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The Citroën C3 Picasso is a cut above the MPV norm, combining style, space and quality, but it majors on comfort not fun

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In 10 years, Citroën has gone from being a mere bit-part player in the European MPV market to its dominant force; the Citroen C3 Picasso is further proof. Where once it fielded just one large MPV now it has close to ten. The Picasso name has been used throughout, first on Citroen's now-defunct Xsara (which the C3 effectively replaced), and then on both the five and seven-seat versions of the Citroen C4 Picasso.

You have only to look at Citroën’s burgeoning DS range to see how the marque has undergone wholesale brand overhaul – and this C3 Picasso is further proof. Steady and staid are out, as cool and quirky make a welcome return.

In a decade, Citroën has gone from being a mere bit-part player in the European MPV market to its dominant force

And if looks were the only factor, it would seem that Citroën has remembered the formula that made it great all those years ago, not just with the original DS but also with cars like the 2CV, Traction Avant and, more recently the GS and CX. All showed that a car didn’t need to look practical to be practical, that space and chic were not mutually exclusive, that a car could brim with character yet still understand the needs of the family motorist.

On paper, this member of the Picasso family appears to have enough of these attributes to claim to be a compact MPV you’d own more through choice rather than circumstance. The question is whether there is enough substance behind the style for it to cut it, not just in the showroom but in the real world. While this incumbant edges closer to being replaced, we are safe in the knowledge that Citroën aren't booting their new found edginess into touch, as the next generation Citroen C3 Picasso will borrow its design cues from the peculiar Citroen C4 Cactus and the rather bewitching third generation Citroen C3.

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You won’t spend hours trawling through the C3 spec list deciding which model to choose – there are two engines - a turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol and a 1.6-litre diesel to choose from and two trim levels. There’s no auto option, though.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Citroën C3 Picasso rear cornering

There is nothing unusual about the Picasso’s exterior dimensions, which are close to the class norm for length, width and height. But by making the cabin cube-shaped within this external perimeter, a class-leading package has been achieved.

Perhaps more important to those who care as much about how they look as what they drive, the smart and contemporary execution of its design detailing has turned a decidedly bland silhouette into one of the most striking MPVs available at any price.

The C3 Picasso is one of the most attractive small MPVs on the market

It is not the job of the Autocar road test to dwell for long on matters as subjective as appearance, but it is instructive to note the considerable and uniformly positive attention this car attracts from the pavement when anything more than zero can usually be considered a result for an MPV.

Climb into the C3 Picasso for the first time and you’ll be reminded of your last ride in a cable car. The glasshouse is unfeasibly large and all-round visibility among the best of any car on the road. Those slim A-pillars and remarkable quarterlights produce a side vision angle of 29.5 degrees, unrivalled in its class, while upward visibility extends to 26 degrees.

If you specify the near full-length panoramic sunroof (available only on Platinum models), the total glazed area extends to 4.5 square metres, which is more like a small conservatory than a compact MPV.

The extravagant design doesn’t quite carry through to the cabin, which is more conservative, but nonetheless stylish with plenty of clever touches.

A decent selection of options can further enhance your C3 Picasso, and these often form the basis of special editions with snazzy paintwork and matching or contrasting alloy wheels.

INTERIOR

Citroën C3 Picasso interior

What strikes you first – just as it does in its bigger C4 Picasso brother – is the airiness of the cabin created by a glasshouse unrivalled by any car in its class.

There is an outstanding amount of room here, enough for Citroën to claim that the C3 Picasso is the most spacious car in its sector, rivalling some in the class above. It withstands scrutiny, too: rear head and leg room are exceptional, while the boot is not only large but also ideally proportioned and has a moveable floor that can be deployed either for maximum space or to provide sizeable secure underfloor storage.

The C3 joins the rare breed of cars in which the front passenger seat folds flat (albeit in Exclusive spec only). Sounds boring until you start shopping at Ikea.

There aren’t many gimmicks in here – you’ll need to buy the C3 Picasso in Platinum trim if you want airline-style tables in the back or a fully folding front passenger seat – but the fundamentals are all there in the form of a sliding and reclining rear bench that also folds flat into the floor at the tug of a single handle.

As we mentioned before, there are only two trims to choose from - Edition and Platinum. The entry-level Edition models get a panoramic windscreen, front foglights, plenty of chrome trim, 16in alloy wheels and roof bars as standard, while inside there is air conditioning, cruise control, all-round electric windows, rear parking sensors and Bluetooth connectivity.

Upgrade to the range-topping Platinum model luxuries such as automatic wipers and lights, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, 17in alloy wheels and a panoramic sunroof are all included in the package. There are plenty of options that can be added with the option of adding sat nav and USB connectivity for an additional £800. If a rear-view camera or a leather interior appeal then be prepared to part with over £2400 for the privilege, providing you buy the range-topping Platinum model.

If Citroën has done well on this quantitative scale, the quality is even better. The cabin has a premium feel you’ll not find on any other car in this class. The dash materials not only look good, which you might expect, but they feel good too, which you certainly would not expect for this money. Soft-touch fabrics, attractive graining and expensive-looking finishers all add to this sense of value.

But there is a problem here. The C3 Picasso isn’t as comfortable as it should be on a long journey. Despite a reach and rake-adjustable wheel, the driving position is flawed because you cannot get the wheel low enough, the pedals are offset to the right and, for tall drivers, there’s a distinct lack of rearward seat travel. The flat and unsupportive rear bench seat could be more comfortable too.

As for the ergonomic environment, we’d always prefer information to be presented direct to the driver’s line of vision, but the slim, three-element central display on this C3 works well. So does the switchgear, which, despite not having the clearest of labelling, is at least easy to find and use.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Citroën C3 Picasso side profile

There is always a fear when confronted with a compact MPV like this that its considerable weight, substantial frontal area and puny engine will result in a car that’s unable to get out of its own way. And so it proves with the Picasso.

It is neither the heaviest of its selected class of rivals nor the least powerful, but its power-to-weight ratio always ensures it’ll struggle. Which goes some way to explaining performance with some engines that could be described as pedestrian only if you’d woken up brimful of goodwill.

More performance would be nice, but this isn't a car bought for its dynamics

A 0-60mph time for the best-selling 99bhp diesel version of 12.8sec isn’t just slow; it’s close to inconvenient, making you plan each lunge into fast-flowing traffic with more than usual care.

But once under way the C3’s humble firepower is not the drawback it might first seem. The 99bhp diesel does at least supply adequate mid-range torque, and if you find yourself hunting through the sloppy five-speed manual gearbox for a more appropriate ratio, you will at least find the lever uncommonly close to hand.

The more powerful diesel offers more performance across the range for a fractional mpg loss and a greater asking price. If you're prepared to pay the premium, you'll likely find the extra performance welcome.

The 1.2-litre petrol might be worth considering if your mileage is low enough for you sums to show you wouldn’t benefit from the extra economy the more expensive diesel models offer. The turbocharged 1.2 petrol is a punchy performer, and it’s a free-revving engine and doesn’t feel quite as grouchy as the diesels, making it the pick of the range.

There are more sprightly small MPVs around – the Nissan Note, for example – but they tend to carry less bulk, are more svelte and with a lower centre of gravity. That tends to equal less practicality, too.

The brakes threw up no surprises for such a car: slightly over-servoed, as you might expect, but more than capable of the modest decelerative responsibilities placed at their door.

RIDE & HANDLING

Citroën C3 Picasso rear cornering

If questioned, some Citroën staff will admit informally that their research has shown that buyers of cars like this have not the slightest interest in driving fast. And we believe them. But we also believe that a car can be good and fun to drive at all speeds and at all levels of effort, something Citroën appears not to have taken into consideration.

There is nothing for even a mildly appreciative driver here; the steering is direct and linear but gives no feeling of actually being connected to the front wheels, while the chassis makes only token efforts to control the body’s primary motions. And if this were not enough to deter you from throwing it around, the unsupportive seats undoubtedly are.

Despite the body roll and lack of any driver interaction, the C3’s handling is entirely predictable

When we tested the Picasso, it came with ESP that could be switched off only below 32mph, suggesting that the need for it above this speed is so great that its presence is non-negotiable. Strange, then, that unless you pay Citroën extra for this feature, it is unavailable at any speed.

But at least the ride quality is good, something Citroën will rightly claim is rather more important to the typical Picasso buyer than handling prowess. The suspension may be simple, but it’s also compliant enough for comfort yet sufficiently well controlled not to be unduly affected by having a full load on board. But of course a compliant ride isn’t going to go very far towards helping a driver and passengers who can’t get comfortable due to the deficiencies of the car’s interior.

Be aware, though, that should you opt for some of the fancier alloy wheel treatments available, the ride quality will take a noticeable knock, and they won’t magically improve the car’s handling.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Citroën C3 Picasso

The Edition spec appears to be the most sensible choice in the range, coming with air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity for your phone, a socket for your MP3 player and remote central locking.

The range-topping Platinum trim has some gimmicky touches along with the more useful electric rear windows, automatic headlights and wipers and full climate control, but it costs substantially more and has difficulty justifying its premium.

Our test average in the 1.6 diesel of 43.4mpg was a long way from the claimed 60.1mpg

We’d recommend avoiding avoid the sat-nav option; it’s a clunky system to use and costs about four times that of the best off-the-shelf units.

List prices are on a par with rival MPVs, before you take into account Citroën dealers’ legendary desire to do a deal; discounts should run well into four figures, while finance deals are also readily available.

On our test of the 99bhp 1.6-litre diesel we returned 43.4mpg, which is close to par for such a car and provides a more than decent range (477 miles). Don’t fall into the trap of buying diesel for the sake of economy, though; the 1.2 petrol is a nicer engine and your overall costs may actually be lower if you don’t do too many miles.

Its three-year/60,000-mile warranty is what you’d expect, but residual values are no more than average for this class, making it all the more important to negotiate a big discount when you buy.

 

VERDICT

3.5 star Citroën C3 Picasso

The C3 Picasso holds nothing for the enthusiast driver, but in its great looks, class-leading space efficiency and outstanding quality, Citroën has put its finger on the pulse of what matters most to those who shop in this class. So we can forgive its dull performance and handling, leaving only its uncomfortable driving position as its one serious flaw.

We love its head-turning looks, the space and practicality on offer inside, the quality of its interior fixtures and fittings and the tremendous all-round visibility. It’s a doddle to park, too. It’s well priced (especially with sizeable discounts taken into account) and returns reasonable fuel economy.

Clever, original, practical and cool — the most stylish small MPV

Certainly we know of no better all-rounder in this sector. The small MPV market is enjoying something of a renaissance, with the likes of the Toyota Verso-S, Kia Venga and Hyundai ix20 joining the Nissan Note to rival the C3 Picasso.

However, none can match the Citroën’s blend of looks and practicality. In fact, the Citroën would seriously make us question spending a few thousand more on a five-seat C4 Picasso or any of its rivals.

 

Citroen C3 Picasso 2009-2017 First drives