Every now and then a car come along that captures the public’s imagination, because it goes about things a little differently from the rest. While the boom in SUV sales has seen a wave of new small SUVs built to the same formula, Citroen has drawn inspiration from past mould breakers like the 2CV and DS, and chosen a very different path for the new C4 Cactus.
The idea at the core of the Cactus was to strip away any superfluous features and equipment that have become the norm on modern cars, leaving something that’s lightweight, affordable and a calming place to spend time. Evidence of this pared-back approach is everywhere, from the pop-out rear windows (an 11kg saving) and single-piece folding rear bench (a 6kg saving) to the slimmed down dashboard with just two screens to control the car’s interior functions.
As a result the C4 Cactus tips the scales at just 965kg – 200kg less than the equivalent C4 hatchback, despite offering similar amounts of legroom in the back and just 22 litres less boot space at 358 litres (expanding to 1,170-litres with the back seats down). The Cactus is based on a C3 chassis, but with a stretched wheelbase of 2,595mm (roughly the same as the C4 and 140mm longer than the C3), while the overall length of 4,157mm is halfway between a C3 and a C4.
What’s curious about its dimensions though is that it’s 40mm lower than a C3 and 10mm lower than a C4, despite 10mm more ground clearance – essential to achieve those trendy SUV proportions. Miraculously, there’s plenty of space inside even for six-footers, although ordering the optional panoramic roof will shave off precious mm of headroom in the rear.
Such a forward-thinking car deserved a unique design and the smooth surfaces and space-shuttle styling look fantastic in the metal. It wouldn’t be a Citroen without some quirks though and roof rails that resemble upturned skis plus the rugged cladding give it a true SUV feel, regardless of the compact dimensions.
The Airbump panels in the doors, available in four colours, are bound to split opinion, but do serve a practical purpose by helping to avoid damage from supermarket trolleys, poles, car doors and other potential car park hazards.
It’s the interior that steals the shows though, with a lounge like feel that’s unlike anything else on the road. Features like the one-piece front bench, huge glove box and leather straps instead of door handles give it a wonderfully traditional and cosy atmosphere, while a radical dash design mixes in an ultra-modern edge.
Dominating the interior is a seven-inch colour touch screen that controls everything from the air conditioning to the infotainment, so besides a slim row of buttons directly beneath the screen, it’s minimalist to the extreme. The instrument binnacle has been totally replaced by a digital display, too, while a few buttons on the steering wheel place some controls at your fingertips.
In terms of quality, a soft-touch material on the top of the dash makes sure the areas in which Citroen have spent the money are right in your eyeline, while the rest is made up of hard plastics, nicely textured to appear more premium than they actually are.
We had the chance to drive the 91bhp 1.6 e-HDI model capable of returning impressive economy and emissions of 81mpg and 92g/km. It’s still not the cleanest model in the range though, that honour goes to the 99bhp BlueHDI model with figures of 88.3mpg and 82g/km. A range of three-cylinder 1.2-litre petrols are also available with 74bhp, 81bhp and 108bhp - the latter is turbocharged.
With relatively little weight to haul along our test car felt quite sprightly on the move - not so much during initial acceleration but during mid to high speeds where you really appreciate it has twice the torque of the petrol units. It’s an engine that prefers to be stroked along gently rather than thrashed - do so and the engine noise can become intrusive.
It’s a similar story with the ETG6 automated manual gearbox - the only option on this model. Try to drive the car hard and bang through upshifts with the steering-wheel mounted paddles and you’ll end up nodding back and forth in your seat as the cogs slowly part and reengage. However, take things more slowly with a slight lift on gearshifts and you can learn to drive around it.
The Cactus’ ride marks a return to form for Citroen, with a beautifully cushioned feel that lets you sail over bumps and ruts in the road. Clearly, the soft spring and damper setting require some compromise in the corners, and the Cactus does tend to roll about, understeer and the ESP light flickers at the slightest provocation, but with relatively little mass to keep in check, body control is better than you might expect.
Predictably, the steering is light in feel and offers very little feedback, requiring three turns lock to lock, but is precise enough for everyday errands. And its this everyday useability that really defines the C4 Cactus - it’s not perfect by any means, but because it doesn’t pretend to be particularly sporty a lack of steering feel and high-speed body control really doesn’t matter. It’s a car that finds other ways to make you feel good.