It cannot have escaped any of this wonderful site’s readership that the bulk and heft of modern cars has been getting out of hand since the late 1990s. Safety legislation accounts for a lot of this, as does the need to pass the brutal EuroNCAP test, but additional equipment and the fact that people are just getting larger in general are also big contributors. There are signs that the trend is reversing, with some notable new launches resulting in cars that are lighter than their previous generations – but, on the whole, new cars are large, clumsy and difficult to see out of.
At first glance, the Citroën C4 Cactus may well fall into this category. Some would bemoan it for being yet another tedious medium-sized crossover, and an overstyled one at that. However, they would be wrong. It’s a fiendishly clever car, and I think one that, given the strait-jacket of modern legislation, Mini designer Alec Issigonis would rather admire – certainly for its simplicity and efficiency.
I must admit that, ever since the C4 Cactus was launched in 2014, I’ve been itching to get my hands on one. Yes, I’m a confirmed Citroëniste, which might explain why I own a C6 against all reason, but there’s much more to wanting to drive and understanding the Cactus than the double chevrons on the nose.
Firstly, the Cactus is a light thing. The standard version comes in at 1020kg which, by today’s standards and for what is not far shy of being a full-sized car, is very impressive indeed. Given it’s laden with airbags, has a pedestrian-friendly front end and an armoured A-pillar to ace that all-important front offset crash test, it’s a great achievement to build something so light.
And, as we know, the route to automotive efficiency is a svelte kerb weight…
Jumping in, you’ll be impressed by the amount of steel and aluminium you get for your money. The Cactus starts at around £12k on the road (before Citroën’s easily negotiated discounts) and, for that, you get a choice of cutting-edge three-cylinder turbo petrol or BlueHDI diesel engines, both of which push out more than 100bhp and give the Cactus sprightly performance.
It’s the car’s thoughtful design touches that really impress. Yes, it has Airbumps® along the flanks and in the corners but, in truth, these are a bit of a red herring. Yes, they make the car look rugged, and give it the air of being Paris-friendly, but in car park situations, they’re not really going to save you from a clanged door, or scuffed flank. But we don’t mind. We don’t mind at all. It’s inside where the Cactus wins…
It was designed by Brit, Mark Lloyd, and, according to CAR Magazine, he was influenced by passenger luggage. Looking at the catches for the flip-top glovebox or the leather-strap door pulls, you can clearly see that. Nice, but not Issigonis clever. Same with the passenger airbag, which is mounted in the rooflining to leave more room in the passenger area – a touch we really like.
The central screen can delight and infuriate in equal measure, too. Handing so many of the car’s vital functions to this, without physical buttons might unnerve some traditionalists, but it’s a touch of simplification that we know would impress our man Issigonis. Younger drivers and passengers love it, too. Just don’t try and operate it on a lumpy road – in the dark.
And as for the digital speedometer and minimalist fuel gauge – who really needs more? Well, Citroën UK clearly thinks we do, because the test car came equipped with cruise control (irrelevant in the UK), parking camera (no need), Xenon headlamps (really?) and a panoramic roof (not needed, but perhaps appreciated in our dark and dank country). Me, I’d take the basic version, because I think a car like this doesn’t need toys to win your heart.
On the road, committed wheelmen will bemoan its lack of in extremis dynamic flourish but, in the real world, it drives sweetly enough. The ride quality is soft-ish (as you’d expect), but body roll is kept in reasonable check thanks to pliant damping. The steering and gearchange are sweet and the brakes are keen to the point of aggressiveness, too, leaving a lasting impression of a car that’s comfortable, passenger friendly and entertaining. A friend was made to feel quite car sick during an evening B-road run, but she was more concerned about the brightness of the central screen which, in an otherwise dark interior, can be distracting on unlit roads – only later did I find that you could simply turn it off.
Overall, I liked this car as much as I expected I would. It’s charming, clever, efficient and great value for money. Going back to the original premise of the blog – I really do think that Issigonis would approve of this car for all of the above reasons. He’d love its lightness, the roominess of it and the fact that, despite needing to comply with modern legislation, it’s not entirely dictated by it. The Cactus is a car that’s been created by thinking laterally – which, in an era where far too many people say there isn’t enough innovation in the car industry, is a clear signal that creativity is most certainty alive and well.
Yes, the C4 Cactus gets the AROnline seal of approval…
By the way, if you’re not convinced by the Cactus’ charms, consider that, for the same money, you could get yourself a Vauxhall Mokka. Before even contemplating one of those, may we suggest you read this blog: A weekend with the Vauxhall Mokka
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.