Modern cars are too bulky, I keep writing. Their overhangs are too long, their roof pillars too thick, interior space has contracted while, outside, they've expanded. It's all in the pursuit of safety, of course, although I'd rather have a car as able as possible to avoid the accident in the first place.
So, it gives me great pleasure to introduce a car which bucks the trend; makes space where space should be; gives panoramic views through generous glazing; and can duck and dive with the nimblest of superminis despite a silhouette that's more akin to, well, a van. Ladeesangennelmen ... I give you ... the Citroë*C3 Picasso!
Start with the climax. Why not? Here, perhaps, is the perfect family car. It's priced at £13,695 (range spans £11,495-£15,595) and it has genuine room for five with rear space for heads and legs that owners of, say, Ford Focus-sized cars have long forgotten. However, thanks to its upright, boxy shape, it's barely longer than a modern supermini despite a very capacious boot. Minimal overhangs are the key, made possible by the engineering of clever crash-induced load paths which mean the C3 Picasso is still perfectly safe.
That same clever engineering, already seen on the larger and remarkably popular C4 Picasso, allows slender windscreen pillars by diverting the loads along the high waistline. So – joy – here's an MPV which doesn't block out entire cars behind thick roof supports. That makes the C3 Picasso lighter, airier and safer, if part of the safety idea is not to crash into things.
The C3 Picasso is not pretty, but it's cartoon-cute with just a hint of friendly SUV-ness, which suits its character and its role. Nor, despite its perpendicular outline, is it based on a van, unlike its woeful smaller relative, the Nemo Multispace, which you should avoid because it shares nothing but a brand badge with the C3 Picasso.
The C3's dashboard is open-plan, with transverse trays (expect pens etc to shoot off the ends on roundabouts) and a central cluster of instruments displayed in liquid crystal. The digital speedo, mounted centre-right, dominates and a flip-up lid in front of it reveals a storage recess. Other storage includes big door pockets, multiple cupholders and, the bane of many a right-hand-drive Peugeot-Citroë*product, a useless glovebox occupied mainly by the electronics which would hide harmlessly beyond the steering column in a left-hand-drive.
The rear seats fold forward in one, easy, cantilevered movement so the cushion is lowered just as the backrest flattens itself on top of it. The seats can be slid fore-and-aft, and reclined. You can raise the boot floor to match the level of hatch sill and folded seat, or leave it at the bottom for a deeper well. And if you have the poshest Exclusive version, you get a front passenger seat able to fold flat and a pair of underfloor storage bins beneath the rear passengers' feet. That's very fine, as are automatic control for the air-con, a darker glass tint, reverse-parking sensors and splashes of internal leather and chrome. Or you could forgo these trinkets, save £1,100 and go for the still very-well-equipped VTR+. That rules out the 110bhp version of the 1.6-litre turbodiesel, but not the other three engines: two petrol units of 1.4 litres/95bhp and 1.6 litres/ 120bhp; plus a 90bhp turbodiesel. There's also an entry-level VT model.
This all sounds very worthy, but what about the driving? After the hefty C4 Grand Picasso, the little C3 is a bit of a revelation. The driving position is commanding and comfortable, with the gear lever high and easily reached. The smoothness and quietness on poor roads is highly impressive, far ahead of the most obvious conceptual rival, the Kia Soul. Yet it steers with a crispness and a natural delicacy alien to, say, the Peugeot 207 with which this C3 shares many mechanical parts. A minor miracle has been wrought here.
And there's nothing wrong with the 90bhp diesel, which is willing for its task. C3 Picasso: small(ish) on the outside, cavernous on the inside. It's about time we had cars like this again.
Kia Soul 1.6 CRDi: £13,495.
The Soul Shaker is Kia's take on a quasi-military mini-MPV. It is fun, roomy and good value. But it's noisy at speed and the steering's sticky.
Nissan Note 1.5 dCi Acenta: £12,749.
Fewer frills and a lower price but the Note is very well finished, has lots of space, and is a pleasing, refined drive. Deserves to sell better.
Toyota Urban Cruiser 1.4 D-4D: £16,400.
Semi-4x4 looks have credibility. It's a 'soft' 4x4, hence higher price. Trumped by the C3 Picasso in nearly every way that matters.Reuse content