Citroen C3: Airbumps yet smoother flying now

Distinctive styling, a responsive engine, comfortable ride … the just-arrived update of this chic small carryall certainly delivers some admirable strengths.

GOING by the degree of debate generated by two cars I’ve experienced that have them, Airbumps are of considerable interest.

C’est la vie. Good design always sparks discussion. For me, there’s no problem.

Different works for, and sometimes against, Citroen. Personally, I’m a big fan of the polyurethane sections dotted with air-filled capsules that made public debut on the flanks of the C4 Cactus a couple of years back and are now worn by the small C3 city hatch featured this week.

Because? It’s a neat effect that adds panache but at the same time delivers a practical solution to a all-too-common problem; door damage.

The idea, if you are unable twig to it, is that they not only look intriguing but also keep the doors from being damaged by light impacts, either other doors or shopping trolleys.

Seeing the C3 pick up this feature cemented thought that all Citroens will go this way. But then I happened across information about updated Cactus – just out in France, not yet here – that suggested the model that debuted the bump-resistance almost three years ago has now been pretty much cleansed of what some might see as an automotive acne. It has just a little bit of protective cladding, down to sill level. Quelle shock!

Is Citroen having second thoughts? In a way, yes. But it’s less to do with the feature specifically, than the car itself. The Cactus has now been given a new role, taking the place of the now defunct C4 hatchback, so has been toned down.

The C4’s loss is the C3’s gain, I feel. The smaller car has always been chic and chirpy so Airbumps immediately appeal as an additional touch that should be appreciated by the city-centric customer base.

A big update for the family baby also brings some other design touches from the Cactus. Around the nose you’ll see it now has those trendy “stacked” headlights that look too slim to seem of much use but really aren’t. The cabin also has the free-standing tablet-like touch-screen that was also first tried on the crossover.

Similarity stops there. Which is probably a good thing. Citroen product has a reputation for being off-the-wall, but even though the C3 will likely aim primarily at the young (or young-at-heart), they’ve sensibly pulled back on absolute eccentricity.

The end result is a pleasing level of desirability - it presents a nice balance of being very stylish and, especially with the contrasting red roof finish on our otherwise white test car, quite striking; which is exactly the right recipe, surely, when the target market is the young (or, at least, young at heart) buyer.

The look-at-moi ambience is as strong on the inside as it is at the kerbside; it’s just as flamboyant as the Cactus but takes a different approach in respect to the design and functionality.

As much as I love the bigger car’s numerous idiosyncratic touches, I’d have to say the C3 is ultimately better for being more orthodox and for also providing not only a richer ambience but also the perception of a higher quality of fit and finish. The instruments, a mixture of analogue and digital, look more classy and work better. And of course with this car, you can actually wind the rear windows up and down.

Why keep comparing? Well, because, even though the Cactus starts $6000 above the $26,990 C3, I suspect that Citroen customers will still pitch one against the other.

And, sad to say (because I really like everything about it, save that awful automated manual – which has also been dropped) I suspect the Cactus will largely be the loser, unless you’re buying purely on space – and even then, though it’s compact, the C3 is not too bad, though rear head and legroom is tighter (with 300 ltires’ capacity, the boot’s generously-sized, though).

But otherwise it looks smarter, offers a good driving position and has a lot of the tech you expect to discover in a modern Euro city hatch these days, including Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink. You can also provision your C3 with an optional built-in forward facing camera in the windscreen, which can take photos of what you're looking at and share them on social media. Too gimmicky? Perhaps, but also certainly different.

All good, but how about the driving? Certainly, while there’s flair to the dynamic aspect and the 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine is perky and willing, it’s fair to say that you’re not looking at a GT-style car, here. Summation about it being a model that slots neatly into the light, easy-going small hatch handling template seems reasonable.

If there’s one particular high, it’s with the ride quality. Sense that French makes have always traditionally been good at this was a bit undermined by the C3’s sister car, the Peugeot 208, which actually comes across even in its standard format as being firm to the point of becoming annoying.

You won’t say the same about the wee Citroen, though. Its suspension tune is far more comfortable and relaxed, yet not to dynamic detriment. It might deliver a touch more body roll than some when pushed through bends, but is hardly loose or floppy. The suspension does lose some points insofar that it can be noisy over certain bumps, but in terms of primary functionality, it’s above average, good enough to lend this wee midge something of a big car feel. Not a bad score given this car is still on the same platform as its predecessor, whereas other Citroens has transferred to the new, more competent EMP1 underpinning.

Back to that engine. The downsizing trend that affects all classes of car has not bypassed this category, but you don’t want to worry about that in this instance. Likewise, don’t sweat that it is now a three-cylinder 1.2-litre engine, given that turbocharging is part of the equation.

That shouldn’t imply expectation of more than a certain degree of zestiness, of course. Though the outputs of 81kW and 205Nm are pretty good, all things considered, overall you’re going to appreciate this engine more for its efficiency (Citroen citing an optimum 4.9 litres per 100km) than explosiveness, as reflected by the factory’s claimed 0-100kmh time of 9.3 seconds.

Even though it’s most suave when driven in a laidback fashion – an approach that certainly allows smoothest operation from the auto, as well – this is not a ‘lite’ powertrain. But don’t be shy about giving more of a bootful; it gets noisier, for sure, but remains playful.

Employing it for a long-distance drive proved fruitful, too; proving that while everything about the C3 seems small, it actually comes across as being very confident and big-hearted on the open road. Some of this is down to the transmission – it does a much better job demonstrating its power through six ratios than the old car did through four.

So we’re all going to buy one, oui? Well, non. Because even if Citroen wasn’t niche, small orthodox hatchbacks are losing ground anyway, having fallen victim to ever-increasing market interest in like-sized crossovers. Citroen knows this and has that trend covered with its incoming C3 Aircross.

Still, if you are part of that diminishing minority who does prefer a small orthodox hatch, then you could do a lot worse.

Aside from looking good and driving quite well – save, perhaps, for having slightly remote steering feel – the C3 also stands out by being quite well loaded.  A lane departure warning, Bluetooth and cruise control, a touchscreen, 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning and LED daytime lights are certainly not to be expected in all small hatches.

Kiwis are traditionally quite stand-offish about Citroen – I’ve a friend who still copes it for daring to own an original DS (on of THE great automotive designs of all times) – but then, we used to be that way about modern Skoda, too.

The C3 is not quite a ‘Kodiaq’ moment, but it is easily good enough to warrant attention – and, thanks to those side-protecting panels, is the one chic car I’d be happy to take into a New World carpark safe in the knowledge that it would be impervious to the worst that could be thrown at – or, at least, door-slammed – into it.