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By Design: Citroen C4 Cactus

By Design

Citroën has always been an interesting company, but not often a profitable one. It reached its peak technically in the 1934-60 period when André Lefèbvre led the engineering teams that gave us the front-wheel-drive monocoque-shell cars now generically called Tractions Avant, the rustic 2CV, and the radically pioneering DS 19. A fumbled link with Fiat; an ill-judged purchase of Maserati; a misuse of capital in taking a license to build Wankel engines, then using the resulting bi-rotor engine in an ultra-thirsty car at the moment of the OPEC fuel crisis and in a brilliant but totally irrelevant helicopter project—these missteps finally put Citroën into the hands of the conservative Peugeot company. Peugeot promptly gutted all advanced technology as quickly as it could. No more self-centering steering, no more hydropneumatic suspension, no more offbeat styling. Citroëns became as boring as any other mainstream cars, and less well-made than most.

The brand is not out of the woods yet, but there are glimmerings of hope for a renewal of the spirit that once animated the firm, the Citroën C4 Cactus being the most promising of them. It is still on a conventional Peugeot platform (that of a city-size SUV), but the body shows some of the traditional panache, above all in applying urethane cushions—called "Air Bumps" in publicity material—all over the body sides and one on each front and rear corner. My 7-year-old Citroën C3 has enough little shopping cart dings in its steel flanks to convince me that Air Bumps are a good thing, even if not attractive. The company says the Cactus is meant to be "the Ikea of cars," with a simplification of content blended with comfort and practicality.

Fitted with three- and four-cylinder gasoline and four-cylinder turbodiesel engines and five-speed gearboxes (with clunky optional self-shifting and clumsy auto stop-start available), the car is aimed at city and suburban users, and has commendably low fuel consumption. But it is not a car you'd choose for regular highway travel.

The design of the Citroën C4 Cactus stands out in the interior, which gives the impression of airy spaciousness, even if—as in too many modern cars—you can't see well out the back, especially with the nonretractable rear-seat headrests. There's a certain unwelcome cheapness about details, like the single-piece folding backrest of the back seat. Invisible, but quickly perceived at higher engine revs, is the skimping on soundproofing. The big center screen is standard, and the absence of a central console with the robotic shifting option gives the impression of a bench seat, even if the car can legally carry only two.

The C4 Cactus is not as interesting as older Citroëns technically, but it surely has the traditional skewed styling. Good.

Citroën C4 Cactus Front 3/4 View

1. There is a very small passage for cooling air above the license plate, but most of the air comes through the bottom-feeder grille low in the front bumper.

2. An Air Bump at each corner doesn't offer a lot of protection, but it's more than any other car can provide. Still, bags under the eyes?

3. The high, round nose is there to cope with European pedestrian safety standards, but it also works well aerodynamically.

4. Blacking out the A-pillar makes the roof panel seem to float above the body. The black triangle at the base blocks vision for short drivers, though.

5. Spearlike roof rails are standard equipment and add little drag when not supporting extra loads.

6. The quarter panel is separated from the roof by a blackout above and a slim Cactus nameplate below. The effect adds a lightness to what is, after all, an urban SUV.

7. Black plastic surrounds for all four wheels provide more parking lot protection and reduce visual mass of the painted portion of the body.

8. The side panels are made of thermo-formed urethane, a tough material, and the multiple bumps are distinctive, if not universally appreciated for their style.

9. The alloy wheels seem rather static and overstyled, with only four of the eight spokes convincingly present visually. Optional 17-inch tires rather spoil the ride.

10. Daytime running lights are mounted as high as possible, a Citroën trait derived from the 1955 DS-19, where taillights were mounted at the top of the rear pillar.

Citroën C4 Cactus Rear 3/4 View

11. No, these big windows don't go down. They pop out on a compass linkage, not a satisfactory situation for rear seat passengers.

12. The blackout panel allows the floating, painted quarter to assume an elegant curve downward.

13. There is a sharp surface break between the sloping painted panel and the vertical plastic rear face.

14. The liftover height of the rear hatch is stupidly far above the trunk floor, so loading and unloading the trunk is a back-breaking chore. And this from a company that used to have the best-shaped trunks in the business.

15. All the black plastic at the bottom of the body allows the graphics of the painted portions above to seem slimmer and lighter than they are. Well-planned, well-executed.

16. It's hard to know if these single bumps will protect, but at least they are present.

17. Simple rectangular taillights are a bit banal, but do their job.

18. This detail is puzzling. Why let the fuel filler intrude on the wheelhouse surround?

19. The sill piece below the doors shows nice sculpting, but it's very hard to see.

20. The back edge of the front doors is protected when they're opened in tight quarters, but the rear doors are vulnerable.

Citroën C4 Cactus Interior View

21. The simple grab handle is a nice, practical touch.

22. The steering wheel is nicely modeled, with a massive third spoke at bottom.

23. The wheel is adjustable up and down, not in and out.

24. A large interactive touchscreen replaces many knobs and buttons, but takes the driver's eyes off the road.

25. A huge front-hinged LID uncovers a very big and very practical glove box.

26. This ventilation module looks like an antique aftermarket A/C unit. Very poor design.

27. The "robotized" shifting controls consist of just three pushbuttons: D, R, and N.

28. A Very fancy parking brake handle.