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Does Citroën’s quirky junior crossover have the substance to match its style, or is that not enough to make an impact in a competitive class?

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For a snapshot of the mass-market approach to building small family cars in 2018, look no further than the general proportions of the jacked-up version of the Citroen C3 supermini, the Citroen C3 Aircross.

But look also at the car it replaces, the cleverly packaged and much-admired Citroen 3 Picasso. The cars share the same platform, have very similar drivetrains and broadly similar proportions, but the silhouette has not-so-subtly shifted from traditional MPV to SUV. Sound familiar?

The iconic Citroën chevrons are integrated into the front grille’s chrome brightwork, which extends across the width of the car and encircles the DRLs

It’s a major trend, this one, so much of what you see on the road today is either a sports utility vehicle or has elements of the genre in evidence, and an entire class has sprung up to accommodate society’s frightening appetite for pocket-sized exponents. It means this Citroën has an inordinate number of rivals, including cars from Seat, Hyundai, Peugeot, Mazda, Renault, Kia, Nissan, Ford and Vauxhall.

As we’ve discovered, there’s nary a chassis to lure a keen driver among the lot of them, but the best cars here manage to combine strong fuel economy and decent agility with a perception of space and refinement that overlaps with the class above. For success in this segment, all of those attributes and more must be in evidence if you want to compete for class honours.

In the case of the C3 Aircross, that ‘more’ comes in the form of charm, of which there is a distinct dearth among its rivals. Even the class leader, Seat’s Seat Arona, suffers from a shortage of discernible visual character, having been designed instead in the pursuit of ruthless – and generally excellent – box-ticking all-round completeness.

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Bright colours (there are 90 exterior combinations), buoyant bodywork and an interior that could only be French make the C3 Aircross the antithesis of anything with a German, or German-owned, badge on its nose. And as one road tester noted on the car’s launch last year, despite its lack of four-wheel drive, there’s a whiff of the much-loved Fiat Panda 4x4 about this new car. High praise indeed.

It’s instantly likeable, then, but whether the C3 Aircross is a car you can also buy with a level head is what we’ll discover here.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Citroen C3 Aircross 2018 review on the road rear

There’s no mistaking the C3 Aircross for anything other than a Citroën. It employs much of the same design language seen on both the smaller Citroen C3 supermini and the C-Aircross Concept unveiled at the 2017 Geneva motor show – particularly the two-tier front light signature – which in turn positions it as one of the more visually interesting B-SUVs around.

With so many rivals now available within this niche, that ability to instantly stand out is quite an advantage for the C3 Aircross. That it loses the Airbump side panels of the previous-generation C4 Cactus is something of a shame, although extended wheel arches, a skid plate and black cladding on the front and rear bumpers help bolster the car’s more ‘outdoorsy’ image.

With so many stylistically reserved rivals, the C3 Aircross really does stand out aesthetically and that’s no bad thing

Looks aren’t the only thing the C3 Aircross shares with the C3. It sits on the same platform, although at 4145mm the Aircross is 158mm longer than the C3, while its wheelbase has been extended by 64mm to 2604mm. There’s 20mm more ground clearance too.

A familiar line-up of transversely mounted 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol and 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel engines send power exclusively to the front wheels via five- or six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions. Power output ranges from 80bhp to 129bhp for the petrol lumps, while the oil-burners offer between 98bhp and 118bhp. Our test car made use of a 109bhp petrol engine, which generates 151lb ft from 1500rpm, and a five-speed manual gearbox.

Although Citroën doesn’t offer an all-wheel-drive model – a growing trend for cars of this ilk – Grip Control with Hill Descent Assist is an option to bolster the C3 Aircross’s off-road credentials. If you have it, your car comes fitted with ‘all-season’ tyres as standard, as ours did (Hankook Kinergy 4S); if you don’t, you’ll get a conventional ‘summer’ tyre. As far as suspension is concerned, MacPherson struts and coil springs are to be found at the front, while a torsion beam sits at the rear.

INTERIOR

CItroen C3 Aircross 2018 review front seats

With the exception of one or two fundamental shortcomings, which we’ll come to in a moment, there’s rather a lot to like inside the C3 Aircross. Broad, two-tone seats with a flash of red and resolutely old-school dials lend the cabin a distant similarity with that of an 1980s hot hatch.

Those seats place you higher than in many of this segment’s contenders (to the extent that taller passengers might rue the presence of the optional panoramic roof) and give you a decent view of dashboard, although the 7in touchscreen that comes with mid-ranking Feel spec and above does sit fractionally too low beneath the eyeline for our liking.

The interior isn’t far from being a major selling point. Fun to be in, less so to touch – invest that little bit more in it, Citroën

At this level, it includes DAB digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity and, most importantly, Mirror Screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to hook up your smartphone. Citroën Connect satnav doesn’t get included until you reach the top-of-the-range Flair model, which commands a premium of about £1800 over Feel derivatives.

The touchscreen is not complicated to use, but it’s not particularly responsive or graphically advanced, certainly when compared with the technology offered in Volkswagen Group products. The ‘buttons’ on the touchscreen for accessing various functions don’t provide haptic feedback either, which means they can be slightly tricky to use while on the move. It’s by no means a bad system, but there are better ones out there.

It’s a quirky driving environment, and although our test subject’s more eccentric touches were limited to lipstick-red details on the squircle-themed air vents and elsewhere, you can specify the car with matching bright colours running across the curved edge of the dash and around the steering wheel and gearstick surround. There are silver accents here and there too. Overall, the C3 Aircross is able to be interesting and ergonomically sound.

However, this Citroën’s ace card is that it is formidably capacious given its small footprint. With the back seats up there’s 410 litres of boot space, which grows to 520 litres if you slide the bench forward (it’s worth paying for this option) or 1289 litres with it folded flat. Those figures put it right at the top of its class – they’re greater than you’ll find in a Volkswagen Golf, even – and touches such as a false boot floor for easy loading and a front passenger seat that folds down completely flat advance its cause even further.

Our main criticisms relate to the quality of the C3 Aircross’s larger mouldings – they’re shiny and scratchy, something Citroën might have got away with were it not for the fact that rivals such as the Seat Arona have so ably demonstrated that cars in this segment don’t have to feel cheap. We also saw, as we have in tests of other PSA Group cars of late, the migration of a few too many controls for the car’s secondary systems onto the touchscreen for the sake of easy usability. The car’s climate control should certainly have physical controls to enable quick adjustment.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

CItroen C3 Aircross 2018 review engine

The three-cylinder turbo petrol motor of our test subject is a fairly willing, flexible and likeable engine, though it isn’t about to be lavished with glittering praise for its strength, economy or civility here.

A claimed 0-62mph time of 11.3sec is roughly matched by what we recorded on a chilly test day on track, although it doesn’t make this car one of the more sprightly options among its peers. In 1.0 TSI 95PS guise, the Arona is a second quicker still; so even by the standards of an unelectrifying segment, the C3 Aircross isn’t a gutsy performer.

Electronics keep the chassis on lock-down which, along with the inert steering, makes for a particularly artificial experience

Tuned to 109bhp, this thrummy 1.2 isn’t a lost cause, however. It’s quiet enough on a part throttle and develops 151lb ft from only 1500rpm, so once up and running will sustain momentum with reasonable ease. Relatively short gearing helps mitigate the slightly soft throttle response the engine has exhibited in other applications, and so there’s decent drivability to tap into here too.

Just remember that overtaking isn’t something to be done on a whim, and that you’ll need to work the slightly rubbery, long throw of the five-speed manual gearlever with patience and deliberate timing in order not to be frustrated by it. When you’re working the engine hard and rushing the changes through, it’s all too easy to fumble a shift. In light of this, we would avoid at all costs the entry-level 82bhp version of this engine, which forgoes turbocharging and frankly isn’t fit for purpose in a car designed to accommodate several passengers and their luggage and be worked a bit harder than the average supermini.

Citroën’s claimed fuel economy of a combined 56.5mpg puts the C3 Aircross right in mix among its rivals. Out on the road, our test car managed a touring economy of 39.5mpg, which may sound meagre but is broadly what we’d expect to see from a three-cylinder petrol engine in this state of tune. The aforementioned 1.0-litre engine in the Arona managed a like-for-like 40.9mpg but, with its larger fuel tank, the C3 Aircross boasts the greater real-world range at 344 miles.

RIDE & HANDLING

Citroen C3 Aircross 2018 review on the road left side

Citroën’s marketing material for the C3 Aircross makes plenty of references to comfort and practicality, as you might expect. But fun? Not a mention, and that’s a bit regrettable. It’s also no Greek tragedy because, while the Seat Arona (that car, again) features a chassis of impressive composure and precision, nothing in this class is the stuff of Sunday morning dreams, and neither do owners prioritise that.

What they might feel entitled to is a ride of reasonable fluency and refinement, which is something this cheerful French crossover by and large fails to deliver. Everything it does, on every type of road, is underscored by the pitter-patter of road-surface crenulations, which bubble up through the chassis. You could convincingly argue that the same is true of every car in this class to some extent, but the jarring impacts that larger, sharper road imperfections send into the cabin are felt more acutely here than in many rivals.

The Aircross shows impressively low body roll but the chassis feels brittle and the front axle soon needs electronic assistance to keep it from washing out

Given that this softly sprung car’s primary ride is reasonably settled at speed and far better controlled than in the lower-riding Citroen C3 – owing to an increase in roll stiffness – this comes as a disappointment because, overall, far from being embarrassed by its peers, the C3 Aircross feels like it might have challenged its rivals on ride and handling if Citroën had paid closer attention to the dynamic details.

The C3 Aircross doesn’t wilt at the edge of its dynamic envelope. Alas, that’s not because Citroën’s engineers have so beautifully judged roll stiffness, camber setting and suchlike, but rather because the ESP system never allows the car to wander far from its comfort zone. The electronics can be disabled, but doing so is intended for low-speed manoeuvring on low-friction surfaces, and all systems are re-engaged once you’re properly up and running. They’re well-calibrated, mind, and even if you’re aggressive with the throttle, they keep the C3 Aircross locked on line with few judders and jolts.

The car’s dry tarmac grip levels are somewhat modest on those ‘all-season’ tyres, but you don’t have to have those. Vertical and lateral body movements, meanwhile, are cushioned with greater panache than you might expect, but fast driving is never a truly comfortable experience with such remoteness of feel between front tyres and steering wheel.

Driven with any form of commitment, the car is resolutely stable and inert. Compared with the Arona and Hyundai Kona in particular, the C3 Aircross’s steering feels light and numb, and the impression is that there exists some form of extended relay between any input you might make and the chubby nose of the C3 Aircross responding in kind.

Again, this won’t concern most buyers, but if you’re the sort who derives any satisfaction from driver feedback, or if indeed you value a car with any palpable sense of mechanical integrity to it, the C3 Aircross will likely leave you cold.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Citroen C3 Aircross 2018 review on the road

You’ll part with £13,995 for the most basic C3 Aircross Touch offered on the dealer forecourt, making it considerably cheaper than both an Seat Arona (£16,555) and a Hyundai Kona (£16,445) in entry-level specification. However, with respective outputs of 94bhp and 118bhp, the Seat and Hyundai are considerably more powerful than the 82bhp Citroën.

Standard equipment on Touch models is relatively sparse, though it includes DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity, 16in steel wheels and automatic lights. The 82bhp petrol three-pot is also the sole engine choice at this level. Mid-spec Feel-specification cars (from £15,100) are likely to make up the bulk of Citroën’s sales, and come with 16in alloy wheels, a 7.0in colour touchscreen, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and LED daytime-running lights.

The base-spec C3 Aircross undercuts rivals on the forecourt, but can’t match its VW Group foe for long-term value.

Our test car came in top-flight Flair specification, meaning it gained 17in alloys, rear parking sensors, sat-nav and automatic air conditioning, to name a few additional features. Prices start at £18,090 at this level, although with options our test car came in at £20,490.

Residual value experts at CAP forecast that Flair-specification cars will retain 43% of their value following 36,000 miles of driving and 36 months of ownership, which isn’t outstanding. However, a top-spec Arona with a comparable 1.0-litre petrol will only hold out marginally better, at 46%.

 

VERDICT

Citroen C3 Aircross 2018 review 3.5 star car

There aren't many mainstream cars whose ultimate appeal so strongly rests on the inclinations of the person buying it as the C3 Aircross’s. This little Citroën has a big personality, and if you happen to like that personality it’s sure to take the car a long way in your estimations.

It’s not quite a match for the Seat Arona on performance or handling sophistication and, even though it’s turbocharged, its performance even lags behind that of the SkyActiv-engine-equipped Mazda CX-3 in several respects.

Citroen's practical crossover isn’t outstanding to drive, but is likeable nonetheless

However, of greater importance to most owners will be that the car has plenty of visual charm, and also offers levels of practicality and versatility that match the best in class.

When it comes to perceived interior quality and the integration of infotainment technology – areas of increasing significance – the C3 Aircross can be found wanting. And yet it can still be considered a success where so many of its opponents fail. Refinement is passable, and fuel economy competitive, so if sheer driving pleasure isn’t a priority, there’s every reason to give this car the benefit of a test drive.

 

Citroen C3 Aircross First drives