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Citroen C4

It's one of the most promising cars we have driven all year, and we've already been impressed by its performance in Europe - but now comes the real crunch for the Citroen C4. How does it measure up to the rough and tumble of life in the UK?

The C4 VTS is a strong package; clever design and good build quality meet performance and economy. Citroen now has a genuine diesel hot hatch contender, but more than that, it has a model that will compete well on all levels against more mainstream opposition in the small family car market. You can buy it with your heart just as much as your head.

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It's one of the most promising cars we have driven all year, and we've already been impressed by its performance in Europe - but now comes the real crunch for the Citroen C4. How does it measure up to the rough and tumble of life in the UK?

We hit the road in one of the first right-hand-drive examples in the country to find out - the 2.0 HDi VTS. The three-door looks the part in this top-of-the-range trim, with 17-inch alloys adding to its already rakish styling.

Its refreshingly modern design is unmistakably Citroen, and marks a return to the styling flair for which the French maker was once famous. But is this enough to make the C4 succeed? After all, in Britain a car has to be tough to survive potholes, speed humps and stop-start traffic. And previous Citroens never had a great reputation for build quality...

Yet the finish in the left-hand-drive models we've tried is carried over to the UK, and on our car there were no rattles or loose trim; only a simple, quality dash and seats, and an overall feeling of well being. If this is the standard we're now to expect from Citroen, it looks like the firm could be putting the flash back in place of cashback.

The fixed boss of the steering wheel is also clever. As well as allowing controls to be located within a thumb's reach, it also makes room for a larger airbag - which should help the C4 score five stars in Euro NCAP crash testing. With the option of sat-nav, Bluetooth phone connection and a CD changer in the armrest, it's clear that Citroen has worked hard to match the competition's equipment levels, too.

The three-door is very comfortable. Rear headroom is less than in the five-door, but it has the same 320 litres of load space and can carry four people with ease. Getting into the back can be awkward, but the seat release is clever, doubling as a belt holder for the front passengers, so you needn't reach behind to buckle up. Fire up the 2.0-litre engine and it's not immediately obvious that it's an oil-burner. The refined powerplant, combined with good insulation, keeps out typical diesel rattle.

The HDi unit pulls well; with 320Nm of torque from only 2,000rpm matched to the six-speed gearbox, overtaking punch is easily accessible for relaxed motorway cruising. And with a top speed of nearly 130mph, as well as a 0-60mph time of less than 10 seconds, the C4 is easily quick enough.

Equally impressive are the Citroen's ride and handling. Despite the VTS's stiffer suspension for improved grip, it copes well with potholes and uneven surfaces, and never becomes crashy. This compliance pays dividends when cornering - informative steering and very little body roll make the VTS an entertaining back-road companion, without the ESP and traction control intervening too early to spoil the fun.

The C4 is the strongest indication yet of Citroen's thinking on its new cars. Combining traditional elements of flair and value for money with the modern emphasis on safety and build quality, the firm can offer something unusual in a crowded and highly competitive sector.

With a number of its rivals produc-ing uninspired evolutions of previous-generation models, Citroen's forward thinking deserves to win sales from more conservative competitors. The car's individuality could well be the start of something big for the manufacturer in this highly competitive UK market.

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