The Citroen C4 Cactus has downgraded its airbumps, but gained new suspension and engine. Can that turn it into a true rival to the VW Golf and Peugeot 308?

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When the Citroen C4 Cactus launched in 2014, it was the start of a new style-led era for the French car maker which marked a return to its trademark quirkiness of old.

The car’s Marmite-effect side airbumps, which have since made their way across much of the range, became synonymous with a new time for Citroen under the tenure of Brit boss Linda Jackson. While the styling was divisive, the model was a modest success for Citroen, outselling its more sensible sibling, the Citroen C4, in Europe.

Citroen has achieved its goal: to make the updated C4 Cactus more comfortable than its predecessor with better suspension and better seats

This revised model, almost four years later, brings a couple of notable changes. Firstly, those airbumps are resigned to the side sills, a result of customer feedback says Citroen, but still a disappointing step away from its previous characterful design which set it apart from so many rivals.

Secondly there’s its Advanced Comfort programme, which includes a host of technologies intended to “emphasise a feeling of reassurance, comfort and calm,” according to Citroen. Most notably, that means it has Advanced Comfort seats with adjustable lumbar support and an extra layer of foam plus its Progressive Hydraulic Cushions suspension set-up which promises “a magic carpet effect”.

The suspension adds a pair of secondary hydraulic dampers into each coil-sprung suspension corner, replacing the traditional rubber bumpstops at the top and bottom of the wheel travel. Because the damper progressively cushions the wheel travel at the two extremes of movement, engineers have specified more comfort-oriented springs and dampers for the main job of isolating the car body from the road.

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The car also gets a revised front end with extra chrome and a prominent Citroën double-chevron badge designed to look more upmarket.

What impact does the C4's suspension make on the ride? 

The C4 Cactus has always been a tricky car to position against rivals. Despite Citroen’s earlier insistence that the Cactus’ sibling, the C4, had a place alongside it, it has now confirmed that the C4 Cactus will replace the ageing C4, at least in the mid-term, with a new C4 likely due in 2020. So, for now, traditional hatchbacks such as a Peugeot 308 or Volkswagen Golf are its most obvious rivals, though given its very slightly elevated ride height, there’s crossover (see what I did there) with compact SUVs, too.

We’re driving the three-cylinder 1.2-litre 128bhp unit, the Puretech 130, with six-speed manual, which is already used in many PSA Group cars including the Citroen C3 Aircross and Peugeot 308, but only makes its debut on the C4 Cactus now. There are two more engine choices: the lesser-powered 108bhp Puretech 110 is likely to be the biggest seller in the UK, and there’s also a 98bhp BlueHDi 100 diesel.

The most notable change are the Progressive Hydraulic Cushions, intended to absorb and dissipate energy from bumps so there’s no rebound. In truth, that claim is a stretch – in bad, speed-bump-ridden urban situations, there was still plenty of impact, particularly on the rear axle. But, broadly speaking, this revised Cactus C4 is definitely more floaty than the last, making it a comfortable, soft ride for the majority of our test road, which harks back to what old Citroens, such as the CX, were known for.

It still doesn’t feel damped as effectively as a Volkswagen Golf but it does have a character of its own (and one that will appeal to plenty of people) which is commendably rare in the family hatchback class. That swafty sensation also means more body rolls than other hatchbacks around corners.

Another floaty element: the steering. Citroens aren’t known for their direct, accurate steering, and this one’s no different. The C4 Cactus has vague though pleasantly light steering, but does need plenty of input on anything other than dead straight road, something you don’t find in a Volkswagen Golf and, to a lesser extent, in a Peugeot 308.

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Tallied with glitchy gear changes, particularly lower down the range, it’s not awfully intuitive for tricky urban driving, but higher up the gears, there’s a pleasant sweep from fourth to fifth to sixth.

Performance is more than sufficient with this new 128bhp addition to the range, which achieves 0-62mph in 8.7sec. There was less torque from go than expected for a punchy 128bhp three-cylinder, but it held its own on a varied route and was never left wanting. That said, we also tried the 108bhp Puretech 110 and there was little discernable difference between the two - given the latter's almost a grand cheaper, it's worth trying.

Noise from that 128bhp engine and elsewhere was also minimal: another desired effect from Citroen as it attempts to make a person’s time in a Citroen as calm and relaxing as possible under its Advanced Comfort badge.

Does the C4 Cactus really get interior comfort right?

Where that comfort tag really rings true is the seats. Staying true as it can to the original C4 Cactus bench-like seats, these are big, wide and comfy. On our three-hour drive, there was little fidgeting; the downside is less space in the centre console for storage and very deep seats which affect rear leg room.

The interior is simple: it has a touch of premium on the dashboard, but below that its mostly cheaper plastics. The minimal design is calming and different, though it borders on feeling too sparse, as if there isn’t enough technology befitting of a modern car to play with. That’s because most of it works through the touchscreen…

The PSA Group’s 7.2in touchscreen infotainment system has long been criticised for being glitchy. But it keeps improving and testing the touchscreen today, there was very little delay in reaction. For many, the temperature controls on the screen are a step too far, and indeed, it does seem less natural than more traditional buttons and dials.

Entry-level Feel trim is well equipped, with 16in alloy wheels, hydraulic cusion suspension, advanced comfort seats, cruise control, Bluetooth music streaming, split folding rear seats, and electrically adjustable heated door mirrors.

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We drove the top-of-the-range Flair, one of two trims, which gets the kitchen sink then some. It includes sat nav, rear parking sensors and reversing camera, panoramic glass roof, 17in alloys and tinted rear windows, plus a host of safety technologies including lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and reversing camera.

How does the C4 Cactus compare to its rivals?

Citroen has achieved its goal: to make the updated C4 Cactus more comfortable than its predecessor with better suspension and better seats.

It’s ultimately a flawed thing, surpassed in nearly every dimension by one rival or another, but it’s also one of the most characterful cars on the market, despite those dumbed-down air bumps.

The model will never be for the many, but for those who want to stand out from the crowd both in looks and feel behind-the-wheel, it’s a worthy, reasonably priced consideration.

Citroen C4 Cactus 2018-2020 First drives