Blog : Cactus – why I think Issigonis would approve

Keith Adams

Citroen Cactus (1)

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…

Citroen Cactus (3)

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…

Citroen Cactus (2)


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

Keith Adams


  1. The rake of the rear end and shape of the C Pillar reminds me more of the ADO16 1100.

    Agreed by keeping things simple the Cactus ends up offering a lot of car for the money. Could be better still if they offered a version without all that plastic crap slapped all over it and without the pointless roof bars.

  2. I like clever design and I love the quirkiness of Citroens – especially those of previous generations.

    That said the present Citroen line-up makes our roads look a lot more interesting. I’m not in the market for this type of car so know very little about them.

    I just can’t love this car. I admire the KISS principle of no-frills but can’t help thinking Dacia does it in an un-gimmicky and utterly un-pretentious way.

  3. I lived with one of those last summer in France for about a week and some 1200 Km of mainly minor roads.
    I didn’t know what to expect, but in the end i think that i liked it. Yes the simplicity is in contrast with what one expects these days, but the pleasant surprise was the excellent quality of the interior fittings. I agree with Keith about its dynamics and the only thing that i really disliked was the fact that you had to use the touchscreen for all the controls.

  4. The C4 Cactus is quite appealing, and certainly far more interesting than the desperately dull C4, though I wish Citroen would stop fitting hinged rear windows instead of proper opening ones, the DS4 has this as well!

  5. It’s so interesting;that monochrome so often wins and there’s two camps, those that hate and those that love it. When I tried one it was very easy to drive and handled very well, I need to see a 2.0hdi but that of course is against the whole point of cactus, it needs very little fuel.Thing about Airbumps is that they are unique, ok we’ve seen cladding and American woody sided cars. I say bravo to them for being brave. Every human achievement is on the other side of fear. Fear holds us back from so much, I could have done so much. What could you do if YOU knew you wouldn’t or couldn’t fail? I’m so glad this car happened. Surprised they don’t paint any green or blue or light purple or brown, it seems to wear brashness so well. This being Citroen’s year of creativity, they must continue to create. This car is on a par with the GS and BX for originality.

  6. Sorry – but none of these modern crossovers, including Renault Captur etc etc appeal to me. I still prefer traditional Hatchback’s, Estates, Coupe’s and saloons. Must be getting old, though I appreciate many will disagree with me.

    • I’m with you Hilton.

      Apparently Crossovers are targeted at ‘Millenials’. Being of 1982 vintage should class myself as such. I abhor the things.

      I have lamented in a previous post the seeming death of the traditional ‘Dad car’. Growing up in the 80s, dads drove things like Itals, Cortinas, Sierras, Cavaliers, quirky dads may have driven BXs, W123 Mercs or 305s.

      We’ve lost stalwarts of the patronly vehicular group such as Accord, Laguna, Primera, Legacy (though Levorg is something of a new estate version) with the future of the likes of the Avensis, C5, 508 looking increasingly shaky.

      Yet I can see they’re coming from. I know people, roughly my age, with young families. Traditional C segment cars are too small for the huge rugged buggies and babyseats that they need these days. D segment saloon/hatchbacks are too difficult for some to park. MPVs look too much like eggs at best, vans at worst.

      These crossovers give the impression of space, tall so fitting babyseats without doing their back in or bumping their head, a tall (but in my experience, not neccessarily long) boot for the buggy, and look like they can tackle the one day a year we get snow (even if most are 2WD high riding variants of a manufacturers C segment hatchback…) and ride out the increasing number of potholes, given that cars no longer have suspension suitable for passengers in order to lap the nurburgring a second quicker, or to impress a motoring journalist that a family hatchback can handle with a dab of oppo…

      Most people aren’t ‘car people’. They want an appliance to get them from A to B practically yet still maintaining an image. This is who the crossover appeals to, and the manufacturers have taken note and are falling over themselves to exploit this market.

      But alas, rumours of the D segment death are hugely exaggerated. Ford and Vauxhall produce enough Insignias and Mondeos (the current gen of which looks stunning from the front) to fleets to keep production ticking over, similarly Skoda sell plenty of Octavias and Superbs (something of a modern day Sierra and Granada), Mazda showed that Japanese saloons can look exciting with the gorgeous 6, Alfa are looking to move upmarket with their new RWD Guilia. Jag introduced the XE junior exec, while if you look to Germany sales of the 3 series, A4 and C class are booming. Where fleets would have bought Cavaliers and Cortinas in days of old, which then filtered down into the used market, it now makes financial sense to lease something with an aspirational badge.

      The C6 is a stunning car, I’m severely tempted to trade the 93 in for one, they hardly sold any new as nobody wants an expensive, potentially temperamental big French car. Citroen did well in exploiting the mini-MPV market of the early 2000s with the Picasso, they’re now looking to do similarly with the crossover market with the Cactus.

      The first I saw a Cactus was in Tenerife, possibly a hire car, parked up beside the beach on a sunny day it actually looked like a funky car. Kind of thing someone in sunglasses gets into and drives along with the windows down. However parked at a UK/Irish retail park on a drizzly winter afternoon some of that fun factor is lost. Millenial family drivers don’t care, they want something to accommodate their life with that “fun” image.

  7. Same here. Sick to death of the bloody “Crossover”
    It must be my age or something 🙁 but to me, they all look terrible. The Nissan Joke especially so…

  8. The styling of the Cactus has always been enough to keep me far enough away from seeing the inside, but it turns out that it’s worse than the outside! I’m not sure the last time I saw so much shiny black plastic inside a car, but it was probably the 1970’s – possibly an early Mk3 Cortina? I’m only sorry to hear that it was one of our designers that’s responsible

  9. @Dave, Darren & John – thanks Guys, so it’s not just me. Despite the advances in car technology, I found the launch of most vehicles in the 1970’s to 1990’s more exciting. These days for example, a KIA SUV or crossover looks like a Hyundai, Renault, Nissan, Citroen, Vauxhall etc.

    It was more interesting for me in the days of the Capri, Cavalier Coupe, Mazda RX4 coupe (that my Dad owned). Like I said, I’m showing my age!

  10. Hilton, it probably is an age thing. I can remember my Dad saying, when I was just a young lad, that all modern cars looked the same. I thought “What – you can’t see the difference between Cortina, Solara, Renault 18?!” or similar. Now, however, it’s me thinking “These new cars are all the same!”

    Unless cars are becoming INCREASINGLY similar?

    Like you say, the launch of new cars in times gone by seemed more exciting. In my home town there was both Ford and Austin Morris dealers. Even the appearance of higher spec Fords (Ford Gives You More) seemed a pretty big thing. I can remember Morris Itals arriving on a transporter and Christopher Bell saying excitedly “Look, there’s the new Marinas!!”

    • Many of the Crossovers ARE distinctive looking. The Juke may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s as distinctive in its own way as a GS, Maxi, Strada or 100A Cherry. There’s no mistaking a RR Evoque either

      A lot of hatchbacks and upper medium saloons are a bit conservative looking, but then with strict safety and pedestrian safety rules, it’s hard to do something different nowadays.

  11. I wouldn’t describe the exterior as pleasingly rugged. Especially those “Airbumps” – they look very car like to me.
    The interior does not fit the description of pleasingly rugged either. Nor is it attractive in an innovative, quirky fashion

  12. What are airbumps please ? Incidentally, I think this is one of the most awful looking things I’ve ever seen …….

  13. “Airbumps” appears to be the trade mark name for that strange looking cladding on the sides. Weird – looks more domestic than automotive to me. So much of the other detailing, trim could be more attractive too.

  14. Don’t get hung up on the name “crossover”, it’s just a regular family hatchback. There’s no 4WD and it’s not even that tall (it’s about 5-8cm taller than most of its Focus/Golf segment competitors). I think it’s a great car and I’m disappointed not to see more of them on the roads. Hoping to get one as a hire car next time I go on holiday in Europe.

  15. In response to Keith’s first point about some recent cars carrying less bulk than their predecessors, I’d say that weight reduction is nothing new. I remember a number of svelte cars appearing in the mid-1980s, led by Citroen’s AX and BX. Plastic body panels became the fashion, even plastic bonnets and tailgates.
    But lightweight construction wasn’t universally popular with customers, for whom the ‘thunk’ of a closing door meant reassuring solidity and reliability. So weight saving became less of a selling point for a while until, like all cyclical fashions, it reappeared.
    Weight reduction is sensible; it makes a bigger practical contribution to fuel economy than drag coefficient, which only begins to have a large effect at higher speeds. Yet many manufacturers prefer to stress low Cd figures over low weight.
    Recent advances in engineering (aluminium construction, high strength steels) have enabled car producers to make their vehicles lighter than before without resorting to flimsy plastic panels. I think we will also see more examples of the Issigonis principle of ‘Tardis’ design.

  16. I have owned my C4 Cactus for nearly a year now. I wanted a cheap runabout second car and it really was a pleasant change after a gruelling 4 year period with a MINI Countryman, which was a truly awful vehicle.

    It is so refreshing to see a bit of original thinking in this car class, and the interior is sufficiently different for me to ignore the cheap plastics and lack of sensible things like a light in the rear to still make living with this car a pleasure.

    The exterior panels have so far proved resistant to car park mishaps, although I rather chickened out on colour and chose silver with grey Airbumps, so they do not make as much of a statement as with some colour combinations.

  17. I had a week with one not long ago. My first test of a car is The Door Test: does the driver’s door close with a solid, reassuring thunk or with a flimsy clang like an old biscuit tin? The Cactus was very definitely the latter. Bad start.

    The inside of this heap is even worse (and even cheaper) than it looks. Absolutely everything is controlled by that touch screen – which looks like an afterthought stuck on with sticky pads. Sound system, ventilation, deactivating the pointless stop-start… all need lots of poking and prodding and sliding, which means your eyes are off the road ahead for 5 or even 10 seconds at a time. This is not only cumbersome, it’s downright dangerous.

    Eagle eyed readers will have spotted the Quartic steering wheel. It was useless in the Allegro, useless in the SD1 and it’s useless in this car. Don’t these “designers” learn anything?

    The uselessness continues with the rear windows: they don’t open properly. No, really. They tilt open laterally by a couple of inches, rather than wind down. In 2016.

    I read a comment recently in some online motoring mag re the new DS “brand” (yeah!), saying, essentially, that rather than investing in talented, slick-tongued marketing men, Citroën should invest in talented designers and engineers.

    Amen to that.

  18. In terms of market segment, build quality and “styling” panache, might we have the natural successor to the Ami 8 here?

  19. “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.”

    So what’s the point of having them? Simply hideous.

  20. Not a fan of crossovers and would argue that the recent 8th generation Suzuki Alto is more in keeping being that it is both smaller and 60kg lighter then the outgoing Suzuki Alto yet featuring a longer wheelbase.

    Will be surprised though if Suzuki actually sells the new Alto in the UK, even if the styling personally does not appeal to me.

  21. The C5 isn’t being “directly” replaced, could we see a combination of C5-Cactus and DS5 as the successor to the current “It’s not an Audi… honest…” model.

    AutoBild has a spy shot of what looks like a shrunken XJ, though this may be a China / non-Western Europe model like the C-Elysee.

    Big Citroens used to be about comfort, you got into one knowing that it would float you to your destination.

  22. Has anyone else noticed how, if you squint, the cactus looks like an allegro after the Borg had a go at it? I wonder if you can get it in skidmark brown.
    Sadly Citroen, at least in the smaller cars have gotten rather boring technically, just Peugeot clones.
    In other news, most reliable and cheapest to repair marque in the US? Hyundai, yes really. Obviously Colchester Haddocks didn’t get the memo.. £450 to take the head off..the problem? A stuck idle control valve. £11.95 off eBay.

  23. A few points have to be noted here, the Airbumps work, very well indeed, and can stop some nasty dinks into the side or front of the car, you can replace these with similar colour’s or contrasting ones for a very minimal sum.

    The roof bars are are also user friendly and can be specified without if you dont want them, the Cacti is very comfortable, and the car has quite a bit of tech as standard, the Cruise control, is needed for those that use it, after all, it is personal choice, and not an issue, the Auto box, once you learn how to change the gear without the slowdown and jump forward is extremely smooth, and you can drive it without even noticing the gear changes at all.

    The entire point of the car is that it is not a golf or an astra, the airbumps make it stand out, however if you are the sort of person that wants a standard blob box, then the Golf is your thing, if you like to have something different, then this is ideal.

    The computer screen is no different to most cars these days, they are all heading the way of running everything from tablet, rather than a button here and there, and to be honest, if you are fiddling with it whilst driving, well, you deserve to have issues, once you set things up at the start of your journey, you should not need to be fiddling with the computer, and there is never any issues should you need to press a button, whilst driving, the car is smooth enough especially on rougher roads to be able to soak the lumps and bumps up.

    Shame the report never mentioned the fuel consumption, which around town the car can achieve mid to high 50’s and on a run 70+ is frequently seen, how about the fact that the car once started first thing, does not use the starter motor to restart the car with the start/stop system, it uses a capacitor to hold a charge that restarts the car, to save wear on the Starter motor, what about the removal of the auto windows in the rear, this saves a significant weight, especially as a lot of cars never have anyone in the back, so they have pop out windows.

    It is great to go back to a dash which is not like a NASA display, easy to look at, easy to work out, and easily dimmed, the Sat Nav system is one of the best i have come across, and we have had Jags, Audi’s MINI’s and more, and they were not as good as this.

    We have had out C4 Cactus since March the first last year, it is by far, one of the best cars we have had, only downfall, Citroen customer service, that’s one of the worst we have come across.

    • I used to love Citroens, this would probably be a close approximation to a successor to the great little ZX TD estate I owned, 180k on the clock and still drove brilliantly.

      Airbumps are interesting in that, with more and more people buying wide SUVs, car park dings are becoming more common, and side rubbing strips to seem to have been dropped from many models as they get in the way of “surface flaming” or whatever creases the “design language” implements down the side.

      However I would disagree with the tablet dash, this is a bugbear of mine with modern car interfaces. Tablets work fine when you’re sitting in a living room or coffee shop, but on the road they’re a potential danger. Like trying to type a text while walking. And yes, I do tweak controls when I drive. I blast the heat to clear the windows and get myself warm, then the windows get clear and I’m warm enough I’ll turn the fan speed down and perhaps the heat dial.
      I’ll listen to a particular radio station, then they’ll play some Cowell-X-factor-runner-up crap, and I’ll be forced to change station. Steering wheel buttons are great for this though, but I’d hate to lose those and rely on a touch screen.

      Easily dimmed – I sometimes wonder why more manufacturers didn’t take on the Saab Nightpanel approach, which is brilliant for concentrating on the road on a dark night.

      Sat Navs – Looking at used cars from 5-15 years ago shows the difficulty in integrated sat navs, they tend to age badly, unless you own the car for the first few years or buy a subscription they’ll likely not know the current roads. I use, and I tend to notice many professional drivers using, apps such as Waze or Google Maps as a de-facto sat-nav. Real-time traffic updates, up to date maps, and futureproof as mobile technology progresses.

      Popout rear windows used to be used on some 3 door cars, such as the 206, noticed them on some small 5 door cars such as the Suzuki Alto / Nissan Pixo. Great and easy to use for occasional passengers, but not if the dog wants to put their head out the window 🙂

      Wish you the best with your Cactus! Citroen dealers can be hit or miss, the steel-and-glass multi franchise dealers tend to be the latter, the smaller family owned dealers who have been with the brand since the original DS tend to be a bit better.

  24. Only the French could get away with producing a car like this. If Rover had announced the exact same model the motoring press and public would have laughed them out of town.

    Not long after the Cactus first came out, my wife came home from work and announced that she had just seen a car with shower mats stuck to its doors…..

  25. It’s ironic that somebody should suggest a likeness to AR6 in the Cactus; I was at Canley studio the day after Harrold Musgrove and his wife had paid a weekend visit. Somebody was busy next to my desk cutting the rear wheel arches to open them up on the hard model in response to Mrs Musgrove saying it looked ” like a Citroen” due to the covered rear wheels!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.