The Citroën C3 is a competent and interesting supermini, but it doesn’t hit any high notes

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Citroën has plenty of takes on the small car theme, but the Citroën C3 is what you’d consider its regular Citroen supermini. Prior to the current model, the previous Citroen C3 stretched back to 2002, before which were the Saxo and Citroen AX, although it’s difficult not to think of them, and the Saxo particularly, as small compared with the C3. To find a Citroën supermini with the feeling of spaciousness that the C3 gives, you have to go back to the Visa of 1978.

The C3 is a hugely significant car for Citroën. It’s the company’s biggest-selling small car and, in spite of the Citroen C1, Citroen C3 Picasso and DS 3, its bread-and-butter supermini. Sure, we’ve been charmed by the DS 3 and C3 Picasso, but it’s the regular Citroen C3 hatchback that has to do the volume. It's ugly duckling charms may of left many potential buyers feeling cold, but the 2017 generation certainly won't with its cheeky looking exterior finished with the same Airbump technology that can be found on the Citroen C4 Cactus.

To find a Citroën supermini with this feeling of spaciousness, you have to go back to the Visa of 1978

The current C3 still comes in five-door form only, with the super-stylish three-door DS3 taking care of three-door business. The previous car’s three-door variant, dubbed Citroen C2, had a very disparate appearance as the DS3 does now, but with a very different attitude. And this theory has remained the same with the next gen C3 remaining a five-door car while the DS 3 is only available with three-doors.

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The C3 range starts with a 65bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol model, moving up through 81 and 108bhp 1.2 Puretech units. Two diesels: a 74bhp and 99bhp 1.6s complete the picture.

As is the norm, there’s an eco model with start-stop technology which produces a mere 87g/km, a large improvement on the model which propped up the range previously. In spite of the 1.6-litre models in the line-up, the Citroën C3 is more luxury oriented – any sporty pretensions are left to the DS3.


Citroën C3 rear

Given the song and dance Citroën prepared to accompany the launch of the new C3, it’s something of a surprise to find that it has allowed it to look so much like its predecessor. That was not a car – despite its selling two million units and whose styling was praised at launch – that will generally be remembered with any great fondness. The 2017 C3 aims to rectify this, firstly by mirroring the Citroën face worn by the Citroen C1, C4 Cactus and the C4 Picasso, while giving a stylish, funky look accentuated by the Airbumps on the side.

“Usually we do make a step change,” C3 chief designer Mark Lloyd told us when the car launched at 2009’s Frankfurt motor show, “but when we started the C3 project we realised we didn’t have to change much.”

The Zenith windscreen does give a better view out than even in a normal convertible, whose windscreen rail is usually slap bang above your head

So the new C3 has a short, steeply rising bonnet, bulbous roofline, a large frontal glass area and side windows that fall lower than the bonnet line. This is a noble way of ensuring a lot of light enters the cabin, but is also not easy to do without removing any latent design dynamism or prestige.

Credit to Citroën, then, for producing detailing that, to the eyes of many, lifts the latest C3 to a level of smartness its predecessor could never hope to match.

If you want more evidence that it was not the idea of the previous C3 but merely its execution that failed to hit any high notes, you’ll find them in the new car’s dimensions; there’s little to choose between them. 

At under four metres long, the new C3 remains a fairly compact car in this class, avoiding any of the bloatedness of the Peugeot 207, its PSA partner with which it still shares many of its underpinnings. In fact, at 3.94 metres long and 1.73 metres wide, the C3 all but mirrors the Ford Fiesta in size.


Citroën C3 interior

It takes no time at all to appreciate the benefits of that low window line, because the Citroën C3 has one of the airiest cabins in the class. That’s also down to the ‘Zenith’ windscreen (standard on the range-topping Platinum variant), which means the top of the glass stretches far back into the roofline. So far, in fact, that the sun visors have to be mounted on a slide, which acts like a false ceiling and allows the visors to reach forward far enough.

With the slide in its rearmost position, the C3’s cabin is exceptionally bright, while anyone who has sat in the previous C3 will find the view across the top of the new car’s dashboard far more appealing. The upper dash, dials and centre console switchgear have an appearance and tactile quality that are light years ahead of the old C3 and now compete with the best in the class.

The unusually mounted sun visors have to be flipped up before you can slide them back, out of the way. It’s a neat touch that stops you from whacking a passenger on the forehead

The cabin is very spacious for this class, too. The C3’s 300-litre boot marginally eclipses the Ford Fiesta’s 295 litres, rear leg room is good,
 rear head room is particularly strong and the driving position is decent (though still not as good as that of a Volkswagen Polo). 

Front passengers get plenty of knee room because of the recessed lower dash. This we find a little surprising because most superminis are used by people who need a decent storage cubby rather than extra rear legroom. 

For a car that has so obviously been left devoid of any hint of sportiness, only Citroën will know why the C3 has been given an infernal part-flattened steering wheel, which is otherwise ideally sized. The seats themselves are less than totally successful too. As in the C3 Picasso, they’re large enough and have no particular shortage of adjustment range, but they prove disappointingly flat and unsupportive over long distances.

As for the standard equipment on the C3, there are three to choose from - VT, Edition and Platinum. The entry-level model comes 15in steel wheels, auxiliary socket, front electric windows and a trip computer, but little else, while upgrading to an Edition model will add air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth, USB connectivity, alloy wheels and curtain airbags.

The range-topping Platinum C3's commands in excess of £15,000, and for that money it gets you a panoramic windscreen, climate control, front foglights, a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with DAB radio, 17in alloy wheels, heated and folding mirrors and luxury velour carpet mats.


Citroën C3 side profile

The biggest-selling ’minis in the UK are petrol models of 1.4 litres (or thereabouts), and very few of them provide performance that differs markedly from that of the C3. The market is so competitive that you should expect no particular surprises from the Citroën, and nor do you get them. 

At the test track in the 1.2 Puretech we recorded a 0-60mph time of 10.8sec, which is entirely par for the course. What’s pleasing about it, though, is that the C3’s engine is quiet and, despite our test model having barely 1000 miles on its odometer, revved smoothly and unintrusively. Developing a respectable 100lb ft of torque at 4000rpm, it’s a responsive unit, too, dashing off each 20mph increment of our in-gear benchmarks in broadly the same time. 

The C3’s engine is quiet and, despite our test model having barely 1000 miles on its odometer, revved smoothly and unintrusively

That linear power delivery makes the C3 a relaxing car to drive; in any given gear you know the kind of acceleration you’ll get. Selecting a cog is straightforward, but, as we’ve come to expect from most PSA manual gearboxes, the shift action is somewhat notchy and there’s some play in the lever when it’s in a gear. 

The entry-level 1.0 is best described as pedestrian, the lower-powered 1.2 petrol’s not that much better. Of the diesels, the entry-level 1.6 diesel offers a decent blend of performance and economy – yet its the more powerful 99bhp version that produces the least emissions.

The S&S micro-hybrid diesels incorporate a clever stop-start system that’s driven by the alternator. This reduces the need for a beefed-up starter motor so restarts are smoother and quicker.  Whilst this further boosts efficiency, it remains quite expensive. And as with all diesel minis you’re unlikely to do the miles to justify the inflated list price.

If there’s a disappointment with the C3 it’s that wind and road noise aren’t as well suppressed as they should be. It may well be that the seam between the top of the windscreen and the roof (remarkably close to the driver’s head) causes some wind noise, but the Michelin tyres on our test car also produced a din that could be heard in the cabin.


Citroën C3 cornering

With the C3, Citroën is continuing to resist what seems to be a pervading temptation for manufacturers to add ‘sportiness’ to their models by placing an emphasis on comfort.

That resistance is no bad thing. Actually, we’re quite pleased that Citroën actively rails against the trend – as long as its cars deliver the ride comfort promised of them. If the Ford Fiesta proves anything, it’s that dynamism does not necessarily have to come at the expense of an exemplary ride. 

In making the C3 a comfort-oriented car, Citroën has, as it did with the C3 Picasso, removed any possible enjoyment from the process of driving it briskly

The C3 would need to be very good indeed to best the Ford overall if, by Citroën’s own admission, it is not going to touch it for driver appeal.

And the verdict is? A mixed bag. That the C3 is unable to match the handling prowess of the Ford Fiesta is about as much of a surprise as finding that it gets dark at night, but although its ride is very comfortable, it’s not without its drawbacks.

The C3’s best work is done at low speeds and in a straight line, where its bump absorption does sit at the forefront of the supermini pack. 

But with only a modicum of lock applied, even around town, things start to fall apart. Should a wheel fall into a pothole or drain cover, the suspension bushes’ softness, which damps out so much of the vibration, allow some lateral slip, resulting in a little sideways shimmy in the body. 

The steering itself is pleasantly weighted and accurate enough, but it can unsettle the loosely controlled body if lock is wound off too rapidly; it self-centres rather too quickly for outright smoothness.

The C3’s set-up is soft rather than mature like the Volkswagen Polo’s or sophisticated like the Ford Fiesta’s. Despite some superior immunity to bumps in the Citroën, neither the Ford nor the Volkswagen is any less comfortable, yet both offer far more elsewhere.


Citroën C3

Discounting on Citroëns starts pretty much the second they reach showrooms, so expect to shave the list price of every C3 model by around 15 percent with some stern-faced negotiations.

Economy of all models is good and on a par with rivals, although the micro-hybrid 99bhp diesel is noteworthy as it emits a remarkable 87g/km of CO2.

Haggle at the dealer, and you're likely to be rewarded with a healthy discount

Economy of all models is good and on a par with rivals, although the lower-powered 1.6's mpg figure of 74.3 and CO2 figure of CO2 99g/km are no longer anything to write home about – Hyundai, Kia, Seat and VW (among others) have plenty of cleaner cars in their range.

During our test of the 1.2 Puretech we recorded a very respectable average fuel economy of 37.8mpg – ten short of the official average - giving a range of over 400 miles. However, drive very carefully and it’s possible to see nearer to 50mpg and 550 miles. We'd expect the results to be broadly equivalent to their official mpg figures, which again sets them around average for the class. 

Service intervals are generous, though, at 20,000 miles, and insurance groups are low, while Citroën servicing and repair costs tend to be competitive. And hopefully the new C3 will be able to remedy the previous model’s disappointing performance in customer satisfaction surveys. Resale values are distinctly average, too.


Citroën C3 rear quarter

We had high hopes for the Citroën C3, but generally speaking it doesn’t manage to be any better than broadly reasonable. It isn’t that it doesn’t sparkle in some areas — there aren’t too many cars in the C3’s class that have its ability to shrug off low-speed bumps — but you can’t escape the feeling that once Citroën had achieved that dynamic trait it didn’t worry too much about many others.

Ford’s Fiesta can teach every other supermini how to combine sharp handling with a decent ride, while VW’s Volkswagen Polo can teach them a thing or two about quality, refinement and big-car feel. Mazda’s Mazda 2 is well priced and as zesty as a Ford Fiesta, while Hyundai’s Hyundai i20 and Kia's Kia Rio trumps them all for sheer value.

Spacious, high-class interior and fine town ride. But it isn't engaging to drive.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to buy a C3. Once Citroën’s discounting starts, we’d be surprised if it doesn’t turn into one of the best-value cars in the segment – a £2000 discount seems to be easily achievable, possibly more.

The C3’s low weight and drag coefficient mean that even with a competitively powerful engine, it’s reasonably frugal. And while the eco-friendly diesel doesn’t exactly offer headline-grabbing economy, it doesn’t suffer the performance and ride compromises of other eco specials. The recent addition of the micro-hybrid system to the small diesels has brought a welcome boost to the economy and emissions figures, but also a further price rise.

Then there’s the cabin, offering a sense of airiness that no other supermini can match. Space inside for passengers and luggage is good, too, although a few more cubbies would be welcome.

But it’s how the C3 drives that’s ultimately its downfall. This is a fine riding car, but we’d opt for something with a little more dynamic polish. That is where the next generation C3 will look to rectify this misdemeanours.

Citroen C3 2010-2016 First drives