New cars very rarely look much like the eye-catching concepts they were born as. So when Citroën announced it was to put its madcap Cactus into production, very few expected it to carry over the free-flowing exterior styling and razor sharp front lamps, let alone the gigantic rubber strips that were designed to protect the doors from an urban hammering.
But the French marque has stuck to its guns and thrust the divisive Citroën C4 Cactus onto the road pretty much unchanged. Packed with quirky innovations and an unashamedly non-sporty drive, it's certainly refreshing, but what is it like to live with? We hopped in the surprisingly unprickly customer for a long weekend to find out.
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Marmite motoring for the masses
There's no point talking about the Citroën C4 Cactus without mentioning its 'striking' design. Potential owners will either love or hate the plastic Airbump technology that adorns the doors, the front end that looks a little bit like Iron Man's helmet and the coupe-esque rear windows that don't fully open.
We’ve experienced all manner of reactions during our time driving the Cactus, from young children pretending to throw up on its bonnet (really) to admiring glances and quizzical questions from strangers. It's all par for the course with Cactus ownership but if you fancy a departure from today's typical hatchback offerings, this is certainly it.
Citroën hasn't just torn up the exterior styling rulebook; it's also taken a flamethrower to interior design guides.
A clever innovation that sees the passenger airbag stowed in the roof rather than the dash frees up plenty of space for a large trunk-like storage compartment. This uber-glovebox is also decked out with hinges and patterns that mimic expensive luggage, highlights of which are featured elsewhere in the cockpit to give it a subtle high-fashion feeling.
There's plenty of room inside too, as clever packaging ensures a Tardis-like effect. Five adults can happily enjoy the boxy interior, as well as enough luggage for a long weekend away.
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Previous Citroën infotainment offerings have been a little, erm, clunky to say the least, so the addition of an intuitive 7-inch touch screen is welcome. The large display that sits proudly in the centre of the dash controls everything from media and navigation to climate control and driver aids. The system certainly isn't the quickest on the market, occasionally stalling if you swamp it with commands, but the graphics look great and it's pin-sharp.
The only bugbear is that some controls are better left to dials and switches. Having to call up air conditioning menus while on the move can be slightly distracting and a bit annoying.
The system does easily sync to smartphones though, meaning hands-free calls are a doddle and a number of apps are within easy reach. Trip Advisor, Yellow Pages and a petrol station locator can all use your smartphone's signal to operate, not to mention the seamless streaming of music via a pretty decent stereo system.
Trolley-proof as standard
There's a mathematical equation somewhere that can work out the exact time it takes a new car to go from completely unblemished to trolley marked - it's usually around two days. Parking in multi-storeys or busy supermarkets is a nightmare these days but Citroën hopes to reduce the risk of scratches and dings with its innovative Airbump technology.
The thick rubber panels that adorn the doors are filled with little air pockets, effectively encasing that section of the car in heavy-duty bubble wrap. It's the perfect height to withstand slams from other car doors, shopping trolleys and wayward children on small bikes. The Airbump strip can also be replaced at a local dealer should it start to look a little worn or if the customer simply fancies a fresh colour scheme.
The rest of the Cactus features chunky plastic bodywork that shields it from modern life and a slightly raised ride-height to ensure it clears speed bumps and kerbs.
Driving is a doddle
Most modern cars enter the world with promises of a 'sporty drive' and 'spirited handling' but many fail to deliver, so it's sort of refreshing to see that Citroën doesn't mention performance prowess once in its marketing materials.
In reality, the C4 Cactus is designed to get you from A to B with minimal fuss and maximum comfort; hence it features such niceties as Park Assist, which can automagically pull off parking manoeuvres at suitable spaces, and Hill-Start Assist that does away with the need to constantly use the handbrake. Extremely handy on our undulating Cornish test route. There's also a crystal clear reversing camera with handy guidelines and static cornering lights that provide an additional beam of light to illuminate the inside of bends.
Penny pinching powerplants
A pair of petrol and diesel engines are currently available, both mated to either a five-speed manual or an extremely simple Efficient Tronic Gearbox (ETG), which literally features ‘Drive, Neutral, Reverse’ (D,N,R) buttons on the lower fascia and steering wheel paddles to allow the driver to change gears manually.
We tested the most powerful 100hp HDi diesel unit, which was welcome because although the Cactus has attempted to make weight savings wherever possible, it's still pretty sluggish. The five-speed manual gearbox requires a fair bit of juggling to keep the engine at optimum power delivery and the steering can be a little vague on the twisty routes but hey, this isn't a hot hatch. It might take 10.7 seconds to get from a standstill to 60mph but it goes about its business quietly and without fuss. Plus, it can return 83.1mpg on the combined cycle, which is great for cheap long distant cruising.
All specs for model tested. For full pricing and customisation options check out the Citroën C4 Cactus configurator.
Engine: 1560cc turbocharged in-line four-cylinder diesel
Torque: 187 lb ft
Top speed: 114mph
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 83.1 mpg
Kerb weight: 1225kg
Citroën C4 Cactus verdict
There's no denying that the Cactus' exterior looks will polarise opinions but it's refreshing to see a hatchback that’s genuinely unique and that draws this much attention from bystanders.
Bonus points go to the brilliantly retro digital dials, a stylish touch-screen infotainment system and spacious interior, not to mention the unapologetically practical driving experience. It might not set your pants on fire with its performance, but it does innovate in other, fun ways.
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