Gallic quirkiness meets pragmatism in Ciroen's distinctive crossover hatchback, but there's strong competition from the Volkswagen group

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With the increasing diversification of the new car market, finding a hitherto untapped niche is no easy thing.

But the Citroën C4 Cactus – which is not a Citroen C4 (we’ll come to that in a moment) and bears little resemblance to a real cactus – is no easy thing to define. The Cactus is such a new thing that the short of the history is this: revealed at the Geneva motor show in March 2014 and on sale for four years, with a somewhat major restyle in 2018.

The Citroën C4 Cactus takes on the crossovers including the Dacia Duster, Nissan Juke and Renault Captur

There was also a C-Cactus concept — although it didn’t look much like this — in 2007, and before that there have been Citroëns with elements of the Cactus about them.

If you’re looking for inspiration that is affordable and practical, gives a loping drive and is unpretentious, the obvious source material is the 2CV. The Cactus isn’t a successor to that, but it is closer than most.

If there’s anything Cactus-like about the car, it’s the Citroën's most notable design feature: the soft pads on its flanks. They are, in some manner, like a Cactus’s spikes in that they’re a defence mechanism, but they visually differentiate the Cactus from the pack, too.

They add a ruggedness to the hatchback, although that isn’t backed up by a raised ride height or four-wheel drive.

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Throw in an eye-catching price, then, and what do you have? A new niche? A DS-like sub-brand? Just what is its closest rival? We’ll investigate more in a moment, but suffice to say: who else could make this car than the company that brought us the DS and the 2CV?

But whether our C4 Cactus is as compelling as its name appears to be is something we’ll discover during this review.

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Citroën C4 Cactus airbump

There’s a bit of subterfuge involved in the nomenclature of the C4 Cactus, which is regrettable because, in every other way, this is an entirely straightforward, honest small car. The Cactus isn’t a C4 at all.

Developed around PSA Peugeot-Citroën’s ‘PF1’ supermini platform, mechanically this is actually another bigger sibling for the C3. Although the car’s wheelbase is a match for the Citroen C4’s, its width is identical to that of the C3 Picasso.

Although the Citroën C4 Cactus has the same wheelbase as a C4, its shorter overhangs make it shorter overall

The car sits slightly uncomfortably in whichever established market segment you place it, which Citroën can take as a compliment to originality.

The French firm argues that this is just a ruggedised, right-sized, budget C-segment hatchback – a bit like a roughty-toughty Skoda Rapid Spaceback. To us, it seems a closer match for the burgeoning B-segment crossover market – next to the Dacia Duster, Nissan Juke and Renault Captur.

Either way, the Cactus is plenty of car for the money – largely because it represents back-to-basics, necessity-driven motoring done with a twist of Gallic flamboyance. If a small French car doesn’t absolutely need it, the Cactus won’t have it. But the one thing that every small French car needs to do is stand out – and the Cactus certainly does that.

Supermini underpinnings were chosen because they’re robust, cheap and, most important, light. Citroën claims that this car would have been 200kg heavier if it had been built on the larger ‘EMP2’ platform.

The engine range includes 74bhp, 81bhp and 108bhp 1.2-litre petrols (all using PSA’s latest e-THP turbo) as well as a 99bhp 1.6-litre turbodiesel.

Although the plastic body cladding and wheel arch protectors suggest otherwise, four-wheel drive isn’t offered. Three trim levels were offered at launch, comprising Touch, Feel and Flair, this has been embellished further with the inclusion of W, Flair Edition and a surfing special edition - the Ripcurl.

There are some interesting design features worthy of note, outside of the prominent Airbumps on the bodywork. For example, it's you might note that the lidded glovebox inside the Citroën C4 Cactus is so much more practical than a normal glovebox.

You might wonder why we don’t see storage solutions like this more widely – it’s because a car’s passenger airbag normally gets in the way. But the Cactus is the first commercial application of a roof-mounted airbag, making space across the whole of the fascia, on both driver and passenger sides.

Developed and supplied by TRW, the ‘bag in roof’ is fitted for both of the Cactus’s front seats. Mounted just under the headlining of the car immediately aft of the windscreen, the bag fills the gap between the glass and occupant completely as it inflates, acting as a better restraint than a normal airbag.

It also makes the dashboard easier to develop as well as smaller and thinner, because there is no need to design and test a specific airbag ‘door’ that opens with deployment.


Citroën C4 Cactus interior

Even if you aren't entirely convinced by the Citroën C4 Cactus’s styling – although to us, it seems easy to like – you’ll forgive the car largely because it has so obviously been designed from the inside out.

You get an unmistakable sense of that from the driver’s seat, which is wide and comfortable for such a small car. Head and elbow room are generous and there’s great forward visibility.

All-round visibility is very good in the Citroën C4 Cactus

The fascia in front of you is low and, rather than looking sparse or bare, has plenty of interesting design features and ritzy touches to occupy your attention.

In some ways, it’s bold in its simplicity; aside from one line of buttons atop the centre stack, functional operation of the car is confined to two LCD screens, a steering wheel, a handbrake and three pedals.

There really isn’t much else to concern or distract you; heating and ventilation settings and the like are all controlled via a central seven-inch colour touchscreen. Unless you’re looking for distraction – at which point you’ll find the designer luggage-inspired interior door handles and glovebox.

There’s a handy little shelf perfectly proportioned for your smartphone, large door bins and a large, convenient button by your right knee to activate the child locks for the back doors. Pragmatic inclusions like this abound.

Likewise, motorbike-inspired consoles, removable multi-storey storage boxes and other gimmicky features of the kind offered in other crossover superminis are notable by their absence. Although you don’t expect soft-touch mouldings throughout for a starting price of just under £13k, it’s disappointing to find such hard, scratchy plastics on the less showy parts of the interior.

The car should really offer a smidge more second-row headroom and reach adjustment on the steering column, too. So this is a merely good cabin, but it’s within sight of being a very good one.

Choosing what to adorn your Cactus with is tricky, but with six trim variations, there should be enough to please most without having to hammer the options list. The entry-level touch model, available only with the lowest powered petrol engine, comes as standard with 15in steel wheels, cruise control and, a 7.0-in infotainment display complete with DAB radio and USB connectivity, but not much else bar the common fixtures and fittings. 

Upgrade to the Feel and you get hill start assist, numerous gloss black trim parts, 16in alloy wheels, air conditioning and Bluetooth included in the package, while the Flair trim adds sat nav, a six speaker Arkamys stereo system, rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, climate control, automatic wipers and lights, and heated door mirrors. 

Those pining for a Flair Edition Cactus, will find it doesn't add much equipment of note, while the W trim chiefly adds a pearlscent white paint job, fixtures and alloy wheels alongside the stone grey 'Dune-styled' Airbumps. The special edition Ripcurl model gets numerous Ripcurl decals, orange interior trim finishings and Citroën's Grip Control intelligent traction control system, which has several different modes to deal with different surfaces - such as sand and snow.

Citroën’s nav system is good, with respectable display clarity, clear directional tulips and easy route planning. Mapping detail could be better, though.

Meanwhile, the premium stereo streams media reliably and in decent quality but sounds slightly thin and tinny overall.

A Bluetooth link is easy to establish and reconnects automatically — although not for the Touch Drive system’s built-in web browser. For some reason, we had to re-pair every time to use that — and when we did, it was very slow to load web pages and quite frustrating to use.


Citroën C4 Cactus rear quarter

Engine options for the Cactus comprise of a 99bhp 1.6-litre diesel, as well as 74bhp, 81bhp and 108bhp 1.2-litre petrols.

The 1.6-litre turbodiesel ls likely to prove popular with buyers and, in the Citroën, and is offered with a five-speed manual gearbox as standard, rather than a six-speeder, but we’ve no qualms with that if the ratios are spread evenly and make for a decent, relaxed cruise. They are here, fortunately. They’re quite widely spaced, but you can drive around it easily enough – albeit with a couple of hindrances.

The Citroën's engines are all mounted transversely and drive the front wheels

For a start, there’s no revcounter, which isn’t a huge hardship, but it is a useful tell for selecting the most appropriate gear in town. It’s more useful for that than sensing the impending arrival of the rev limit, anyway, even though this engine is quite willing when near it.

This engine has a generally relaxed, refined, nature even at higher revs, but there’s little to be gained by revving it out, because most of its good work is done in the mid-range.

The other hindrance is the gearshift, which is sometimes obstructively notchy and matched to a clutch with a cumbersome take-up. Both contrive to detract from the otherwise easy-going nature of the powertrain, which is a pity.

Put against the clock, the Cactus can reach 60mph in a reasonable 11.8sec, but to make that kind of progress, you do have to shoulder the burden and work that gearbox. An 11.7sec sprint from 30-70mph is acceptable enough.

Try the same in fourth gear and you’ll be labouring at lower revs before the motor swings into action and it wants 20.4sec to cover the same benchmark. It’s a pity, because there’s a pleasing drivetrain in the making here, but the fact is that if you choose a car from the Volkswagen Group, you’ll have an easier time of it.

The three-cylinder 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol engine is a comparatively refined powerplant which only becomes vocal when extended to the rev line. It accelerates promptly, its low weight aiding the Citroën further, and cruises with ease on the motorway.

Buyers would be advised, if petrol is their fuel of choice, to opt for the 110. Its turbocharged nature, besides granting the Cactus more pace, will deliver a more relaxed and flexible feel – especially if you've got lots of luggage or passengers on board.


Citroën C4 Cactus cornering

That there’s more Citroen C3 than Citroen C4 under the Cactus’s skin is not necessarily a great thing. DS3 aside, these underpinnings haven’t produced the most appealing small cars to drive, and the Cactus is no exception.

In a way, there’s merit to Citroën’s intentions here. It seems to want the Cactus to have a gently loping gait, in the manner of famously relaxing and quirky Citroëns. And it does, of a fashion.

The Cactus doesn't like being driven quickly but struggles through. Lots of pitch and roll; grip is fairly consistent

On some models the wheels are fairly sizeable for a supermini, but the tyre sidewalls have a generous profile so there’s compliance in the rubber, as well as in the suspension.

But there’s more to making a car comfortable over distance than just making sure that it’s relatively soft, and here the Citroën falls down. We had testers say they’d have been more relaxed on a motorway cruise or on an extended drive in a hot hatch or sports car, because at least that way they’d get some respite from having to make continual corrections.

It’s also slightly surprising on a car like the Cactus that the button to disable the traction control is given quite such prominence on the dashboard. Not that we mind. All it does is allow more wheel slip up to an indicated 30mph.

Once it has cut back in, the traction and stability control systems are pretty well judged. Some of the more sudden body movements that you get from aggressive braking and steering inputs — like the sort you’d apply in an emergency — get the light flicking and the sensors acting quite quickly. Do that and understeer is quelled relatively swiftly, and oversteer doesn’t really get a look in at all.

Driven more smoothly, it’s possible to approach the Cactus’s limits with less intervention. It’s actually more capable this way, too, stopping more confidently and quickly than if you’re harsh on the controls, but that’s almost unavoidable regardless of your ABS program.

The brakes withheld repeated stops on our dry circuit, so they should be perfectly fine down any steep incline.

The Cactus’s steering, three turns lock to lock, is light but has precious little self-centring and the suspension seems to offers little damping control at the top of its travel.

So there’s considerable initial roll and pitch, in response to even small imperfections or direction changes, which means that you’re always working at the wheel and getting pitched to different angles. On a two-minute drive, this implies that it’s softly sprung and easy to drive. But in the longer run, it’s just quite tiring.

In short, there’s nothing here for the likes of us, and that’s a pity. A base Ford Fiesta shows every other manufacturer how it’s possible to have a pliant yet very controlled ride, and the THP 155 version of Citroën’s DS3 is pretty good at it, too.

None of that legwork seems to have been put into practice with the Cactus. This basic, just-about-adequate handling might be okay on a car that’s much cheaper than its competition but, as you’re about to read, the Cactus doesn’t quite have that advantage.


Citroën C4 Cactus

The Citroën C4 Cactus may well become an appealingly low-cost ownership proposition once it’s on your driveway, but putting it there cheaply enough is another matter.

Our BlueHDi 100 Flair road test car was just under £20k once all of its options were accounted for – hardly the stuff of pragmatic brilliance. The Cactus range starts with prices beginning with a ‘12’, but so do several key rivals.

Rivals like the Dacia Duster dominate this class with incredible value for money, a spacious interior and a workmanlike nature

So although it’s a lot of car for the money, making a real bargain out of the Cactus will be down to haggling with your dealer.

The Cactus takes some beating on CO2 emissions, though, and it’s generously equipped. Fuel economy is good – at times excellent. Our BlueHDi 100 Flair's overall return of 46.6mpg was deflated by plenty of fast motorway running and our performance figuring session. Drive this car more modestly and 60mpg is easily achievable.

Wider test experience suggests that the best engine will probably be the 1.2 Puretech 110 petrol – unless your mileage is going to be high. Have it in sub-£16k Feel trim. Pay extra for a spare wheel and metallic paint but avoid the sunroof and 17-inch wheels.

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3 star Citroën C4 Cactus

If we could award road test verdicts without rotating a tyre on asphalt, the Citroën C4 Cactus would have done better.

It’s cleverly conceived, distinctive to look at on the outside and intelligently designed on the inside. It’s not as significant a car as the Nissan Qashqai, we suspect, but it’s a novel, interesting and well targeted one nonetheless.

It's an original take on an oversized supermini. Charming and frugal, but not great to drive

Trouble is, it could be cheaper. A generous dealer discount would make the difference on that front, but getting one isn’t guaranteed.

If only, then, it were a bit more pleasing to drive, with more of the vigour of a DS3 THP 155 than the dourness of a humdrum Citroen C3 hatchback. The former is no less comfortable and, by a margin, is less tiring over distance.

The gearshift, the clutch action, the steering, the damping… all could be improved. Still, above all, we crave cars that are interesting, even if they are flawed – and the C4 Cactus is certainly interesting.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Citroen C4 Cactus 2014-2018 First drives