Leafing through the PR blurb for the latest Citroen crossover led Iain Robertson into experiencing a mild bilious attack, so wordy and over-embellished was almost every other descriptive phrase; thankfully, the car percolates to the surface unscathed.
As usual, I am going to tell you a story. When a carmaker, notably of Gallic origin, informs you that its latest model is ‘ultra-customisable’ and ‘unique’, it can be taken for granted that it may have cornered the market for coloured plastic addenda. So it was, when Citroen’s sister company (in the days prior to Chinese-funded PSA Group owning several volume car manufacturers), Peugeot, launched its revolutionary 1007 model on an unsuspecting world, apart from giving it a pair of electrically operated side sliding doors, it also gave us ‘Camaleo’.
During the media presentation, complete with a dealership orientated revolving stand, containing a range of brightly coloured, retail packaged ‘bits’, Peugeot was clearly ecstatic about its freshly named interior customisation system, supplemented by a small circle containing a capital letter ‘R’, should any rival dare to replicate it. On a dummy dashboard, the PR executive removed and replaced various elements most deftly. Once led to the waiting test cars, my plan was hatched: to stop, out of sight of Peugeot personnel, and swap the dashboard tray mats, circular air-vent surrounds and several other trim elements. The result was that three of the 1007s arrived at the driving route lunch stop with multi-coloured trim combinations that took the support team ages to resolve. Camaleo never appeared again, mind you, neither did the 1007.
Ever since the first C3 appeared in 2002, despite early construction flimsiness and an over-abundance of brittle but durable grey plastic mouldings, I have appreciated its relative straightforwardness. Its original design harked back to the 2CV, with its near-oval profile, upright seating and a good use of abundant cabin space. As it happens, with a convenient amount of tinkering, wheel-arch guards and front and rear skid-plates provided Citroen subsequently with its first taste of crossover fettling, although the Aircross name was yet to be realised.
As the SUV market sector evolved, despite boasting incorrectly of ‘SUV’ status, thanks to an innovative and switchable traction control for its front-wheel drive platform, Citroen knew it had little choice but to change its retail offering. Aircross was born in Brazil, based on the C3 Picasso MPV in 2010, giving Citroen an excellent test market but was launched in Europe in 2018 as the all-new C3 Aircross.
The latest iteration is a refinement of that model, featuring a fresh frontal treatment, which reflects changes made to slim-line LED headlamp technology but incorporating a more pugnacious lower bumper and a look that is approaching that of the odd 1998 Fiat Multipla. While it is a bit fussy, I do not dislike it, as it does possess individualistic character, of a sort that is missing from the B-segment of the crossover market.
Naturally, as highlighted in my earlier tale, Citroen is exercising its Thesaurus of personalisation, mentioning no less than 70 colour and trim combinations spread across its four engine/transmission variants. The stock engines are the 1.2-litre 107bhp petrol and 1.5-litre 107bhp diesel, both are turbocharged triples with 6-speed manual gearboxes. However, opt for the 6-speed automatic transmission and petrol power increases to 127bhp, while the diesel also gains 10bhp. The latter petrol model is the zippiest, despatching 0-60mph in 9.2s, while emitting 150g/km CO2 and drinking fuel at 45.6mpg. Despite preconceptions about diesel, 60.1mpg is the attraction for greater frugality.
While Citroen, in a vain attempt to redress the balance over increasingly Germanic ride quality issues, formulated ‘air cushion’ suspension technology, which in reality is little more than slightly bouncier rubber bump-stops, the ride quality of the C3 Aircross is actually verging on sublime. Mid-corner bumps are despatched with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and no loss of deportment. Transverse road surface ridges can be heard but not felt. Although there is little can disguise the jarring impact of a British pothole, while body-roll is noticeable, it is not unsettling to either driver, or other occupants and surprisingly fluent cross-country (on-road!) progress results.
The ‘off-road’ taunt is actually far better than the relatively simple technology might infer. If you know what a Production Car Trial is (basically: bog-standard motorcars competing on a grassy hillside route for maximum traction), I can assure you that a C3 Aircross would eat it. Dialling in any of the five settings alters the amount of differential ‘slippage’ to make light off-roading a doddle but the car is defiantly front-wheel driven and lacks any serious ride height for greater involvement.
While its suspension is delightfully compliant, it is helped by seat cushioning that is concealed within fairly flat and shapeless upholstered contours. Be under no illusion, the French did not invent armchair seating comfort. Most of Citroen’s earlier attempts involved plumping up the leather, or Jacquard knit fabric, with billowy foam, into which occupants’ derrieres would settle. Unfortunately, those chairs lacked both spinal and lateral support, which meant that you might be lulled into the Land of Nod on longer trips but were almost guaranteed to endure backache after emerging from the car. No such issues with C3 Aircross. Its seats are among the most comfortable of any modern car, which does say a lot.
The cabin is roomy, offering good space in all seats. However, the boot is also accommodating thanks to a flexible sliding rear seat base that can extend its seats-up capacity from 410 to 520-litres. Flop forward the seat backs and that relatively flat floor space grows to an excellent, van-like 1,289-litres, with a maximum load length of 2.4m. Most impressive.
Trimmed with a pleasant mix of soft-touch and tactile moulded surfaces, the driver is confronted by an analogue instrument panel, with the customary, slow-reacting PSA corporate touchscreen at the top of the centre stack. Personally, I like the car’s honesty, which is a novelty from a French carmaker with close friends in the smoke and mirrors department.
Conclusion: With prices expected to start at around £17,400, when the first examples hit our soil in June, the new Citroen C3 Aircross is competitively listed and represents modestly good value for money.