Citroën C4 Cactus, motoring review: 'Right on the pulse of what a car for real people should be'


Price: From £13,000
Engine: 1199cc, three cylinders, 12 valves, turbocharger, 110bhp
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 117mph, 0-62 in 9.3sec, 60.1mpg, CO2 107g/km

Fact: new cars are generally too big, too heavy, too complicated and too ugly, with their slashes, bumps, angles and a mission to unsettle the onlooker. Sometimes, it seems, car-makers forget what cars are really for.

Though Citroën's reputation may have wobbled from time to time, its new C4 Cactus, on sale from October, shows it is right on the pulse of what a car for real people should be.

The Cactus is not a "sporty" car, nor does it pretend to be. It is not a faux 4x4, nor an MPV. It isn't meant to be a fashion accessory. It is, simply, a car designed to be comfortable, pleasing to use, cheap to run, interesting to look at as a piece of design, and to fit into your life. If that sounds as if I am writing a piece of advertorial, I apologise. That I go on to say that the version with the diesel engine and the "Efficient Tronic Gearbox" is to be avoided at all costs, because the combination of laboured, surging, jerky automatic gearshifts and a stop-start system with a zero IQ will drive you mad, should assure you of my independence, I hope.

The most obvious visual features are the Airbump panels on the doors and bumper corners. Made from flexible plastic with hollow, air-filled pockets, they help protect the bodywork from bashes, and were tested during the Cactus's development by ramming shopping trolleys filled with car batteries into its flanks. Other features of this kindly-looking car are roof rails like upturned skis, and a simple, friendly face.

Inside, the simplicity continues with neat, straight lines and an air of calm. A small digital display ahead of the driver is joined by a satnav/multimedia screen in the centre, and the surfaces and finishes look and feel of good quality. Leather handles acting as door-pulls evoke a sense of luggage and travel, a motif repeated on the glovebox of top models. Top-spec versions get a panoramic glass roof panel.

This is a car roomy enough for an average nuclear family, an impressive feat given that this Focus/Golf-sized car is built on a platform normally used for smaller cars, such as the Peugeot 208. The idea here is to save weight, allowing for lighter brakes and suspension components, and smaller, more fuel-efficient engines to pull the whole assemblage along. The lightest Cactus weighs just 965kg – and it's a long time since a new car of this size has weighed under a tonne.

The engine range includes Citroën's usual 1.6-litre diesel, here in 92bhp (with that hateful transmission) or 100bhp guise with CO2 as low as 82g/km, plus a trio of more interesting 1.2-litre, three-cylinder engines. These have 75, 82 or – with a turbocharger – 110bhp. The last of these suits the Cactus vibe perfectly, having a tuneful hum, easily accessible stream of strong, smooth pulling power and a frugal 107g/km CO2 score.

With this engine you can best enjoy a car which drives as a Citroën should. It's smooth over bumps, comfortable in its seating, quiet in its progress, yet it never floats, wallows or leans to excess. So while not remotely sporting, it's a pleasing car to drive briskly when the mood takes you.

In the Cactus, Citroën has come up with a new kind of car. It has no direct rival but is exactly what many of us need and, if we're honest with ourselves, want. I can envisage one in our driveway very easily indeed.