Citroen C4 Cactus: An innovative car that is not very innovative

Posted on February 27th, 2014 by Rob Marshall

cactusThroughout its history, Citroën has contributed significantly to the motorcar’s development, often to its financial detriment. Yet, I have always respected the pioneer’s left-field stance, which is why I jumped at the chance, in early February, to be one of the first people to preview its latest mid-sized model, prior to the official unveiling in Geneva next month.

Proclaiming that the new Citroën C4 Cactus stands for a ‘New World and New Ideas’, the press blurb excited me. It is exactly what the company and the new car buyer needs – something different – maybe even, a GS for the 21st Century. That is, a technically-brilliant, roomy, economical, practical, high-selling (Over 2.5m GSs found homes) and distinctive medium-sized car, not a superficial rehash of its predecessors, leaving its deficiencies to be filled-in by florid marketing hyperbole.

I was also enthusiastic that the C4 Cactus production car was based upon the attractive and innovative concept from late last year, complete with its absent B-pillar. However, the model had to endure a troubled gestation, during which time its parent company, PSA (Citroën and Peugeot’s holding company), was coughing up blood and haemorrhaging cash, due largely to flat-lining new car demand in Europe. 2012’s 5bn Euros loss was only one of its worries and the business has been forced to swap pride for survival, by shutting a French factory and accepting, red-faced, a 7bn Euros bailout from the Gallic government. Further controversial attempts to raise capital have culminated in 3bn Euros’ worth of shares being snapped-up by the Chinese Dongfeng Group, thus weakening the Peugeot family’s stake.

FINDING SUBSTANCE IN AIR(-BUMPS)

Trying to launch an innovative mid-range car, with little money, is no easy task and my expectations of discovering the promised new ideas were dashed quickly, upon viewing the production reality for the first time. C4 Cactus may retain the handsome silhouette but some of the concept car’s radical features, such as the front bench seat and the absent B-pillar, have been scrapped by the production accountants. While Citroën proclaims that the exposition was of a new car, the company could not even bestow it with an entirely new name. The C4 moniker remains associated with an uncompetitive midfield hatchback, balanced by a series of largely competent Picasso MPVs. Notably, C4 Cactus shares styling cues from other Citroën models (plus a few borrowed from other carmakers) but it has inherited the C4 Picasso’s front end, including the distinctive, but not particularly effective, headlights.

In a tightly-controlled pre-launch event, I learned that the universally-comprehended ‘Cactus’ name signifies both toughness and frugality. One of the undermining aspects was in the car’s lightness. While it is credible that the engineers, none of which were available for me to interview, had shed the C4 Cactus’s weight to below one metric tonne (945kgs), helped by employing an aluminium bonnet (not unique, as Citroen’s DS of the 1960s proved) and non-winding rear windows (which are less costly to produce), I was surprised to find that the car is disadvantaged at its core, being underpinned by an older chassis (stretched C3), in-lieu of PSA’s latest, ultra-light, offering. Had the weight shedding exercise been taken one step further, then the marketing people might have possessed a genuine and credible triumph to promote, harking back to the truly lightweight and frugal Citroen AX, the diesel version of which held the Guinness World Record’s most economical car accolade for many years.

While the C4 Cactus will benefit from a new generation of three-cylinder petrol units, the diesel option is left to the decade-old DV6 1.6-litre, a power-plant that has been produced in its millions and is not exactly noted for its dependability, sadly. Based on quoted MPG figures from all manufacturers, I shall wager that the advertised 90+mpg will not be attainable in real-life use. A further clue of the accountants’ influences lies in the fitting of rear drum brakes, making Citroën’s 1970 GS model seem space-age radical by comparison, with its all-round discs, the front ones of which were mounted inboard.

C4 Cactus does introduce one innovation though, with its door skins being clad with a thermoplastic polyurethane panel that contains air-filled bubbles, which provide genuinely-useful antidotes to shopping centre car park dings. At least it gave the marketing personnel something to crow about, although they were scraping the barrel somewhat, by also mentioning a new passenger glove box continually, the position of which, on top of the dashboard, meant relocating the airbag above the windscreen. Ironically, a designer had forgotten to take any advantage of the gaping space, between the lower fascia and the floor, where a well-designed and more practical storage compartment could have accommodated several bottles of vins rouge easily.

I wanted to report that a new era of innovative Citroëns were emerging from post-bailout PSA. I desired to bring you a truly exclusive story. I craved C4 Cactus to shock me with novel features, such as plastic wheels (similar to the rally-proven items fitted as options to Citroën’s SM of the 1970s). I wanted Cactus to introduce technological advances, such as those fitted to top-of-the-line Mercedes, within reach of the mid-range car buyer. So desperately did I want to leave Paris, reassured that the marque had rediscovered its ‘mojo’ that would make other carmakers tremble in anticipation. Instead, I departed with a degree of sadness and disappointment, having viewed a distinctive vehicle that is not very original, a lightweight car that is not as light as it could have been, an innovative car that is not particularly innovative and a frugal car that I doubt will fulfil its eco-credentials.

There is a ray of hope. PSA’s latest Chief Executive is emphatic that future cars will no longer be a distraction for its dealers. Presuming C4 Cactus becomes a sales success (and I hope sincerely that it will do so), my first acquaintance leads me to believe that it cannot do it on its own merit but, instead, on the basis of massive marketing support. It would have taken unerring corporate courage, to create a truly pioneering car in a recession, ready for when Europe’s fortunes start to turn. Citroën should have been the grand deliverer.