Review: The perky little free-thinker that is the Citroen C4 Cactus

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The C4 Cactus makes economical motoring fun(Credit: Loz Blain/Gizmag)

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In a world of cookie-cutter city crossovers, you could be forgiven for thinking there were no alternatives out there for free-thinking individuals. Well, you could be forgiven, but you'd also be wrong, because the Citroen C4 Cactus is the perfect antidote to the dreary sameness you get from most economical cars. It's a bit weird, but the Cactus lets you celebrate economical motoring rather than forcing you to simply endure it.

Check out our video showcasing the Cactus below.

We're going to start at the beginning here: the Cactus isn't actually built on the same platform as the C4, or the C4 Picasso for that matter. Instead, it shares its underpinnings with the compact DS3. That's because this is, first and foremost, a car for navigating choked city centers with a minimum of fuss.

With this goal in mind, Citroen has fitted the Cactus with a turbocharged 1.2-liter, three-cylinder petrol motor. Down a cylinder and 800cc compared to the Mazda CX-3's petrol motor, the 81 kW (109 hp) Cactus gives away 28 kW (38 hp) to the Japanese SUV, but counters with 205 Nm (151 lb.ft) compared to the CX-3's 192 Nm (142 lb.ft). It also gets a leg up on the competition with a bubbly, effervescent character that makes it pleasure to hustle through traffic.

Thanks in part to its healthy torque figure, the little Citroen never really feels underpowered, although there is a bit of turbo lag if you find yourself in the wrong gear. Some scribes treat turbo lag like the devil and, to a certain extent, it can kill your experience of an exotic that demands razor sharp throttle response and a howling exhaust note.

But in a little car like the Cactus, the wait gives way to a fun little rush. Chalk it down character, or maybe I'm just a child, but waiting for the C4's engine to come on boost never seemed like too much of a hardship when the turbo kicked in.

Although there is a robotized-manual available on diesel Cactuses (or is it Cacti?), petrol cars come exclusively with a five-speed manual. We have no problem with shuffling the shifter ourselves but manuals are an increasingly rare breed, so this could be seen as a slight commercial oversight on Citroen's part.

It's largely unobtrusive, but the C4's manual shifter won't go down as one of the greats, thanks to a loooong throw and slightly rubbery feel that caused a few missed shifts. You'd get used to it, but such a perky little engine deserves a better shift to back it up. It's also worth bearing in mind how tightly spaced the pedals are. Once again, it's not a deal breaker, but the tight clutch and brake layout is better suited to dainty pointe shoes than clumsy workboots.

Engine aside, the other factor giving the Cactus its perky feeling is weight, or lack thereof. A Mazda CX-3 weighs 1226 kg (2703 lb), a Nissan Juke tips the scales at 1334 kg (2941 lb) and the Chevrolet Trax tips the scales at a positively portly 1371 kg (3023 lb). The Cactus, on the other hand, is a featherweight at just 1020 kg (2249 lb).

This lightness is manifest everywhere you look in the cabin. You sit behind an oblong speedo display, with a massive digital readout that could've been nicked from your high school calculator, and there are no buttons anywhere on the dashboard. Instead, the seven-inch touchscreen looks after climate control, navigation and infotainment. It shares its basic hardware with the system in the Peugeot 308, although there are some minor design differences between the two.

Bluetooth worked seamlessly, picking up my iPhone within seconds of turning the key, and calls came through perfectly every time. The only real quibble with the infotainment system was the time it took to boot up, especially when you started the car and put it straight into reverse. Although we'd never (ahem) rely on tech like a reversing camera to keep us from an accident, having a clear feed of what's happening behind you is reassuring when you're backing up a car with C and D pillars capable of hiding a road train.

Citroen hasn't just done away with unnecessary buttons and knobs, it's subbed conventional door grabs for leather straps and dropped rear window winders in favor of pop-out items, a'la the VW Up. There's something refreshing about the cabin's minimalism, and although it's stripped back the Cactus' interior doesn't feel overly cheap. Special mention must go to the seats, which trade faux-sportiness for soft, welcoming support, like a warm hug from that fat aunty you only get to see once a year.

There are still a few ergonomic oddities lurking within the Cactus' cabin. For one, the steering column doesn't adjust for reach, forcing taller drivers to slay their legs awkwardly around the wheel. Alternatively, you could raise the wheel to the top of its rake adjustment and drive around with knuckles brushing the ceiling, but neither choice is ideal considering the problem could be solved with one swoop of an accountant's pen.

My only other complaint about the cabin is the armrest, which is unfit for use by anyone with arms. It's mounted high to leave space for the gearstick and handbrake, but also actively gets in the way whenever you try and change gear. Lifting it up is one solution, but then you run the risk of whacking your elbow on it as you row the loooong throw shifter between first and second gear.

Okay, so that second point is unique to people with gangly arms and pointy elbows, but the fact French cars always seem to have some sort of ergonomic quirk or issue is annoying considering the Germans, Brits, Americans, and even Australians have been getting it right for years.

These complaints aside, the interior of the Cactus is logically laid out. There's also plenty of space for, well, all the things we bring with us in the car. By doing away with regular climate controls, Citroen has freed up an iPhone-sized space under the touchscreen, and the lack of a big center console jutting out means there's room for a wallet and coffee beneath that phone-sized spot.

Both the driver and passenger get big storage bins in their doors, and the glovebox is massive because the airbag has been moved to the roof. Meanwhile the deep boot offers up 358 liters of space, although that can be expanded to over 1,000 liters with the rear seats folded.

Speaking of rear seats, there's actually an acceptable amount of legroom back there, although headroom is a bit limited if you're trying to transport long-limbed teenagers. The long-limbed teenager we used to test rear legroom did complain about the pop-out windows, but it's worth remembering he's 17 and a bit of a whinger.

Thankfully, there are more benefits to defying convention than just a bigger glovebox. Citroen has made this a bit of a habit over the years, and the Cactus is yet another example of unique french design solving problems. The problem? Door dings and bumper scrapes, the kind you pick up in railway carparks and shopping centers.

The solution? Air bumps. That what those black panels scattered around the outside of the car are called. Made of a resilient rubber material, they're designed to repel almost anything the city can throw at them by being way more absorbent and less prone to scratching than metal or plastic. They're also why Citroen chose the Cactus name: just like the plant, the car can defend itself against the outside world. Clever, huh?

One side effect of the decision to cover the outside of the little C4 in decidedly non-spiky panels is its, er, unique look. Whether you like the look will, more than likely, be the deciding factor in whether you buy one or not. With that said, we needed all week to work out whether we actually liked the exterior design or not, and settled on a resounding mostly as the answer.

From certain spots the car looks seriously cool, but there are a few awkward angles there. Then again, that seems like a small price to pay for unbeatable confidence come time to leave it in a carpark. We threw everything from a trolley to Loz's heavy-hitting right hook at the air bumps, and they came up looking pristine. If that's not evidence of functional design, we don't know what is.

Enough about the practical stuff though, how does it drive? Well, the soft feeling you get from the seats is perfectly in tune with the suspension, which favours a loping, languid ride over quick responses and tight body control. Besides the odd crashy moment over particularly vicious speed bumps, the car does an exceptional job at isolating you from bumps and potholes, even if the tradeoff is a bit of body roll when you toss it into a corner.

Then again, to toss the Cactus into corners is to miss the point, by an absolute mile. No, the little Citroen does its best work driven at half speed, where you can make the most of its effortless steering and peppy engine, the benefits of which become clear at the bowser.

Often you'll struggle to get close to claimed fuel economy figures, but in the worst possible conditions – horrendous, bumper-to-bumper traffic – I saw 7l/100 km (40 UK mpg), which is reasonably close to the claimed 4.8 l/100 km (59 mpg). Okay, so it's almost fifty percent more than the claimed figure, we've seen fuel use figures blow out by much more than that in start/stop conditions.

With this parsimonious attitude to petrol, perky little engine and funky styling, would I buy a Cactus? It's a no, but that's not the Citroen's fault. This is one of those "it's not you, it's me" scenarios, where the car isn't the problem. The Cactus is a really likeable little car, and its charms will appeal to a very certain type of free-thinker.

I am not that free thinker, but if you're content to slow down and enjoy the C4 Cactus for its comfy ride, peppy engine and completely unique exterior, then it will make you very, very happy. Meanwhile, I'll be off scuffing dents out of the door on my boring, conventional Subaru because some idiot smashed their trolley into it.

Pricing starts at $26,990 (US$20,150) in Australia, while UK buyers will have to fork out at least £12,900 (US$18,700). Unfortunately, those in the US can't get their hands on a Cactus – unless they're willing to swing by the local nursery, of course.

Product Page: Citroen C4 Cactus

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