Citroen’s faltering funkiness warrants recognition for a soft return to avantgarde
The latest Citroen C3 boasts a marginally intriguing level of funky design elements, suggests Iain Robertson, a factor for which he doffs his flat cap, with due deference to the French carmaker’s historical desire to be perceived as slightly edgy.
From the outset of Andre Citroen’s car manufacturing concern, his company was regarded as something of an innovator, a business prepared to travel the extra mile and wake up its potential customers. By the 1940s, it was developing front-wheel drive technology for a new generation and, by the late-1950s, its ID and DS models were like visitors from another planet; super streamlined, expensively engineered and world-defeatingly weird.
Citroen was destined to being declared insolvent, despite the everyman nature of its 2CV (the ‘tin snail’) and avantgarde 1960s’ models like Ami8, Dyane and GS. Its brief partnership with Michelin Tyre led to state recovery and the subsequent formation of PSA Group…from which point, although glacially slow, its character was subsumed into a Gallic, mostly Peugeot, corporate subset. Yet, it always managed to dip into its innate oddness to formulate cars like the AX, BX and CX; mere sops to its near-militant history.
In the not too distant past, the C1, C2, C3, C4, C5 and even the large and brash C6 have done their level best, even with muzzles and restraining harnesses applied, to be standout abnormal but, apart from oddball suspension media, corporate conventionality has been the governing feature. Visit a motor show and Citroen’s concept cars will have painted, with Renoir detailing, a somewhat more out-of-the-ordinary portrait, or one-off portent, of the future…only for minute details to be carried onto the production alternatives.
Yet, if there is one major problem with displaying avantgarde qualities today, it is that they can be upsetting to the eyes and, in a society that is influenced by online output, anything that rocks a boat of apparent civility is also sure to generate largely mindless chatter but not necessarily of a positive nature to the ‘snowflake generation’. When the C2/C3 models were revised and incorporated the murmurings about DS revival as a separate brand, the application of optional graphics and appliques demonstrated a hint of design genius that Citroen could clearly not contain.
Despite possessing the appeal of an escapee from a ‘Judge Dread’ movie, the digitised graphics in contrasting colours added a soupcon of fun and gifted owners of fairly ordinary motorcars with the essence of ‘look at me!’. Well, Citroen is revisiting its graphics department for the latest versions of the C3. While ‘airbumps’ were intended to provide a design differential on only the Cactus hatchback, the company has adopted them in varying forms for several models in its car parc. Alone, with their highlighted ovals on the front doors, they provide a vital recognition point for the Citroen brand, now supplemented with no less than 97 exterior customisation choices, with four colour packs, four roof colours, three roof decals, two interior ambiences and new 17.0-inch diameter alloy wheels.
You may note that I am skirting over the all-new look for the C3, borrowed from its loftier Aircross variants, because I feel that I need to explore Citroen’s inner being that is trying ever so earnestly to resurrect its sometime avantgarde design stance. After all, PSA Group, being funded by the Chinese State indirectly, neither wants to court controversy, nor allow its customers too much leeway, despite referring to its ‘styling programme’ as ‘Inspired by You’.
In some respects, I can sense the firm’s frustration. It really wants to go that extra mile. It wants to return to its reputation for weirdness. However, the company’s funders want normality to perpetrate a fresh image for the brand. Smart graphics, at which the company is most adept, are retained largely for the roof panels, with a squiggle for the flanks. It lacks confidence. It is devoid of the ‘stuff you, we’ll do it our way’ attitude that was inherent to Citroen for more than five decades.
Yet, pick the right colour combination of the several available and turning heads will remain an element of C3 stewardship. As a regular five-door hunchback, with its recent propensity for installing flat, featureless and totally non-Citroenesque seats (a popular diversion since the arrival of Cactus), the new C3 will continue to entertain customers desiring familiar and moderately dependable engineering but it will struggle to generate new business, in a market segment that plateaued many years ago and is in partial decline, thanks to the ingrowing toenail that is SUV (and crossover).
Citroen describes unashamedly its choice of a pair of interior ambiences as being influenced by Scandinavian furniture. The company’s marketing department ought to be careful with its various non-Gallic references, after all, pursuing a Germanic one for its most recent C5 was not dissimilar to over-egging the omelette and then pouring it from the pan directly onto its own head. To be fair, as shapeless as the new seats appear to be (they are in essence the same as those fitted to several other Citroens), they have a whiff of former billowiness familiar to Citroen owners of yesteryear.
While nothing can replicate the on-road luxury, self-levelling and magic carpet ride quality of Oleo-pneumatic suspension, the gas and fluid medium that Citroen developed and even licensed to Rolls Royce, Citroen’s engineers have given the new C3 a remarkably resilient, soft but not floaty, suspension quality that, allied to the isolating qualities of a well-padded/silenced cabin, just might be the model’s strongest selling point. Ride and handling is always a compromise exercise but Citroen can ride out this one with a feather in its cap. It is excellent, regardless of the car falling into (just!) the sub-4.0m class.
Connectivity and ADAS are all at the latest and highest levels. Practicality is good, with plenty of storage space, bins and lockers available. Petrol power comes from 1.2-litre ‘triples’ in either 83 or 110bhp forms, with a 100bhp turbo-diesel option. Ordering, if you manage the opportunity safely and healthily, commences in April.
Conclusion: While the most satisfying aspect of Citroen might be to see it grabbing the limelight by its balls and taking a positive design stance, I am afraid that we no longer live in that era. Yet, looking down onto the car park from an office or living-room window, at least you can tell which C3 might be yours.