Citroen C3: Vive la differénce
THERE had been fears that Citroen, once the most avant-garde of car manufacturers, had lost its way, writes William Scholes.
How French, of course, to go and get oneself stuck in an existential cul de sac.
In fairness, it wasn't only Citroen that seemed to have misplaced the zesty quirkiness that it was once infused with. Peugeot - which has owned Citroen since the mid-1970s - and Renault were similarly down in the dumps.
But there are signs of recovery. After years of making some pretty bland and forgettable fare, the company whose heritage includes landmark vehicles like the Traction Avant and DS, seems to have rediscovered its identity.
Exhibit A is the current iteration of the C4 Picasso people carrier; its wacky exterior styling cloaks a thoroughly rational interior build around family needs.
Then Citroen gave us the C4 Cactus, its take on the small crossover. Again, from its squinty-eyed headlamp arrangement to its ice skate blade roof rails, this is a car that looks like no other; and that's without even considering that car's most controversial feature, its 'Airbumps'.
These are a creation straight out of the original Citroen playbook: air-filled plastic panels on the flanks of the car which protect it from the sort of damage that urban warfare can inflict on a car's bodywork - attacks from shopping trollies, carelessly opened car doors, errant cyclists. Think of it as bubble wrap for your pride and joy.
Meanwhile, Citroen has spun off its DS models into a sub-brand all of its own. In the future, the DS cars - starting with the DS 7 Crossback SUV - will showcase French style and cutting-edge technology.
This will leave the Citroen-branded cars with the job of offering family transport with a French twist. That means an end to trying to emulate the austere Germans or chasing faux sportiness; a Citroen should be comfortable, above all else.
And so to the new Citroen C3, which is this new-old philosophy writ large, or at least as large as a rival for cars like the Ford Fiesta, Renault Clio and Volkswagen Polo can be.
You only have to look at it to know that it is a far cry from the last C3. Can you even remember what the old C3 looked like?
New C3 gets a similar striking front-end as that found on the Cactus, plus you can have the Airbumps on the sides of the door. Throw in some bold contrasting roof and bodywork colour combinations, et voila, you have one of the most distinctive looking new cars on sale today.
Personally, I would avoid the so-called almond green bodywork and onyx black roof combo with which the test car was painted - 'not for everyone' would be a polite way of putting it - but other, more fetching, blends are available. Playing around with them on the configurator on Citroen's website is good fun...
Climb aboard, and there is more evidence of Citroen's rediscovered identity. No-one else fits seats like this to their cars. Covered in a pleasing tweed-like material, softly sprung and bolstered like little armchairs, these are comfortable affairs that immediately alert you to the C3's complete lack of sporty pretensions.
This, I stress, is a good thing in a small family car - even if sets up an odd juxtaposition with the fact that Kris Meeke's World Rally Car is none other than a C3...
No-one else fits seats like this to their cars - covered in a pleasing tweed-like material, softly sprung and bolstered like little armchairs
Comfort, a relaxed ambience and practicality are the truly desirable qualities away from the Special Stages, rather than ultimate corner-on-its-door handles ability. Sprucefield, not the Col de Turini, is where a car like the C3 must shine and earn its corn.
There's more to the C3 than squishy front seats. There's squishy seats in the back, too. The back is unusually capacious for a car of this size class. Two children will think they are in a limousine; three will fit no bother. Even adults won't have much to complain about.
The boot is as big as you could reasonably expect in a car of this size, too; small cars aren't as small as they used to be...
As is Citroen's way these days - in fact, everyone is at it - a central touchscreen takes care of many of the car's main functions.
The radio, sat-nav and Bluetooth phone are among the jobs delegated to the touchscreen along with, a little less intuitively, the heating controls.
It means that if you have been changing radio stations and want to turn up the heat, you have to go first to the heating control menu before guiding your finger to make the appropriate adjustment. Citroen isn't alone in this, but it's questionable whether this really accomplishes the job any more quickly - or safely - than an old fashioned knob.
One of the features Citroen highlights is the 'ConnectedCAM', which is a built in dashcam. The camera is fitted behind the rear view mirror and means the car is recording what the driver sees through the windscreen.
This may be of help in the event of an accident and determining what happened, though I am less convinced about how another of the gadget's features - the ability to take a photo and share it on social media - advances safety. As I've written elsewhere, I wonder if we are at risk of driving ourselves to distraction with our in-car gadgets?
The driver's dashboard instruments are clear and simple, the driving position is comfortable and though the gearbox and clutch action isn't going to keep the engineers at Mazda and Honda awake at night, the controls are well weighted. There is a lot to like here.
Under the bonnet can be found the sort of petrol and diesel engines you might expect on a car like this.
The C3 is roomy, cheap to run and shot through with the sort of classically French detailing and thinking that has been absent from too many Citroens for too long
That means a 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol - Citroen calls these 'PureTech' - with outputs of 67bhp, 81bhp or 109bhp and a 1.6-litre four-cylinder 'BlueHDi' diesel with either 74bhp or 99bhp.
All are front-wheel-drive and a five-speed manual gearbox is your only transmission choice, unless you go for the six-speed auto which is optionally available only with the most powerful petrol engine.
The test car had the more powerful diesel engine and while it did an admirable job of moving the C3 along, I would try a petrol model before buying - the little petrol engine that Citroen and Peugeot share is a gem, and small petrol engines are often a better match for cars of this size than diesels.
I would caution against choosing the least powerful petrol model though - it's 0-62mph time of 14.0 seconds is glacial...
For those who prize comfort and relaxation the Citroen C3 should be at the top of the shopping list
None of the engines are going to give the C3 a hot hatch-troubling turn of pace, and nor is its chassis set up to challenge a Mazda 2 or a Ford Fiesta ST.
This is not a criticism, but more of an observation; everything about the C3 is built around comfort and relaxation, so while it will understeer in corners if too much is asked of it and the steering is too light to give enthusiast drivers much fun, the trade off is a supple ride and a general air of calmness.
There are three trim levels - rising from 'Touch' to 'Feel' and 'Flair' - and a wide range of personalisation options.
The available safety kit includes lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, a reversing camera, an 'it's time to take a coffee break' alert and traffic sign recognition.
Adding to the C3's appeal is its competitive pricing - the cheapest model is £11,135 and the dearest costs from £17,625, and that's before you factor in Citroen's traditional finance offers and other incentives.
Taken together, it means there is a lot going for the C3. Those who want more precision and vim in their daily driving experience may prefer to look elsewhere, but for those who prize comfort and relaxation the Citroen should be at the top of the shopping list.
The C3 is roomy, cheap to run and shot through with the sort of classically French detailing and thinking that has been absent from too many Citroens for too long.
It may not be a revolutionary car in the mould of the DS, but it is a welcome step in the right direction towards regaining a distinctive identity - vive la difference, Citroen.
AT A GLANCE
Citroen C3 Flair BlueHDi 100
Price: £17,385. As tested £18,845. Options included 'urban red ambience' £150, blind spot monitoring £100, satnav with 7-inch touchscreen £500, keyless entry and start £250, 17-inch alloy wheel s £200
Engine and transmission: 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 109bhp, 151lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 115mph, 0-62mph in 10.6 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 76.3mpg (EU combined); 50.2mpg (real world), 95g/km
Car tax: £120 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 21 per cent