IAIN ROBERTSON 

Some new cars get slipped into the market with minimal fanfare, highlights Iain Robertson, their manufacturers believing that those models can achieve what they need to, without spurious verbiage and wasteful marketing spends.

In the case of the Citroen C3 Aircross, a car that is in effect as subtle as a Gypsy wedding taking place in a Quaker’s Meeting Hall, the need to spend heavily on promoting the Gallic newcomer looked unlikely. However, Citroen is a company without renown for any 4x4s, let alone many SUVs. It was gifted a chance a few years back, when a marriage of convenience led the Dutch, Born-built Mitsubishi Outlander to foster a pair of PSA Group alternatives – 4007 and C-Crosser – but it did not handle them at all well, especially in the UK.

Not long afterwards, lacking the commensurate blend of confidence (no history), technological capability (wrong types of engineer) and money (to develop any new car costs a lot and, at the time, PSA was a few crusts short), the company sidled up to Bosch and co-developed ‘Grip Control’. To anybody familiar with some of the more recent dial-a-setting traction control devices fitted to several brands of 4×4 vehicles, Grip Control follows a similar pattern, with the notable exception that it only has to manage two and not four driven wheels.

Intriguingly and contrary to some opinions, this ingenious device does feature sensors for wheel rotational speeds and both in-line and lateral g-force acceleration indicators, rather than treating the undriven wheels as having zero impact on a vehicle’s attitude, even though their effect is only on the pair of driven stub-axles. There are both ‘on’ and ‘off’ settings to what is a controllable Electronic Stability Programme (ESP). However, there are also Snow, All-terrain and Sand modes on the dial, each enabling slightly different drive priorities, including an alternate wheel ‘joggling’ in the latter mode, which helps with extrication and may even reduce the risk of getting stuck in the first place. It is clever, of that there is zero doubt.

By installing this technology in what is an otherwise, in chassis terms, conventional (front driven) SUV, Citroen (and Peugeot) is not merely avoiding 4×4 complexity and associated, higher running-costs implications but is also hiking its quite important junior-league model onto a plateau not shared by the vast majority of its rivals, none of which (apart from the Peugeot 2008, naturally) can boast remotely similar levels of tractability. Grip Control is, therefore, the most practical, all seasons safety device fitted to a car in this class.

Today’s car customer is a very strange one, apart from its near-sheep-like commonality of thought in respect of the archetypal SUV. A fair percentage of them is attracted magpie-like to bling by the bucket-load. The rest, while donning their SUVs like a badge of office, seem to seek an aura of disruption. While Peugeot tends towards the former, Citroen leans heavily on the latter, which also seems to comply with an element of its past that I feared it might have forgotten, with its broader corporate mentality.

Reviewing the Aircross’s exterior design elements, it eschews the Samurai straight-edges of its Oriental rivals and ignores the conservative equivalents of its Germanic competitors. It is all rounded and semi-organic, aspects that demand advanced plastics and sheet-metal pressings that need to be taken into account, when addressing the bottom-line of its invoice. What you see here lists at an immodest £22,795, which includes £400 for the aforementioned Grip Control, £950 for the electric opening panoramic glazed roof, £650 for the Techno hi-fi pack, £295 for the ‘flat’ paint and £750 for the houndstooth check and orange leatherette interior décor, more of which in a moment.

Powered by the tried and trusted 1.6-litre BlueHDi turbo-diesel engine, in top-level Flair trim, 117bhp is available, allied to 221lbs ft of torque, and it drives through a notchy but satisfyingly geared six-speed manual transmission; the large, palm-shaped gearknob demanding precise movements. Naturally, PSA is proud of its green advancements and an exhaust emissions figure of 107g/km CO2 is not bad from a car that can also return up to 68.9mpg (Official Combined), while topping out at 114mph and despatching the 0-60mph sprint in a moderate 10.4seconds. It is that great slug of diesel torque which makes its progress feel so effortless, despite tipping the scales at an uncharacteristically chunky 1,203kgs kerbweight.

Yet, its 4.1m body length and 1.6m height allow easy access to its smartly attired cabin. To be frank, the test car is a bit too ‘chavvish’ for my personal taste, although its colour makes a welcome change over the customary shades of grey featuring in almost every rival’s corner (a choice of four colourways is available). The different textures and sheer tactility of the interior shift the Aircross onto a significantly more desirable plane. It is interesting and I applaud Citroen for making the effort. While the much-vaunted ‘air-bumps’ that featured on the original Cactus model and were promised wholesale on all future Citroens have been toned down a lot, their essence can be spotted within the interior trim detailing; again, it adds to the interest levels. Incidentally, the boot is large and well-shaped, with 410-litres of practical space.

While the instrument faces make the facia a touch fussy and there is also a flip-up Perspex panel incorporated within the section above the dials for the HUD, Citroen has managed to incorporate a funky, fun aspect to the interior that is smile-inducing. I like especially the wireless charging pad ahead of the gearstick and the touch-screen is usefully configurable and easy to operate.

The C3 Aircross also delivers a decent drive quality. While the damping is firm, the suspension travel is long, which means that bump absorption is well-managed and the overall ride quality is wonderfully compliant. Nicely balanced steering responses and good brakes enhance the poised chassis dynamics.

Conclusion:   Citroen has performed a superb task on the C3 Aircross. Importantly, it is recognisable as a Citroen. Its annual road tax is £140 and, with service intervals set at 20,000-miles, it offers a conveniently low-cost base that promises good overall performance and decent longevity from a range that starts at a lowly £13,995.