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French firm’s new, comfort-first family hatchback has echoes of a 1970s great

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After a short hiatus, the Citroën C4 is back. The third modern mid-sized family hatchback with that particular model identity, this car is claimed to pick up on the long tradition of innovation in the hatchback segment by the French marque.

So is it really that innovative? You’ll need a pretty long memory to recall a genuinely groundbreaking Citroën family hatchback. It’s 50 years since the critically acclaimed GS won European Car of the Year in 1971, a gong that Citroën has won only twice since. The BX, ZX and Xsara that came later had plenty of fans throughout the following decades, but it’s definitely the aura of the GS that Citroën is now referencing with a new C4 that puts comfort and efficiency first.

C4’s various rhomboid details are the first styling nods to the 1971 Citroën GS; and this long sloping bootlid, with the spoiler on its trailing edge, is the second. Aerodynamic, too. We liked it.

This is a car that has been inspired by its customers, says Citroën. An amalgam of typical hatchback and compact SUV design, it’s claimed to have a bold, high-rising but tapering outline; a roomy, versatile and relaxing interior; and plenty of options for individual customer configurability. It sounds very much like a smart, affordable, alternative family car perfectly fine-tuned for our current market tastes.

As such, you can buy this car as an all-electric ë-C4 (with up to 217 miles of range) or with a petrol or diesel engine, as with several of the C4’s Stellantis group relatives. But from its outward appearance to its interior, and even its suspension specification, this car sets out to go its own way and offers things that rivals don’t.

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Read on to find out exactly how far that may take it in a family hatchback market bursting at the seams with box-fresh models.

The C4 line-up at a glance

The C4 comes with a choice of four trim levels and six engines (if you count the battery-electric ë-C4 among the latter), with automatic transmission either standard fit or optional on four out of the six.

Entry-level Sense models get digital instruments and a 10.0in infotainment system with smartphone mirroring. From there on up, there are Sense Plus, Shine and Shine Plus versions.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Citroen

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Citroen C4 2021 RT hero side

Citroën isn’t short of iconic cars on which it might base a modern ‘retro’ car design, but resisting the impulse as it has for so long is a real compliment to the leadership of its design team. And it continues to resist.

This car isn’t some doe-eyed pastiche of a 1970s classic, but rather something genuinely interesting and unusual in a fairly homogenised hatchback class. It’s alternative but cohesive; rich in visual intrigue, but not fussy or overwrought.

Car’s face comprises a slim double- chevron grille that extends into Y-shaped daytime-running lights. The big headlights have a decidedly secondary prominence in defining the car’s visual identity.

A raised ride height, high bonnet and beltlines and plenty of chunky plastic cladding around the wheel arches and sills give the C4 much of the presence of a compact SUV. It has the large, bold features to match: the big Y-shaped headlights, for example, and the scallops in the bonnet. If the frontal styling looks odd to begin with, that could be because Citroën has been opting, for a while, to construct the ‘faces’ of its cars from their slim grille and LED daytime- running light strips rather than from their headlights (which so typically stand in for the eyes of any car).

The C4’s headlights sit low and look a little awkward at first, but as you get used to them, you ascribe them less prominence. At the rear, meanwhile, the long aerodynamic-looking roof and the angular spoiler are redolent of the Robert Opron-designed GS, but not in a forced or contrived way.

The C4 uses a mix of the relatively simple and the new in its chassis and suspension. It is based on Stellantis’s Common Module Platform. It’s typically used for slightly smaller, B-segment cars – but then the C4 Cactus before it did the same thing, no doubt achieving a little cost-saving and better economies of scale for its maker. In this case, adoption of that platform has also allowed for there to be an all-electric version. (Had Citroën chosen the more expensive Efficient Modular Platform of the C4 Picasso and C5 Aircross instead, it would have been limited to a plug-in hybrid.)

The decision has little impact on mechanical layout or suspension configuration: combustion-engined C4s use front-, transverse-mounted three- and four-cylinder powerplants that drive the front wheels, and they have strut-type suspension at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, just as they otherwise probably would.

But the detail of the car’s rolling chassis specification is where it diverts from the hatchback norm. The car runs long enough springs to provide more than 150mm of ground clearance (a lot for a standard hatchback) and to make room for 18in wheels that are standard across the range and wrapped with unconventionally sized 195-section, 60-profile tyres, which have been chosen with efficiency and ride comfort in mind.

Meanwhile, Citroën’s Progressive Hydraulic Cushion fluid-filled suspension mountings feature on the compression and rebound ‘ends’ of the front struts, and on the compression side of those at the rear.

Combustion engine choice extends from 99bhp up to 153bhp turbocharged 1.2-litre three-pot petrols and includes 109bhp and 129bhp 1.5-litre four-pot diesels. Our test car was a mid-range 129bhp 1.2-litre Puretech turbo petrol with an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

INTERIOR

12 Citroen C4 2021 RT cabin

Citroën’s comfort-led positioning of this car makes for a medium-high driving position, and a slightly flat but broad seat that’s claimed to offer more foam padding than is typical of a regular hatchback.

It’s only moderately comfortable, though, and, as well as broad, it’s quite flat: easy to slide onto but with limited lateral support. It’s a little short in the cushion, too, and lacks cushion-angle adjustment or much in the way of lumbar support. (A more adjustable seat is offered as an option.)

C4’s centre stack makes quite a classy first impression and includes physical heating and ventilation controls with an inviting metallic feel.

Available space around the driver is about average. Citroën claims class-leading rear knee room, but we suspect this must be qualified with the front seats slid all the way forwards because, with the driver’s seat set for a typical adult, second-row accommodation levels are only average, with rear head room actually being a little bit mean for full-sized adults.

Boot space below the parcel shelf is 380 litres: another quite average showing. This is, of course, a pretty compact car for the European C-segment, but it’s unlikely to be one you’ll be drawn to for its practicality.

The instrument and infotainment layout is unconventional, but it doesn’t lack clarity and it isn’t made hard to interact with. Ahead of the driver is a smallish digital instrument screen that provides a very simple digital speedometer but little else at much scale. (One display mode dials up a rev counter of a sort, but it’s only small.) Our test car’s head-up display, projected on a separate pop-up screen rather than the windscreen, adds some useful extra information, but options to configure both displays are limited.

To the left of the primary controls is a good-sized infotainment system with some physical controls to aid usability. There are also tactile and materially appealing physical controls for heating and ventilation.

The car’s standard on material fit and finish is a bit mixed and the cabin isn’t free from harder, rougher mouldings. The use of chrome effectively conjures a little bit of an upmarket air, though.

The cabin also offers some really useful storage spaces and solutions, such as the Smart Pad Support system. This is a sliding storage tray for a full-sized tablet PC that slides out from the dashboard in front of the front passenger. It contains a case that slots into a cradle immediately above the tray, which has inserts to suit any number of touchscreen devices, as well as a covering screen filter that prevents the device from distracting the driver.

Citroen C4 infotainment and sat-nav

All C4s come with digital instruments and a 10.0in touchscreen infotainment system that brings with it smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android phones via a wired USB-C link.

All models but the entry grade also come with a head-up display, an extra USB charging port and a factory navigation system whose data services come subject to subscription. Our test car’s range-topping trim includes Citroën’s eight-speaker audio system (up from six as standard) and extra USB charging ports for back-seat passengers.

Citroën’s touchscreen set-up has a physical volume knob and a home button, which make it usable enough at a basic level, but it could do with a few more because finding some functions can be distracting.

The factory navigation mapping is simple but clear, its directions are easy to follow and you can set destinations in spoken fashion at the first time of asking.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

You might not expect a car as compact as the C4 to have much of the laid-back, long-striding rolling character of a classic big Citroën, but even when armed with only a mid-range 1.2-litre petrol engine, it manages some.

The eight-speed automatic gearbox feels like it’s geared just a little on the long side, to the benefit of cruising economy and refinement rather than acceleration and responsiveness. Even so, the car makes respectable progress thanks to the 169lb ft of torque that the engine provides. While there are clearly faster hatchbacks your money could buy, this one avoids feeling slow.

Enthusiasts should look away now: the C4 is dynamically happiest on a B-road at a temperate 45-55mph amble, where its steering and suspension seem to respond best.

It does so, at least, provided you avoid using Eco driving mode, which dulls the engine response quite markedly and also makes it very reluctant to downshift at all, and very keen to shift up. The mode is useful only if you want to explore the outer limits of the car’s potential for economy on a long, quiet cruise.

We selected it during our touring economy testing (indicative of a UK-typical 70mph motorway cruise) and we were impressed with the 56.4mpg that resulted. But the penalties that it imposes on drivability will mean most drivers avoid it in daily running.

In Normal and Sport modes, the gearbox shifts a lot more intuitively. There’s no kickdown switch at the bottom end of the accelerator pedal’s travel – and, just as we discovered recently in the related Vauxhall Mokka, there’s no way to select a gear manually and to be sure that the car will hold that gear under maximum load, which is an annoyance at times.

Thankfully, it doesn’t hunt around too much for a ratio when you apply some power. Shifts come slightly lazily and not always as smoothly as they probably should, but decisively enough. And just as in other applications, the little Puretech turbo engine works away industriously and affably. It’s a little ill-mannered when cold and also when revving hard, but it settles down nicely when cruising.

RIDE & HANDLING

21 Citroen C4 2021 RT cornering front

The C4 can be a curious and quite strange car to drive, or a more competent and inoffensive one, depending on where it’s operating.

In an attempt to make it easy to operate around town and to engineer in some extra-relaxing urban comfort, Citroën has tuned the power steering (quite gently geared anyway, at 2.8 turns between locks, and commanding a 10.9m turning circle, which is pretty large for a smallish car) to feel really light around town and at low speed. It requires very little physical effort when manoeuvring, but also gives you very little to push against when you’re sweeping around a traffic island or changing lanes on the gyratory, making the car feel unusually flighty.

I’d like to think there are route nationale roads in France that the C4’s suspension works on really well, but it might be wishful thinking. On craggier and less gently undulating UK B-roads, you have to adopt a gentle pace to get a flavour of it

It’s all the harder to become used to because above 30mph much of the weight that the steering has been missing duly materialises. At an unhurried 45-55mph cross-country potter, the car is much easier to place. It can roll and loll a little on a B-road even at this speed, but it generally goes where you expect it to and keeps control of its body. Go faster and the car’s gathering long-wave body movement gets unsettling; and it clearly doesn’t have the dynamic versatility of the class’s really well-rounded dynamic operators.

Choose your speed carefully and, out of town at least, the C4 can be agreeable enough, then. It doesn’t respond receptively to being hurried, and those relatively skinny tyres don’t produce much outright lateral grip when you do, although the car’s electronic stability control acts pretty subtly, and effectively, to counteract understeer when it inevitably presents, so the C4 remains stable in most circumstances. But it’s not a car to easily take to, to gel with, or to enjoy driving in anything more than a fairly disinterested way.

Comfort and isolation

Much of the success of this car’s positioning rests on its refinement; and it is a quiet-operating car in objectively measurable terms, when the surface is smooth. Tested in comparable conditions, our test car proved 1dB quieter than an equivalent Volkswagen Golf 1.5 e-TSI at both 30mph and 50mph, and 2dB quieter at idle and 70mph. Those skinny wheels and tyres and the hydraulic mountings in the suspension will have made sizeable contributions to that, as will the aerodynamic body design.

The car doesn’t feel particularly calm or especially comfortable in subjective terms, though. There’s an agreeable lope and float about the ride over longer-wave undulations taken at just the right speed (namely, that 45-55mph cross-country gait).

But there’s not quite enough rubber-footed isolation about the secondary ride to complement that sense of glide to really set this car’s ride up for glowing praise.

The axles clump and reverberate a little over sharp ridges and drain covers in a way you just don’t expect them to with that suspension specification, while at greater speeds body control can deteriorate to a point where you certainly wouldn’t call what results comfortable.

Assisted driving notes

Citroën’s trim name for the basic C4 – Sense – hasn’t been chosen by chance. Active safety is intended to be one of this car’s key differentiators, and even entry-level cars get a radar-based autonomous emergency braking (AEB) system, a speed limit recognition system and a driver monitoring system. If you want a fully up-to-date camera-based AEB system that will work at night and detect cyclists and pedestrians, though, you will need a Shine-spec car; while Citroën’s Highway Driver Assist system (which combines adaptive cruise with a lane-keeping aid) is the preserve of range-topping Shine Plus.

Highway Driver Assist is a bit flaky, dropping in and out with inconsistent lane markings; and since it requires only a dead hand on the wheel to work and doesn’t always keep you engaged on the motorway, that can be problematic. The speed limit recognition system shows the current limit in the head-up display but won’t adjust the car’s speed automatically.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Citroen C4 2021 RT

The C4 offers pretty obvious value for money as a family hatchback. The entry-level 99bhp Sense version is more than £1000 cheaper than a bottom-end Ford Focus and is cheaper than an equivalent Renault Mégane by a similar margin.

One or two rivals are cheaper still, but when you consider that this car comes with 18in wheels, a widescreen infotainment system, a basic autonomous emergency braking system and curtain airbags for both rows of passengers, it offers plenty for the money. Our test car was £1000 to £2500 cheaper than most of its upper-trim-level rivals when corrected for equipment, if not for power output.

Residuals are no selling point but not awful: CAP expects the C4 to get parity with a Kia Ceed and to shade a Ford Focus.

This car’s potential for better than 55mpg on longer runs might well appeal to some and, thanks to the generous-for-a-hatchback 50-litre tank, it would make for a range of more than 600 miles between fills. Insurance won’t be particularly cheap by volume-selling hatchback class standards, though, starting at a group 13 classification (some rivals go below group 10) and rising to group 22 for high-end trims.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Citroen

VERDICT

23 Citroen C4 2021 RT static

Citroën’s third-generation modern C4 is a car in which the sensible is blended with the unusual in several intriguing ways. Although it’s not a particularly practical mid-sized hatchback in outright terms, it is quite well priced and well equipped and has some useful features that promise to make it agreeable to live with.

There’s a certain relaxing, efficient, long-striding classic Citroën vibe about the car’s character, too, but here, the real pity is that the C4 doesn’t better deliver on its potential. Although refined in quite particular ways and circumstances, the car’s comfort and isolation levels disappoint at other times; and so many of the tactics that Citroën uses in an attempt to make it more easy to drive just make it less dynamically versatile and intuitive in a broader sense.

Has rational and irrational appeal but lacks a fine-tuned execution

The car’s value positioning and its alternative but pragmatic take on modern, safety- and convenience-first family motoring ought to make it stand out from rivals as plainly as the imaginative styling. It may not leave interested drivers wanting more, but we can’t help wondering, with more careful dynamic tuning, what might have been.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Citroen

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Citroen C4 First drives