Think of the Cactus as simple, straightforward family transport. It’s actually based on a stretched version of the simpler chassis that undergirds Citroen’s C3 supermini. And most of the engines it runs with are borrowed from the C3 too, with the range entry-point covered by 75 and 82bhp ‘PureTech’ petrol powerplants that wouldn’t be up to shifting along the brand’s much heavier C4. The top 110bhp version of this 1. 2-litre three cylinder unit very definitively is though, which means it can move this lighter Cactus along with alacrity.
The car is more comfortable of course in the city, where the reasonably tight turning circle and Citroen’s supple, absorbent ride make it a pleasant commuting companion. The suspension set-up’s a simple one, but it’s still been expertly tuned to iron out the scars and undulations of our country’s terrible tarmac in a way that few rivals can emulate.
Trendy town folk will be the people Citroen will mainly be targeting with the automatic versions of this car – the ones you have to go for to have the clever full-width sofa-style front seat.
Come on, what other mainstream brand could really have brought us this car? You may not like it but you’ll certainly notice it and want to talk about it. Some will love the look, while others will struggle to see the point. Would that all automotive design produced such clear, distinct reactions. Whatever your preferred standpoint, you can’t deny the way this Citroen delivers on its promise of flamboyantly different, back-to-basics motoring with a uniquely French twist.
If it’s all to your taste, you’ll find the whole effect supremely stylish – and sensible too. Designer Mark Lloyd believes the two issues need not be contradictory – and for proof, points at the feature most likely to get the neighbours talking when this Citroen appears in your driveway - the side cladding panels, known by the brand as ‘Airbumps’. These raised thermoplastic polyurethane mouldings are like a cactus’s spikes in that they’re a defence mechanism, not in this case from wild animals but from everyday dents and dings caused to your side panels by things like supermarket trolleys or somebody else’s car door. Indeed, Citroen reckons you could scrape a shopping trolley right down the side of a C4 Cactus and the Airbumps would save it from damage.
Inside, it’s equally futuristic – and would look even more so if in this case, I were trying an automatic version, for this variant offers a unique continuous ‘sofa-style’ front seat that stretches from one side of the cabin to the other, though can still only accommodate two people. In the case of the manual model, it’s a touch disappointing to have to revert to a more familiar layout, the need for a floor-mounted gearstick necessitating the installation of a couple of conventional chairs, though they’re well-bolstered and supportive and have a premium feel when trimmed in the optional black leather and cloth.
Compensatory design flourishes that all models get include the aircraft-style handbrake, door handles inspired by leather luggage straps and, what is probably my favourite feature, the huge, stylised lidded glovebox. The reason it’s so big is that for the first time on a production car, the dashboard doesn’t have to swallow a passenger airbag, this feature instead moved up to the roof where it’s mounted just under the headlining.
Otherwise, the atmosphere is simple and minimalistic, with the operation functionality of the car confined almost completely to a couple of digital LCD screens, the smaller of the two visible through the smart Bi-tone steering wheel.
Time to take a seat in the rear and put the practical promises Citroen has made with this car to the test, principally those suggesting family hatch standards of space despite the supermini underpinnings. In terms of legroom, this model delivers on those claims thanks to a wheelbase that’s been stretched to match that of the brand’s more conventional C4 family hatch.
When you move back to the luggage bay and discover this to be the only C-segment-sized car I can think of that doesn’t offer a split-folding rear bench. Citroen says that the deletion of this feature saves 6kgs of weight, but that’s a penalty I think most users would gladly shoulder for the versatility you get from such an arrangement. Still, at least much of the time you may not need to push forward the seats thanks to a reasonably-sized 358-litre boot.
The bottom line here is fairly straightforward. No other compact, fashion-conscious rival can better this car when it comes to fuel and CO2 emissions. Such are the benefits of the ‘PureTech’ petrol and ‘BlueHDi’ diesel technology that Citroen has been able to install beneath the bonnet of the Cactus.
With the BlueHDi diesel unit, a Cactus user is supposed to be able to return 83. 1mpg on the combined cycle and put out 90g/km of CO2, which means it’ll go around 7 miles further on every gallon and put out 5g/km less CO2 than a C4 hatch with exactly the same engine beneath the bonnet.
The Citroen brand, it seems, is at last being allowed to be distinctive, innovative and different. Though the company’s sporting DS models have long suggested this, many of its mainstream offerings have continued to stay rather too close in concept to those of sister brand Peugeot. This car’s different though, a Citroen straight from the Chevron old school, quirky, striking and uniquely Gallic.
All of which would probably be enough to justify this car’s existence even if it wasn’t so impressively efficient and practical. As it is, adding in these sensible virtues to a package of idiosyncratic ones has created a refreshing alternative to compact automotive mundanity.
Which leaves us with what? A car Citroen hopes that target users will see as simple, sensible and stylish. A car that makes frugality a little more fun. That’s a concept we can all buy into.