My FIRST rule of motoring states that a Citroen should look like nothing else on the road, save for another Citroen. The 2CV and old DS were standard bearers for doing things differently and, if the modern-day DS3 and C4 Grand Picasso suggest Citroen is rediscovering its talent for building cars that break the mould, then the new C4 Cactus confirms it.
The Cactus is Citroen’s answer to – well, goodness knows what, really, since it’s very hard to pigeonhole. After all, how many other five-door hatchbacks come with slabs of giant bubblewrap along their flanks and bumpers? Those lumpen panels are the car’s signature feature. Citroen calls them “airbumps” and they’re air-filled polyurethane pockets to protect the car’s extremities from stray shopping trolleys and car park scuffs. You can have your airbumps in one of four shades – grey, black or two shades of brown – depending on body colour.
It’s a clever idea that owes as much to form as it does to function. The neat design touches continue inside and Citroen has gone out of its way to trim weight from the car, in the pursuit of economy and lower emissions. The lightest Cactus tips the scales at just 965kg, which is 200kg lighter than the equivalent C4 hatchback and remarkable for a modern car with room for four adults.
It doesn’t come across as flimsy – quite the opposite in fact. The Cactus cabin has the unburstable feel of a favourite travel hold-all, right down to the hard-wearing upholstery and leather luggage straps that serve as door handles. Appropriately, the speedo looks like an LED travel alarm clock affixed to the top of the steering column. By moving the front passenger airbag to the roof, Citroen has freed up space in the top of the dashboard for a large (8.5-litre) cubby box.
The standard-fit multimedia and satnav screen in the centre of the dash will amuse on long journeys and, if you upgrade to Business Class – sorry, top-of-the-range Flair trim – you’ll also get a panoramic glass sunroof.
The pursuit of lightness calls for few compromises, however – the rear windows are hinged, pop-out affairs that can’t be wound down and, because the rear bench doesn’t split, folding it means sacrificing all the back seats.
We tested two Cactii – one powered by a turbocharged, three-cylinder petrol engine paired to a five-speed manual gearbox and the other by a diesel allied to Citroen’s automated manual.
The Cactus marks the first appearance of the 108bhp 1.2-litre petrol engine under a Citroen bonnet and it’s a sweet unit. Most of the time, you won’t even realise you’re missing a cylinder, such is its smoothness. It’s nippy from a standstill and delivers useful mid-range punch for overtaking and keeping up with fast-lane motorway traffic. Two other non-turbo engines, offering 73bhp and 80bhp, complete the petrol line-up.
The automatic is slow-witted and the long pauses in acceleration while it searches for the next cog make the car lurch back and forth like a coin-operated kiddies’ ride outside Tesco. No quibbles with the 1.6-litre diesel engine, which is quiet and has no trouble hauling the Cactus around despite its modest 90bhp output. And there’s a beefier 98bhp version.
The ride is very comfortable, helped in no small part by the big seats but also because a light body doesn’t need stiff springs to keep it aloft. For the most part, the Cactus floats over bumps, with just the merest hint of body roll if you’re a bit too eager in sharp bends.
So don’t be – take it easy in the Cactus and it will take it easy on your pocket. The combined result of matching small-capacity engines to a zero-calorie car is the promise of staggering fuel economy. Citroen claims up to 91.1mpg for the 98bhp diesel engine which, by our reckoning, means mid-70s is an achievable real-world target.
The C4 Cactus is due to go on sale here in October and prices open at a whisker under £13,000 for a 73bhp petrol-engine car in entry-level Touch trim. The biggest seller is expected to be the 98bhp diesel in mid-range Feel trim, which adds air conditioning and Bluetooth connectivity and will set you back £16,500 or thereabouts.
ENGINE 1.2l petrol, 3 cyl, turbocharged, 108bhp
PERFORMANCE Max speed 117mph; 0-62mph 9.3s
CO2 EMISSIONS 107g/km