Ever since the GS model of the 1970s, Iain Robertson has believed that the French carmaker has been battling so much with its inner demons that he resorted to calling all subsequent models ‘hangover cars’ possessing a faint whiff of Pastis 51 about them.
Citroen has always had one helluva job to fulfil. The spectre of the iconic mid-1950s’ ID/DS has loomed over the brand for around 65 years, the French car firm’s view of transport futurism forming an inconvenient umbrella over each and every model since. The company partied heartily at the time and not without due cause. Yet, catch a glimpse of any slightly bedraggled and world-weary wrinkled Marseilles local knocking back lightly diluted ‘51’ outside any one of a myriad harbour cafes and you can spot the cost of Gallic insouciance.
Having gone bust but rescued with government assistance and Michelin reluctance, its subsequent marriage to Peugeot was in the stars. Yet, the bags beneath its eyes were unerasable and, while various facelifts gave it ‘trout-pout’, a creak existed in its gait that no amount of lubrication could remove. Although the French think of the Brits as a largely immutable force, we have every right to say, ‘Back at you!’.
Another of Rick Stein’s charming TV catering travelogues finished recently on the Beeb. While he avoided saying it outright, he was on the search for real French cuisine, having believed, while most French would not admit it, that its recipes and style had been lost in the sands of time and post-modernism. Fortunately, he found pockets of culinary classicism through his Clouseau-esque investigations but also revealed an unnatural resistance for those restaurateurs to self-promote.
Although the Golf/Focus class remains the largest of the European motor industry, various C4 models (the first of which arrived in 2004, as a replacement for the Xsara line) have failed to ignite the new car scene beyond mere adequateness. Yet, it is a car that has followed the modern idiom, by way of MPV and crossover alternative offerings that have drip-fed survival into the class, aided, of course, with sister ‘3-0’ models from Peugeot.
Late to the current festivities, as it may be, the new C4 has now adopted a strictly crossover visage that it hopes may restore some of its aspirations. Away from the slightly cooky head and tail-lamp arrays, unsurprisingly outlined by inevitably bright LEDs, it dons a cloak of brand anonymity that is mildly disappointing up front and in profile. Possessing shades of Mach-e and other unintended influences, it lacks an attention-generating avant-garde quality, yet, with ‘airbumps’ transmuted into occasional-off-road-cladding, the C4 could be on the right track to purposeful class admission.
A naturally balanced shape, it is pleasing to the observer’s eye, with a playful appeal missing from its former stablemates that could easily become its raison d’etre. ‘Bling’ creates the magpie gesture and it is subtle enough on the C4 to create admirers unsure of why feel-good exists. A deep windshield and modest greenhouse maintain an airy cabin atmosphere that has long been a C4 tenet. A scalloped bonnet and bold graphics along the car’s flanks catch the light and play with it, while its ground clearance is bolstered by larger diameter alloy wheels, almost as if hunkering down to tarmac is not within its remit.
While the interior is clad in unerring grey, leatherette on top, fabric on lesser versions, of two shades, dark, or less dark, it is stylish enough, in a way now familiar to modern Citroenistes. The transverse upholstery lines provide a visual space boost and prove to be most comfortable once ensconced, despite looking flat and ‘shapeless’. However, the image is carried into the entirely digital dashboard, featuring a dimpled ‘soft-touch’ texture that is quite different to that of any of Citroen’s rivals. A large touchscreen sits amidships, with a slightly smaller display ahead of the driver and PSA’s customary ‘head-up’ display projected into the base of the windscreen.
While a 6-speed manual gearbox is standard, an auto-box option adopts the growing fascination for ‘rockers’, rather than levers. The centre console carries the usual cluster of pushbuttons, replicated in some areas by switches on the steering wheel cross-spokes. However, it is all accessible, logical and more ergonomic than we have come to expect from a French carmaker. The cabin is airy and spacious, with a decent 380-litres boot beneath its hatchback and moderate flexibility arising from seat flop and slide potential.
Citroen is dealing with the elephant-in-the-room by launching petrol, diesel and electric variants. The petrols are the usual 1.2-litre turbo-triples in 97 and 127bhp forms, with an optional (auto-only) 152bhp engine, while the diesels are the familiar 1.5-litre ‘triples’ in 107 and 127bhp forms. The 100kW electric version develops the equivalent of 133bhp and uses a 50kWh lithium-ion battery pack that can be recharged from 5-80% capacity in around 30minutes at a public rapidcharger, or overnight in a domestic driveway. Apart from the lower running costs, this is familiar fayre from PSA Group and breaks no new ground.
Personally, I am not a fan of PSA’s connectivity. While less clunky and more reactive than its systems used to be, reaction times remain as inconsistent as tactility levels, the touchscreen occasionally demanding a second, or third taps as confirmation of a driver’s desires. Unsurprisingly, the car is packed with driver aids (ADAS), very few of which can be circumnavigated.
Driving dynamics are pretty much as expected, with good bump resilience, a fairly fluent ride quality, only caught out on the most severe of road surface changes, and pleasantly weighted steering that has a slightly disconnected feel, in which familiarity soon grows. The effective brakes haul up the C4 assuredly, with the transmission braking effect of the e-C4 being at anticipated ‘single-pedal’ level. The simple truth is that the new Citroen C4 is a competent all-rounder in the style of a crossover, even though it is just a good and user-friendly family hatchback.
Conclusion: Citroen desperately needs a good midfielder to make an impact on the new car sales charts. I believe that, with it now being on the same page as its myriad competitors, it has the best chance of achieving that aim, for a year, or so, at least. Mind you, prices start at a hefty £23,005, with the e-C4 tagged at an even heftier £35,545, which could stop it dead in its tracks!