safety and emissions, the modern car is increasingly homogenous. Pedestrian safety regulations mean that a high hood and a flat front end are a must, while environmental requirements dictate a “reverse-teardrop” shape and a big, turbocharged engine to deal with the weight of the other passive safety features, not to mention all of the creature comforts and electronic active safety gadgets that are considered mandatory by many consumers.

Unless you’re Citroen. Then you create the Cactus.

What more would you expect from the company that brought you the DS, the SM, the XM and of course, the 2CV? It looks like a supervillain-designed lunar rover from the outside and a cross between Enterprise spaceship and the iconic 2CV from the inside.

It would almost be sinister looking if not for the Airbump panels, which gave the car its name. They’re basically the vehicular equivalent of bubble wrap. The soft plastic with air underneath protects the bodywork from parking-lot dings, which is brilliant. They are a bit like the spikes on a Cactus, designed to protect the rest of the exterior in the same way that the prickly stuff protects the fruit of the plant from being eaten by predators.

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And the interior isn’t too shabby, either. Citroën dispensed with traditional instrument panel and controls on the dashboard and center panel. They have been replaced by a display in front of the driver and touchscreen in the middle. The main display replaces the instrument panel with digital graphics straight out of a 1980s sci-fi flick. It probably looks exactly like something 1980s designers would use, if they could. It looks kind of like 1988 Oldsmobile without the technology constraints.

The touchscreen in the middle is far more conventional affair. It’s basically the same one you can also find in a Peugeot 308 and many other PSA models. It’s quite good, with nice graphics and fairly quick reactions, but I don’t really like the fact that it replaces almost everything else that normal car places on the central panel. Like HVAC controls or basic radio controls. And there is no way to split the screen for several functions. If you’re in radio menu and suddenly want to change the temperature or direction of the ventilation, you have to go to the HVAC main screen, do the changes, return to the main Media screen, and go back through everything. Not exactly convenient, let me tell you.

But on a positive note, this move has freed up a lot of space, which was, smartly, used to provide actual space. In a way, the Cactus’ interior feels similar to old American cars, with bench seats and no consoles. It is really trying to mimic an old 2CV, but with general increase in car dimensions, it is more like a 1960s Plymouth Valiant or maybe the aforementioned 1980s Oldsmobile, with plush armchairs for the seats.

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It’s even possible to get something that’s as close to bench front seat as you get in 2015 car. The tested car was a manual version with two individual seats and some space in between, but if you opt for the automated ETG transmission (which is probably Citroën’s code speak for a drunken chimpanzee in a box, based on its sophistication), you get an armrest which fits flush with the seats, creating a de-facto bench seat.

Together with the plush suspension and tall sidewalls, this makes for quite a comfortable ride and lets you forget that what you’re driving is basically a mediocre French hatch with rather unsophisticated McPherson/torsion beam suspension. It’s distinctively unsporty, but as long as you don’t test the limits and don’t go farther than, say, 7/10ths, it’s quite pleasant to drive. Around town, it’s fun and tossable, and at modest highway speeds, it remains surprisingly comfortable for such a small car. It doesn’t really shine at higher speeds and crosswinds at 100+mph are tiresome, but I can imagine taking it om holiday several hundred miles away.

Part of its appeal comes from the combination of torquey, punchy 1.6 HDi diesel with 100hp (EDIT: not 136hp, as previously stated – thanks to reader Vega for correcting me!), and lightweight construction. The diesel Cactus weighs just 1,160kg (just under 2600 pounds) and the gasoline ones are even lighter, which makes up for seemingly weak engine line-up. And it helps with fuel economy, too. It’s easy to get 45mpg and with a proper 6-speed transmission, the numbers would be even better. The drive would be better, too – the transmission is not only missing a cog, but also clearly comes from the days before the PSA found out how to build a good one (about 4 years ago). It’s rubbery and imprecise, not really on par with competing cars.

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And there’s one more area where Cactus hides its city car roots. Even though it’s based on C3 supermini (and not C4 family hatch), it’s surprisingly roomy inside. Rear seats can accommodate a pair of fully grown adults, although their flatness and firmness makes them more suitable for child seats. And the trunk, with 348 litres (12.3 feet) of volume is suitable for a small family as well. Both cabin and trunk offer space comparable to the Volkswagen Golf which, in theory, should be a class above Cactus.

The Cactus really is a weird car that works. It overcomes its humble roots and offers an enticing combination of fun, comfort and originality. It’s unique enough to be cool, small enough to fit in the city and roomy enough to fit your family. And it brings hope that cars don’t have to be boring to be good.

P.S.:

It is brown, it’s diesel, it’s manual and it can be considered a wagon. And it’s a Citroën! Somebody call Jalopnik!

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