Boil the Citroen C4 Cactus down into its constituent parts and it’s far from remarkable. A compact SUV based on a stretched DS3 platform with a choice of efficient, small-capacity petrol end diesel engines - it sounds like any number of other new models on the market. But it’s the brilliant way in which Citroen has packaged it that has created such a buzz.
Take the exterior styling for example – the split headlights are a cue you’ll find on the new C1 and C4 Picasso, but beyond the smoothly curved front end the Cactus’ floating C-pillar, distinctive ‘AirBump’ panels and wide variety of colour combinations for the paint, Airbumps and wheels give it a genuine wow factor on the road. It’s especially impressive when you consider the dimensions are almost identical to the anonymous C4 hatch, with just a smidgen more ground clearance.
Citroen’s aim with the Cactus was to strip away the fripperies, creating a relaxed driving environment, uncomplicated ownership experience and cutting weight next to a C4 by 200kg. Look for it and you’ll find evidence of weight savings dotted around. The boot, for example, closes with a tinny bang rather than a soft thud, there’s pop-out windows in the rear and only a one-piece rear bench.
Normally these ‘compromises’ might annoy you, but because the Cactus never pretends to be the last word in luxury, they give it a certain old-school charm. There’s nothing old-school about the dashboard, which does away with buttons altogether, leaving a seven-inch central touch screen (standard on all models) to control the air-con, sat-nav, Bluetooth phone and driving aids. A digital screen showing your speed, fuel level and total mileage (there’s no rev counter to keep things simple) also replaces traditional dials behind the wheel.
Citroen have made good use of the space available too, with a deep 358-litre boot, enough space for two six-footers to sit behind each other and big storage bins in the doors as well as an unusually large top-loading glove box. The wide and flat armchair-like front seats are incredibly comfortable, too, and while you’ll find some scratchy plastics around your legs, all the touch points have expensive-feeling finishes.
The Cactus doesn’t claim to be quick from 0-62mph, or have any interest in setting lap times at the Nurburgring, instead Citroen has focused on getting passengers from A to B as serenely as possible. That all begins with the ride quality, which marks a return to form for Citroen. Take a speed bump too quickly or hit a pothole and you’ll still feel a thud, but over smaller bumps and ridges it has the wonderful magic carpet quality from Citroens of old.
We drove the 91bhp e-HDI model with the automated manual gearbox last week, but this time we tested the range-topping petrol engine – Citroen’s new 108bhp 1.2-litre PureTec - a three-cylinder turbocharged unit capable of returning over 60mpg, and without doubt the pick of the range. Whereas the diesel rattles under hard acceleration this engine thrums away and punches much harder, even from low rpm, than its cubic capacity suggests.
Apply the accelerator lightly and it settles down to a background whisper, making motorway journeys and low-speed cruising a soothing experience. The five-speed manual has a relatively long throw, but a satisfying feel – a definite improvement over the slow-witted ETG auto.
Corners are best taken at a leisurely pace, and even then you’ll feel the Cactus leaning heavily on its outside front tyre, while the light steering does little to encourage you. Still, all the more reason to take things slow, relax and let the Cactus’ easygoing charm wash over you.