Thorny transmission pricks quaint Cactus

More than just a crossover with acne? It’s to be expected that Citroen’s offbeat entry into our small sports utility sector would defiantly chart a different course.


For: Hugely characterful, spacious and utilitarian interior, a proper Citroen.

Against: Robotised manual transmission, those rear windows don’t wind down.

Score: 3.7/5

LOVE it or laugh it off – either way, the car on test here is cited as the start of a new push by France’s most persistently characterful marquee to redefine itself.

Being bold has long been a driver at Citroen, so it’s no surprise that it had no compunction about signing off on the $37,990 C4 Cactus, a light-duties soft roader built off the C4 hatch whose primary talking point is that it delivers dramatic creative cues, far more than the donor car.

Yet any jokes about this hatchback alternate being blighted by a bad case of acne are on the teller, because actually the Cactus has taken Citroen to better health.

Not only is it selling in much greater volume that anticipated, but the feedback has been so positive that Citroen boss Linda Jackson has determined that this little nipper is a catalyst for bigger things: She believes cars like this will from now on define the brand direction and allow the double chevron marquee to sit pretty from Peugeot and Citroen’s other project, transforming the DS into a full-blown luxury standalone.

Jackson’s ambitious plans don’t stop there. She also wants to reducing the number of Citroen car silhouettes from 14 to seven and introducing revolutionary suspension system, to replace the now all-but-defunct (and once trademark) gas-over-oil hydro pneumatic. All with the aim of increasing sales from 1.2 million to 1.6m a year by 2020.

All this might sound pretty grand down here in New Zealand, where Citroen is but a small fry. Yet having driven the Cactus, we can’t help but wish the new chef bon chance.

Styling, image:

Different is great for Citroen and if the C4 Cactus proves polarizing … well, no problem. The distributor view is that different is good in the heavily populated family crossover segment. Different it certainly is.

Yet, certainly extrovert, the car is also very obviously styled with care and consideration; there’s proportion to the look and a lot of fine detailing. Those big wheels work well on what is quite a small car and even though the roof rails might prove of little practical use, you know the Cactus wouldn’t look quite so interesting without them.

First interest is inevitably with the thermoplastic polyurethane overlays about the body; in solid form across the tailgate, the sills and whee larches and pocked with air-filled nodules on the doors.

The latter are your ‘air bumps’, a new word so far solely restricted to just this Citroen, though perhaps the contagion will spread in future.

Ostensibly to protect the flanks from scratches and shopping-trolley knocks, they’re a bit like bubble wrap only way sturdier: Citroen reckons you could forcefully run a shopping trolley into the car’s side and the bumps will save it from damage. In the interests of consumer knowledge, the test car lasted a number of supermarket visits scuff and scar-free. I cannot imagine the people where I shop are any more careful than average, so it’s probably true.

The default colour chosen for the plastic bits here is black, but for $200 you can have this changed to grey or the chic chocolate favoured in France, which offsets nicely with the hero ‘Hello Yellow’ exterior hue. I’ve seen a black Cactus with black panels – which is quite chic in its subtlety. Not something that could be said of the white test car.

The extra skins are just one pitch. Equally adventurous are the high-mounted and squinty front lights, the ‘floating roof’ and rear windows that due to the restrictions of the overall design, pop open rather than wind down. Also, if people are in any doubt about who created this car, the plastic panel across the tailgate has ‘Citroen’ embossed in it in huge letters.

So there’s a lot of kerbside character that some will call chic and others crazy. Those who find the exterior is a bit much shouldn’t look inside as enlivening/eccentric (you chose) design also pervades here as well.

 You’ll perhaps wonder why it has leather door straps instead of handles, and a suitcase-lid style storage compartment on top of the dash. This isn’t Citroen trying to do stuff on the cheap. Rather, it’s because the cabin fitout takes inspiration from the world of travel. These are luggage-inspired nuances; the door straps, for instance, were  inspired by old-school suitcase handles.

I’m not sure how that influenced the squircle-shaped steering wheel or dictated that the thing that looks like the gearlever is actually the handbrake. Then there’s the sofa-style front seat. The latter is a trick of the eye; what appears to be one is actually a pair of individual front chairs that look as though they are joined.

You’re not wrong in imagining this is usually the sort of thing you only find in show cars. In fact, it’s exactly how the Cactus concept was presented at the 2007 Paris motor show. Citroen says its decision to deliver everything from the study to the showroom was on the strength of public feedback. In hindsight, perhaps it’s an example of why we need to be careful about what we wish for, yet you cannot deny that it is refreshingly different.

It also has a fully digital instrument cluster and a seven-inch touch screen that combines functions for the air conditioning, sat-nav, vehicle settings, phone and media. Unfortunately a feature popular in Europe, the Multicity Connect application portal (that allows access to Trip Advisor, Yellow Pages, and traffic and fuel station finder apps) won’t work here.

Power train, performance:

The styling is going to cause discussion and perhaps even heated debate, but it’s nothing like the controversy this drive train is set to stir up.

To explain: Automatics are all the go these days and a lot of small crossovers in this category are petrol-powered, too. Conceivably the Cactus would be well-suited to Kiwi tastes if, say, it turned up with that snazzy new 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol and latest six-speed automatic now spreading into the C4 hatch and Peugeot 308/208 families.

Yet maybe because the Cactus is perceived as a kind of crossover – though barely so, being front-drive (with no four-wheel-drive option) and not all that elevated – and perhaps because the French are just, well, French, that’s not possible.

Thus, instead Cactus comes with a .16-litre turbo diesel and an automated manual transmission; that is an orthodox six-speed manual that uses a robotic clutch for gear shifting, so you have just two pedals – a throttle and a brake. Weird? Just a bit, and out of step with PSA convention, too. Efficient Tronic is odd even within the family – most Peugeot-Citroen product uses orthodox autos now (or, when Mitsubishi-shared, a constantly variable transmission).

Challenges arise. As likeable as small diesels are, they do struggle to make a case in our Road User Charges regime. It’s a pity because PSA is the world leader in making small capacity oilers and while - with 68kW - this one is not exactly rippling with power, it does have decent torque. A meaty muscularity optimising at 230Nm and spreading across a broad rev range.

But then there’s the ETG box. The biggest appeal of an automated-manual gearbox is that it provides outstanding fuel economy: 3.9 litres per 100km in the European Combined cycle. The worst is … well, drive it and you’ll find out.

Driving appeal:

Commonly today’s smart-shifter gearboxes have ability to ‘learn’ a driver’s habits, so I can only imagine whoever had been driving the test car ahead of me had been an absolute bastard to it, because it was behaving in most sullen fashion during my tenure.

Either than or ETG will serve as an object lesson as to why other makes have divested from these single clutch transmissions to dual clutch affairs.

Anyway, no matter how I chose to drive it, this thing invariably lurched horribly through almost every up change, particularly through the lower gears. I thought driving it hard out (aka French-style) might help. It didn’t. Neither, really, did feather-footing, either right from a standstill or when you thought it was about to effect a gear shift. It almost always banged through the cogs. It’s not so bad when the car is already moving but was a real pain whenever you were starting off from a standstill.

The effects of this tragi-comedy transmission are further enhanced by the Cactus also being blemished by aggressive brakes; I’m sure other road users must have wondered why I wasn’t displaying a learner driver card.

Look beyond this side of things – an impossibility, perhaps for some, but for the sake of argument nonetheless – and things look up. The focus on weight saving – this thing weighs a staggering 200kg less than a regular Citroen C4, thanks to aluminium panels and simple, cheaper components – gives the Cactus better dynamics, but without any degradation to the larger car’s well-received composure. The supple ride quality also charms. While change of direction isn’t sports-car-sharp, you can forgive it for that, because it’s not intended as a fast car and, anyway, the body is well controlled.

There’s loads of room up front, especially as the front passenger airbag has been relocated to the roof, making way for a cavernous front glovebox while allowing excellent front legroom. The digital instrument panel seems bery ‘80s retro, but is easy to fathom and the seven inch centre touchscreen is crisp and clear. Just a shame it doesn’t offer a bit more.

In the back of the C4 Cactus, there’s a rear bench, with no split-fold although it does fold flat to expand the 358-litre boot to a useful 1170 litres. There’s loads of leg-, elbow- and shoulder-room. Just as well it has a decent air con system else it will be a heat trap back there as those pop-out rear windows don’t let much air in.

Personalisation is also a big part of the appeal and though its naturally not possibly for the brand’s farthest-flung output to offer on the ground here every option available from the get-go they are suggesting one or two special touches beyond the usual park assist ($800), panoramic sunroof ($1000), pearlescent paint ($750) and half leather seats ($1000).

How it compares:

The ETG box is the only major impediment to enjoying the C4 Cactus; work out how to tame it – and surely there MUST be a way – and the car effectively becomes the modern equivalent of the famous 2CV: You shrug off the obvious limitations and settle into enjoying the design philosophy of simplicity and lack of pretentiousness.

The Cactus is assuredly a car for Kiwis with spine, but it deserves a chance.