By on March 21, 2015

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Thanks to endless regulations surrounding crash safety and emissions, the modern car is increasingly homogenous. Pedestrian safety regulations mean that a high hood and a flat front end are a must, while environmental requirements dictate a “reverse-teardrop” shape and a big, turbocharged engine to deal with the weight of the other passive safety features, not to mention all of the creature comforts and electronic active safety gadgets that are considered mandatory by many consumers.

Unless you’re Citroen. Then you create the Cactus.

What more would you expect from the company that brought you the DS, the SM, the XM and of course, the 2CV? It looks like a supervillain-designed lunar rover from the outside and a cross between Enterprise spaceship and the iconic 2CV from the inside.

It would almost be sinister looking if not for the Airbump panels, which gave the car its name. They’re basically the vehicular equivalent of bubble wrap. The soft plastic with air underneath protects the bodywork from parking-lot dings, which is brilliant. They are a bit like the spikes on a Cactus, designed to protect the rest of the exterior in the same way that the prickly stuff protects the fruit of the plant from being eaten by predators.

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And the interior isn’t too shabby, either. Citroën dispensed with traditional instrument panel and controls on the dashboard and center panel. They have been replaced by a display in front of the driver and touchscreen in the middle. The main display replaces the instrument panel with digital graphics straight out of a 1980s sci-fi flick. It probably looks exactly like something 1980s designers would use, if they could. It looks kind of like 1988 Oldsmobile without the technology constraints.

The touchscreen in the middle is far more conventional affair. It’s basically the same one you can also find in a Peugeot 308 and many other PSA models. It’s quite good, with nice graphics and fairly quick reactions, but I don’t really like the fact that it replaces almost everything else that normal car places on the central panel. Like HVAC controls or basic radio controls. And there is no way to split the screen for several functions. If you’re in radio menu and suddenly want to change the temperature or direction of the ventilation, you have to go to the HVAC main screen, do the changes, return to the main Media screen, and go back through everything. Not exactly convenient, let me tell you.

But on a positive note, this move has freed up a lot of space, which was, smartly, used to provide actual space. In a way, the Cactus’ interior feels similar to old American cars, with bench seats and no consoles. It is really trying to mimic an old 2CV, but with general increase in car dimensions, it is more like a 1960s Plymouth Valiant or maybe the aforementioned 1980s Oldsmobile, with plush armchairs for the seats.

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It’s even possible to get something that’s as close to bench front seat as you get in 2015 car. The tested car was a manual version with two individual seats and some space in between, but if you opt for the automated ETG transmission (which is probably Citroën’s code speak for a drunken chimpanzee in a box, based on its sophistication), you get an armrest which fits flush with the seats, creating a de-facto bench seat.

Together with the plush suspension and tall sidewalls, this makes for quite a comfortable ride and lets you forget that what you’re driving is basically a mediocre French hatch with rather unsophisticated McPherson/torsion beam suspension. It’s distinctively unsporty, but as long as you don’t test the limits and don’t go farther than, say, 7/10ths, it’s quite pleasant to drive. Around town, it’s fun and tossable, and at modest highway speeds, it remains surprisingly comfortable for such a small car. It doesn’t really shine at higher speeds and crosswinds at 100+mph are tiresome, but I can imagine taking it om holiday several hundred miles away.

Part of its appeal comes from the combination of torquey, punchy 1.6 HDi diesel with 100hp (EDIT: not 136hp, as previously stated – thanks to reader Vega for correcting me!), and lightweight construction. The diesel Cactus weighs just 1,160kg (just under 2600 pounds) and the gasoline ones are even lighter, which makes up for seemingly weak engine line-up. And it helps with fuel economy, too. It’s easy to get 45mpg and with a proper 6-speed transmission, the numbers would be even better. The drive would be better, too – the transmission is not only missing a cog, but also clearly comes from the days before the PSA found out how to build a good one (about 4 years ago). It’s rubbery and imprecise, not really on par with competing cars.

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And there’s one more area where Cactus hides its city car roots. Even though it’s based on C3 supermini (and not C4 family hatch), it’s surprisingly roomy inside. Rear seats can accommodate a pair of fully grown adults, although their flatness and firmness makes them more suitable for child seats. And the trunk, with 348 litres (12.3 feet) of volume is suitable for a small family as well. Both cabin and trunk offer space comparable to the Volkswagen Golf which, in theory, should be a class above Cactus.

The Cactus really is a weird car that works. It overcomes its humble roots and offers an enticing combination of fun, comfort and originality. It’s unique enough to be cool, small enough to fit in the city and roomy enough to fit your family. And it brings hope that cars don’t have to be boring to be good.

P.S.:

It is brown, it’s diesel, it’s manual and it can be considered a wagon. And it’s a Citroën! Somebody call Jalopnik!

@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a ratty Chrysler LHS. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.

Photo: David Marek

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59 Comments on “European Review: Citroën C4 Cactus 1.6 BlueHDI...”


  • avatar
    V8Roving

    How much does one of these cost with the diesel and a 6-speed? (Relative to a VW golf i guess so we have a reference)

    If we had these here in the US this would almost surely be purchased in the next month rather than a 15 Golf wagon…

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Currently, about the same as Golf, spec-for-spec. But Citroëns tend to be quite expensive when they’re launched and fall in price quickly (or get offered with discounts). Don’t know about other markets, but in Czech Republic, I’m already able to find a nicely specced C4 Cactus for the price of the base Golf TSI. I expect them to cost just slightly more than the C4 in a year or two, meaning they’ll be closer in price to Polo. Which is actually fair, because they’re built on the platform of C3, a direct competitor of said Polo.

    • 0 avatar
      oli

      At least in Germany it’s quite a bit less expensive.

      Cheapest 4-door Golf is 18550€, cheapest Cactus is 13990€
      Then again, in Germany the Golf would be considered one quality class higher (I don’t think so, the rest of the country would ;) )

      • 0 avatar
        Vega

        All VW bashing aside, the Golf is a more grown up car and more of a quality item. I drove both, the Golf feels 2 classes above, far more grown up. I also doubt that list prices for a comparable Golf and Cactus are close in any country, the Golf is significantly more expensive everywhere.

        • 0 avatar
          Vojta Dobeš

          If you discount for the basic “Live” trim (which doesn’t even have A/C), then the cheapest Cactus costs 339,400 CZK (about $13,400) in Czech Republic. And it still doesn’t have automatic climate control, just basic AC. Golf, with similar engine and automatic climate control as standard equipment, costs 367,900 CZK (about $14,500). Adjust for equipment, and the list prices are almost identical. And that’s the “discount” pricing (most Citroëns are “discounted” almost from the moment they go on sale).

          But the list prices and reality is a different matter – look at online offers from dealers, and you’ll see Cactus 10-20% cheaper than list.

          And yes, Cactus is in no way comparable to Golf, quality wise.

  • avatar
    Vega

    I think you are mistaken about the engine. AFAIK there is no 136hp Diesel engine available for the cactus. The 1.6HDI has only 99hp, maybe you got that mixed up with kW (100kW = 136hp)?

  • avatar
    NMGOM

    Must be me, but it seems that there are two countries whose cars often turn out to be unsightly, or least not radiant examples of great design (I won’t say ugly): The French and the Japanese. Just take a look at this Citroën….

    ==========

    • 0 avatar

      I think that´s to misunderstand the way they think about cars and design. I am not a champion of this car and I think it´s design contains illogical elements but it´s not ugly. Ugly is a Pontiak Aztek. There are more than a few American cars that are visually challenging too. Overall, it´s not a good idea to generalise, generally speaking.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I sort of like it.

    The retro-novelty of the instrument panel would wear off quickly, but I like the open interior.

    The tail is nice, but the front is a bit busy.

    Maybe I’ll get to ride in one when I visit Prague this summer. :)

    • 0 avatar
      lzaffuto

      Am I the only person that actually likes digital speedometers? I mean, everyone tells me that analog is easier to read, and that seems totally alien to my experience. I look at an analog speedometer and it is somewhere between the 60mph mark and the 70mph mark and I’m thinking… hmmm.. it seems too high for 62mph, but definitely too low for 65mph, so is it 63mph or 64mph?… How is that faster or easier than reading the exact number “63mph”? I just don’t get it.

      • 0 avatar
        kvndoom

        You’re not the only one. I have no problem with an analog tach, but I’d take a digital speedometer any day. Only ever had it on one car and I quickly learned to appreciate knowing an exact number at any instant.

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Part of the problem with analog speedos is gauge inflation in newer cars makes the spaces between the numbers needlessly tiny. Hopefully someone will realize that full LCD screens can be customized to display an analog-type speedo that tops out at 90mph or something reasonable.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    It’s strange looking – check.
    The controls are unconventional – check.
    It’s underpowered – check.

    Must be a Citroen!

    • 0 avatar
      Vega

      How is it underpowered? Low weight, (2,600lb), bags of torque, top speed over 110mph. Where is the problem?

      • 0 avatar
        dtremit

        0-60 in 10.4 seconds is pretty weak in 2015. And it’s *15* seconds in the gas-powered automatic.

        • 0 avatar
          Vega

          There is no situation in the real world where 0-60 is even close to a relevant metric. In gear acceleration is far more important. I agree that the entry level engine might be a bit wheezy, but the 100hp Diesel will have ample power for any driving situation. You just have to press the gas pedal all the way down sometimes, which is something that many Americans shy away from for some strange reason…

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Denver

            A car that is 0-60 in 15 seconds is going to be dangerously slow by ANY other metric as well. Maybe this works as a city car but if you have to be merging onto expressway on-ramps, 0-60 is a VERY relevant metric, esp. in older areas of the US where there are short or no merging lanes. For example on some of the older parkways in the NY area (Merritt, Hutchinson, Taconic, etc.) at some entrances you must enter the highway from a full stop directly into the moving traffic (some of which, regardless of the posted limit, is going 60+ mph). Now this is terrible highway design but it still exists and you need to be able to cope with it. In a car like this you might have to wait 10 min for a sufficiently large opening, all while angry NY BMW drivers are behind you honking (or maybe it is only 2 mins. but it will FEEL like 10 mins).

            The genius of the Japanese is that they have always been willing to tailor their export cars to the requirements of their export markets. They realize that their domestic market is different and what works in Kyoto is not going to work in Texas. The French have always been more “my way or ze highway” and this is why they can’t sell a single car in the US. A car like this might be appealing to a handful of blog enthusiasts typing in their basement (most of whom would never actually buy it even if they had the money which they don’t) but most Americans would run run away from this. They would sit on the dealer lot and the French would be mystified as to why no one wants them.

          • 0 avatar
            Vega

            Notice how you diverted the discussion from my point to your strawman? I did not defend the 15sec. gas automatic version, I even called it wheezy. I was talking about the 100hp Diesel variant that combines a torquey engine with light weight and will get to 60 in under 10sec, just to mention your favorite metric.

            Btw. I spent significant time on US freeways, including ramps similar to the ones you described. Nowhere did I see any driver even come near to using the full available power of his engine, no matter the size of the car. US drivers seem to believe that using revs over 3,000rpm, kickdown or the second half of gas pedal travel will immediately destroy the engine.

          • 0 avatar
            Jack Denver

            I don’t know where you are getting this from. If you are merging in a 0-60 in 15 car you are going to be flooring it and praying that it will come up to speed before someone rear ends you. Even if you drive like granny the rest of the time you are going to floor it just out of survival instinct.

            0-60 in 10.4 in 2015 in the US is what I would call “marginally acceptable” or “adequate, but barely so” , not “ample”. In 1995 it would have been ample but you have to judge cars by current market standards. Non-truck diesels are pretty much a non-starter in the US market, partly because the waters have been fouled by previous disastrous versions but also because of the price differential for the fuel, which just about cancels out the mileage benefits. For whatever reason, mfrs won’t sell them and/or consumers won’t buy them with rare exceptions.

    • 0 avatar
      LuciferV8

      In a way then, Citroen is pretty much what Saab would be if they made cheaper, weaker cars.

  • avatar
    vent-L-8

    I drove one of these last fall while stationed in Germany. As I said then, federalize one to the US legally and i’ll buy it tomorrow.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    As one who has long been enamored of Citroen’s quirky designs and especially that of the recent C4 Cactus, I am grateful for your review.

    Playing around with the product configurator, I am disappointed there is not more variety available in mixing and matching paint hues and Airbump shades, as earthtones would work very well with the yellow and red hues, yet Chocolat is limited to the gray and expensive white color selections. Perhaps, if the cost isn’t prohibitive, individuals can order a set of replacement Airbump panels for aftermarket fitment, or 3rd parties can eventually provide their own product in custom colors.

    I’m disappointed the demonstrator wasn’t equipped with the deluxe “suitcase” dashboard treatment; that’s the most appealing option on the list, and provides a definite “upscale” feel to the interior shots I have seen thus far.

    About a year ago I was having fun mixing and matching options on Citroen’s website, and heard a soft voice over my shoulder.

    “What’s that?”
    “It’s Citroen’s C4 Cactus.”
    “That looks cute; when can I test drive one of those?”
    “Citroen doesn’t sell their cars in the US any longer.”
    “Aww, you’re doing this just to tease me.”
    “Sorry; I’m as eager as you are to test one out.”

    Most people will cite various high performance bits of forbidden fruit as the reason to repeal the despised 25 year law in the US, but I’m far more interested in eliminating barriers to owning the everyman vehicles from overseas, as that’s where you often find the most surprising and delightful bits of specialized design and engineering.

    • 0 avatar
      Toy Maker

      The suitcase-styled dashboard yes!
      I was lucky enough to visit Paris last Summer and saw the Catcus in the Citroen showroom , the top opening glove compartment in the suitcase-trip is all sorts of fabulous.

      In pictures it resembles a Land Rover Evoque, definitely looks bigger that it is. In real life it’s closer in size to a Toyota Matrix.

  • avatar

    This looks like it has a high, flat front end. This looks like the rear slopes down to about 1/2 the height of the car (not as gradually as a Prius though). I think the shape is completely conventional, the silhouette is close to the Mazda CX5, or most other vehicles in that segment.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    “a big, turbocharged engine to deal with the weight of the other passive safety features, not to mention all of the creature comforts and electronic active safety gadgets that are considered mandatory by many consumers”

    Seriously? This old canard again? This just flat out isn’t true, and I wish that writers here would stop repeating it, urban-legend style, as if it was. It’s tiresome, absurd, and pointless. Yeah, yeah, I know that complaining about how everything is going to hell in a handbasket is a great way to garner street cred among the brown-diesel-manual-wagon “enthusiast” set. But at least try to complain about things that have some basis in reality.

    • 0 avatar

      He’s not complaining, he’s explaining how cars have become heavier and heavier in response to regulatory and customer demands.

    • 0 avatar
      HerrKaLeun

      yeah, as soon as a car fails (meaning only 4/5 stars) one of the twelve crash tests no consumer wants to buy it. but let’s “blame” the government for making cars safer…. what an evil thing of the government to do… saving lives.

      and I bet most weight was gained by upsizing cars, and adding all the creature comfort. Electrically heated everything, electric seats, hatches, doors. All things that add weight without government mandate (and without actually making the car safer)

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Denver

        Some of the weight was added because cars have things on them that they didn’t used to have at all – air conditioners. air bags, etc. A lot of the extra weight comes from being more crashworthy and stiffer – in the old days they built things like B- pillarless hardtops that would flatten like pancakes in a roll over and would creak and flex going over bumps. This is probably the #1 source of extra weight.

        Things like heated seats and electric hatch opening motors add ounces, not lbs.

        • 0 avatar
          HerrKaLeun

          I think the fact that a 2015 Honda Fit has the interior space of a 1990 accord added a lot. People want larger cars… but complain about added weight. People want higher cars (SUVs et al), but complain about the added weight.

          I’d bet a 2015 hinda fit has similar weight as a 1990s Accord. Has more equipment, more safety etc.

  • avatar
    drivrBob

    I like it! But I’ll never buy it! But I can see my old french teacher getting one.

  • avatar
    RHD

    “Pierre, you forgot to take off the disguise cladding from the prototype!”
    “Mon dieu! Is too late! Now the department marketing must make up a clever reason to leave it on!”

  • avatar
    Louis XVI

    Aw man, I *really* want one of these. It’s a crying shame you can’t get one in the US.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    Every time I see one of PSA’s new products, Im reminded of the idea I had when GM was restructuring and killing brands: sell Saturn (not the Spring Hill factory, just the brand and dealer network) to PSA.

    Theyd have an established name and dealer network, and the GM-based models couldve been slowly phased out as PSA federalized their products to replace them.

    Saturn owners bought into the “different kind of car” tagline, and what could possibly be more original or different than models like this Cactus?

    The only drawback wouldve been having to overcome the “plastic Cobalt” image GM saddled Saturn with before they killed it. I still believe it was doable, though.

  • avatar
    James2

    I wish the French sold their cars here in America so I can laugh at them in person.

    • 0 avatar
      koshchei

      French cars are actually really good, if you’ve ever driven one. They’re unorthodox, but very comfortable and have a terrific ride.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Denver

        Acceleration? Handling? Reliability? You forgot to mention those, and for good reason.

        If it is possible to generalize, a French car is great if you are driving down a somewhat rutted (but not very twisty) secondary road in the French countryside. It will have a great ride on a non-great surface and the interior is very comfortable. They are also good for the city where you never have to go very fast. This works out great for the French but if your country doesn’t resemble France the cars will be less than ideal.

        Their bad rap for reliability in the US stems in part from the fact that they were always a little different (and hadn’t set up a strong dealer network) so that American mechanics didn’t really understand their strange French way of doing things. The way they did things was not WRONG (the French are actually pretty good engineers), it was just DIFFERENT. But their overall reliability sucks by any standard, esp. by Japanese standards. Their cars will not put you to sleep like Toyotas but when you are broken down you will WISH that you had one of those boring Toyotas. Their Catch-22 idiosyncrasies will drive you nuts. You want to put the heat on because it is cold, but because it is cold your touch screen is frozen and you can’t turn the heat on – that kind of thing.

        • 0 avatar

          I’ll remember that next time I drive into town and pray my French car doesn’t break down on me. Though your words are not that comforting to the guy I saw on the side of the road with his indestructible, unbreakable, unstoppable two or three year old Toyota Hilux. Three hours later I drove back home and he was still there looking broken down. I’m sure if he noticed me passing hin again in my six year old Renault he regretted not getting the vastly more reliabke Frenchie.

        • 0 avatar
          Vojta Dobeš

          Citroëns, Peugeots, Renaults and Fiats are the reasons why Europeans consider Volkswagens to be bulletproof, utterly reliable a durable machines.

  • avatar
    Joss

    The Japs could learn from Citroen & Fiat on interior styling. No Sentra blahs here…

    The Citroen mystique is back. I don’t know that americans would go for it though. Too unconventional. Could 100 pull round 1,000 Ibs on interstate trips?

    Fact is they’re not here to take advantage of the current uptick in sales.

  • avatar
    SpeedyMcGoo

    This has got to be one of the ugliest cars I’ve ever seen. Rivals the Aztec. I thought this was a spy shot when I saw the first picture.

  • avatar

    I like it quite a bit. But are the windows on the rear doors fixed in place? I don’t see how they’d open as they are in the pictures…

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      They pop out, like in some coupes, or rearmost windows on old minivans.

      • 0 avatar
        Joss

        They pop out like my 80’s Chevette 2 dr. Read a few reviews. The back seat doesn’t fold flush and there’s a bit of a lip to lift over. Generally reviews are very positive but this is no Golf in the handling dept. Keep in mind Citroen ranked 26 out of 33 in euro reliability scores.

  • avatar

    I like it. PSA CUVs are quite entertaining to look at. I’d probably like the drive a bit better than the reviewer too as I do like the way the C3 and 208 drive. Thanks for the review Vojta!

    BTW any chance you get a Twingo to test? Would love to see your take on that.

  • avatar
    ravenchris

    Unusual and interesting motor vehicle.
    Thank you Mr. Dobes.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    I like the Catus, just as I like most of Citroen’s most unconventional designs from the past 60 years. Citroens are certainly on the strange side. But I don’t think they can be called ugly. It’s more a matter of personal taste. Me? I love the way Citroen thinks outside of the box – even on a tight budget.

    And I fully agree with the post above that opines that some of the most interesting and fun vehicles from Europe that we can’t buy in the U.S. are the most affordable ones, not the exotics. The Skoda Yeti is among the vehicles on this list for me. A Range Rover Evoque Coupe would be great but who can afford that? In fact, I’d buy almost any Skoda before any of a given vehicle’s VW cousin. Cheaper, better-built and more reliable. Every one.

    The truth is, cars are fast-becoming very boring due to both regulations and increasingly conservative consumers. A pity. So we have to find and celebrate the different whenever and wherever we can.

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    I mostly think this car is really cool; however, putting all controls on a touch screen is really unfortunate.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    I like it. The rear windows are a let down, specially here where it can reach >40C during summer, so A/C is a MUST.

    And it’s coming down here.

  • avatar
    Garak

    I saw one yesterday in real life. It was even uglier than you’d imagine from the pictures, with a delightful white-brown paintjob.

    According to tests and owner reviews, the touch screen and rear brakes freeze inoperable even in regular winter weather (-20C or such). The fun part is that the heater is controlled via the touch screen, so good luck getting any heat in the cabin.

  • avatar
    TonyJZX

    5th Gear UK just did a road test of the 1.2 turbo petrol manual and they were very complimentary given what the design brief was

    i actually think this looks ok, it works bet in dark colours with dark accents or white with black accents

    i would much rather this as a 2nd car than a hatch or a supermini

    as much as i like performance cars as a whole, i do really like clever design even though dash is slightly bit too avantgarde for the sake of being french

    rather have analog hvac and twin analog gauges with the usual temp/fuel level

    i would imagine outside of the EU and UK the price will be fairly high for what it is

    eg. you can get a manual Kia Forte/Cerato manual for about $18k here + $2k auto and it would have to be a fantastic mini CUV to beat that for a deal

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “It looks kind of like 1988 Oldsmobile without the technology constraints.”

    Oh, you better tread carefully with talk like that around HERE, buddy.

    ;)

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I see a missed design feature opportunity. That horizontal bar on the d-pillar is the perfect place for a modern opera lamp. Just like on the B-body Roadmaster Limited.

  • avatar

    My criticism of this car: one, the c-pillar is meaninglessly styled. Those black areas between the rear screen and the side glass are not glass. You can´t see through them. And if they were glass, it still makes no sense to have a huge body-colour panel blocking the possible view out. Dim. Two, the engineering is entirely conventional. This is quirkily styled city car. In the old days, Citroen´s unusual styling communicated original engineering.
    What I did like in the review was the reference to the XM and not the CX. The CX is great but the XM was also great.
    Finally, most people don´t opt for the brown interior shown. The standard grey plastic is a lot less interesting looking.

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