Vehicle packaging and presentation is immensely important, states Iain Robertson, as can be proven by a spec’d-up midfielder from Citroen that is immensely alluring but, when it’s as adventurous as a C3 Aircross, it’s no surprise that it’s a winner.

French carmaker, Citroen, can hardly be described as having had an easy ride in recent years. It has produced some marginally interesting new cars but they have been smitten with poor reliability. Yet, if one major criticism might have been levelled at the company, it would be that it had lost all of the curiosity appeal and inventiveness that Andre Citroen instilled into the brand during its formative years.

Citroen’s recent promotional stance has highlighted a dichotomous Germanic envy, in that it seems to recognise that, to be a sales success in Europe, a need to be Teutonic is an essential attribute. Wrong! Citroen just needs to dip back into its memories and past glories, reflecting them in a fresh image that focusses on the Gallic qualities of its products. Well, here’s a shock for you…the latest C3 Aircross does precisely that and, by heavens, it works!

Had you contacted me by ’phone to ask what colour my Citroen test car was, you might have believed that ‘Soft Sand’ was a subtle beige, or gold, in hue. Had I explained that it is more a light, muddy grey, your response might not have been even moderately ecstatic. Yet, enhanced by an ‘Orange Pack’, at zero extra charge that adds a vibrant contrast to the lamp surrounds, mirror housings, roof runners and the interior air-vents, and subtle becomes circus-time.

Of the three trim levels Citroen offers on its C3 Aircross model line, Touch is entry-level, Flair is loaded and the test car’s Feel is the halfway house. However, it is almost facile these days to provide anything more, because customisation is the market motivator and trim levels only ever offer a base-line of sorts. Once the box-ticking exercise takes place, the £17,220 list price of the car you see pictured here, rises by £3,720, of which the panoramic electric opening roof costs £950 and the Citroen Connect Nav £600. The upshot is that the car is not ‘cheap’ but it also highlights, once again, that buyers need to beware of what they opt for.

Powered by the 1.6-litre BlueHDi turbo-diesel engine that develops a modest but wholly effective 97bhp and a substantial 151.2lbs ft of torque produced at a lowly 1,750rpm, its 1,203kgs kerbweight simply becomes a vehicle statistic. Working the slick 5-speed manual gearshift judiciously delivers a largely unexpected level of verve. The Aircross will crack the 0-60mph benchmark in a smidgen under 12.5s, before coursing on to a maximum velocity of 109mph, while emitting a mere 104g/km of CO2.

However, the figures do little more but inform, because the reality is somewhat punchier than expectation. Of course, planning for overtakes, pulling out at junctions and mixing it on roundabouts demands careful planning but what results is great practice in the fine art of maximising the potential driving experience, which is no less than exquisite. What’s more, it can all be carried out up-one-more-gear than you might have believed was possible. Intriguingly, the Official Combined fuel return, given as 70.6mpg, is entirely achievable, without requiring parsimony on the throttle depression front. Pushing the envelope a touch results in a slight reduction to around 62mpg, which underscores that even a less cautious driver can obtain outstanding frugality from this car and a potential non-stop driving range of upwards of 600-miles from the 9.9g tank.

Of course, it is diesel-powered, which will not please everybody and there are three, three-cylinder, 1.2-litre petrols in the range, with power outputs of 80, 108 and 128bhp respectively that are well worth contemplating, with the latter pair driving through a six-speed manual transmission (a slightly higher-powered, 118bhp version of the diesel engine, also receives a 6-speed ’box to play with). However, dismiss all thoughts of the 5-speed unit on the test car being a poverty-spec option, because its leggy gearing (a 70mph cruise demands just 2,000rpm in 5th) makes fullest use of the available torque.

Sticking with the mechanical aspects for a few moments, apart from the knife-through-butter shift quality, the Aircross benefits from deliciously weighted and surgically precise steering, allied to a tight turning circle (for perfect around-town manoeuvring and easy parking), while the all-round disc brakes provide glitch-free stopping power. The conventional springs and dampers suspension system is not what might be termed ‘typically French’, as it provides a firm but comfortable ride quality, while body-roll is well-contained and even hard braking does not induce unfortunate pitch. In fact, the overall control of the Aircross’s chassis is exemplary.

Once you overcome the initial ‘shock’ of the exterior décor, the interior proves to be every bit as inventive as any Citroen has been, throughout the brand’s history. The main dashboard panel is clad in a kind of ‘Jersey’ fabric that is carried in colourway to the seat upholstery fore and aft, although even the seats feature a black lower section and a red transverse stripe that adds visual appeal and lifts the inside of the car into a luxurious and alternative, style-led league. Although they have the appearance of being flat and lacking in shape, the front seats are incredibly comfortable and very supportive, while the driving position is multi-adjustable, the steering column providing a wide range of rake and reach options for the steering wheel.

An unconventional parking-brake handle between the seats works naturally in the driver’s left palm, while the otherwise conventional dash panel contains analogue instrumentation, digital read-outs for the on-board computer and a central touch-screen that controls heating and ventilation, stereo system and sat-nav, plus settings for the driver aids. The switches are few are number, which creates an uncluttered and delightful driving environment. Of course, the driver’s door provides a panel for the electric windows and door-mirror adjusters.

There are plenty of convenient storage slots dotted around the cabin, which means finding a rattle-free place for house keys, loose-change and in-car paraphernalia is excellent. Even the drinks-holders, located ahead of the gearstick, can be removed to reveal a deep tray instead. The split-level boot can adjust between 410 to 520-litres of class-leading space below the parcel shelf, more than doubling the carrying space, when the split-fold rear seats are rolled forwards. Yet, in common with other PSA Group products, the glovebox is a complete waste of space, with more than half of its potential contents being occupied by the fuse-box, which Gallic ingenuity suggests cannot be moved to the driver’s side of the car, thereby loosing a decent amount of storage ahead of the front passenger. One of these days, PSA will wake-up and appreciate that almost half of its production is in RHD cars!

Citroen has created a chunky looking but fun-loving compact hatchback in the C3 Aircross that complies with current thinking in an SUV vein. Naturally, it is not 4WD and there is no option for it, but it looks the part, with its wheel-arch extensions, front and rear lower bumper trim detailing and a slightly increased ride height. The cabin is very easy to enter and alight from and there is good space in the rear for three-abreast seating.

Conclusion:    Citroen has captured the zeitgeist with its C3 Aircross. At just over 4.1m in length it is a compact model but it offers excellent accommodation thanks to its short overhangs and long wheelbase. In test guise, its diesel engine is excellent for its overall performance but there are several options for petrol-lovers. Fun, funky, thoughtful and easy to live with, it is unsurprising that it has become a strong seller for the French carmaker.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).