Every now and then a car comes along that divides opinion so much that everyone – petrolhead or nay – has a view on it. The Ford Ka was one when it was launched, its styling totally radical in its day, and it went on to be a smash hit for the blue oval.
Not all examples are positive – there’s the Chrysler PT Cruiser with its 1930s gangster get up, or the bubble-canopied Fiat Multipla.
Of the current crop, few cars spark such debate on styling as the Citroen C4 Cactus. Suddenly everybody is Giorgio Giugiaro, praising the car’s ‘bold take on retro’ or, more commonly, questioning the ‘weird bits of plastic’ on the sides.
Even in boring old black the Cactus is striking, the plastic trim on the wings, front bumpers and rear boot lid giving the colouring a matte, stealth-bomber vibe.
A highly-unscientific straw poll of friends, family and colleagues implied people either love or hate how the Cactus looks.
Equal parts roughty-toughty crossover and retro Euro throwback – in the same vein as the Fiat 500, or the MINI – the Cactus confuses the eye from the outside. It refuses to be pigeon holed into any one category. Judging by buoyant sales figures, with 11,357 registered in the UK last year, that is its genius, rather than its downfall.
Inside as well, the designers have resisted the temptation to simply raid the Peugeot/ Citroen parts bin and have instead come up with something truly unique in its offering.
Instead of the usual mess of dials, buttons, switches and vents, pretty much all data and controls – with the exception of the steering wheel, gear stick, handbrake and pedals – are accessed through two large flat-screen monitors. Visually this cleans up the cabin layout significantly and pairs the futuristic with the retro theme carried on from the exterior styling.
The Cactus is quirky on the outside and it’s quirky on the inside too. The glovebox opens up the way on the passenger’s dash and it looks like high-end luggage. The door handles look like luggage straps and the seats – which aren’t especially supportive – nonetheless look and feel like the kind of armchairs one might find in a chic Parisian hotel.
It might have gone so badly wrong, but, instead – and without feeling the need to coat everything in leather and brushed aluminium – Citroen have succeeded in creating one of the most stylish cabins you’ll find in a contemporary car.
Despite that, the cabin is also where most of our niggles with the Cactus lie. The cup holder is barely big enough to fit a can of Coke. Of course it’s better for one’s health to drink Evian, but, dammit, I want the choice.
The armrest on the inside of the driver’s seat prevents the driver from accessing the handbrake when it’s lowered and, when it’s raised, is at such an angle that it’s very difficult to put it down again.
The decision to make all the controls – including the air-conditioning – accessible only through the dash- mounted touchscreen might have resulted in a clean, uncluttered dash, but it also means adjusting the temperature while driving is an unnecessarily fiddly process.
The satnav – controlled via the same interface – is one of the most needlessly complicated systems we’ve encountered. When it’s easier to navigate to a grid reference than it is to a postcode – something is wrong.
Comfort is spot on though and, while the suspension system is tuned accordingly, the Cactus isn’t bad at all to drive. It’s soft without being bouncy and it holds its composure when cornering.
The engine range includes a variety of petrol and diesel options. The power plant in our test car was the excellent BlueHDi 98bhp four-pot and, despite relatively meagre power output, it had enough about it to keep up on the motorway and confidently handled the start-stop of city driving. Nought to 62 comes in 11.2 seconds and top speed is 114mph.
As tested, the Cactus qualifies for band A vehicle excise duty thanks to emissions quoted at 92g/km CO2. We managed to average 55 mpg during our one-week test, shy of the manufacturer claims of 80 mpg, but not bad across a mix of driving conditions.
Scotsman Motors were on the fence before we drove the Cactus – although a previous motoring correspondent was all for it – and after a week at the wheel we still straddle the imaginary chicken wire.
We’re sold on the looks and love the interior styling, but a lack of consideration for practicalities in the cabin design would get on our nerves pretty quickly.
Love it or hate it, Citroen should be applauded for not playing it safe with the C4 Cactus. To paraphrase John Lennon: “Trying to please everybody is impossible – if you did that you’d end up in the middle with nobody liking you. You’ve just got to decide what you think is best, and do it.”
Citroen decided to produce a car that looks like nothing else out there. It might not please everybody, but plenty of people love it.
Engine: 1.6-litre diesel producing 98bhp, 187lb/ft
Transmission: five-speed manual
Performance: Top speed 114mph, 0-60 mph 11.2 seconds
Economy: 80mpg combined
Emissions: 92 g/km