Price: from £18,000 approx. Range spans £15,000-£20,000 approx. On sale January
Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 138bhp at 4,000rpm, 236lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed semi-automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 121mph, 0-60 in 12.5sec, 46.3 mpg official average.
Here's a topic for discussion: the growth of Multi Purpose Vehicles. I don't just mean the way sales are increasing as sales of standard family cars fade away. I mean the way the MPVs themselves, even "compact" MPVs such as the Renault Scenic and its rivals, are getting bigger. Partly it's because more of them come with seven seats instead of five, partly because every new car now seems bigger (and heavier) than its predecessor.
So, meet the Citroën C4 Picasso. It's just 2cm shorter than the full-size Citroën C8 MPV, and it's 1.83m wide (that's 6ft in previous-generation units). Let's propose, then, a new entry for The Oxford English Dictionary. Compact, adj: something which should be of small size but is not.
It's the fact that visually and technologically it's a very Citroënesque interpretation of a compact MPV, a versatile car beyond mere utility. Light, in its various forms, is the key motif here. Look at that vast windscreen and how it flows far into the roof, joining the (optional) glass surface of that roof. The downside is the sun-glare from above on a bright day, but a pull-forward sunblind augments the usual sunvisors to fix the problem.
The windscreen, the refreshingly slim front pillars and a low waistline together make the C4 Picasso very airy inside. Chamfered corners on the front seats' backrests help here, reducing the apparent bulk of the seats, and even third-row passengers get a good view forward. Light plays a part at night, too, if you're in the top Exclusive model.
Here, gentle strips of light play under the door-trim strips, along the bottom of the dashboard and along the edge of the front sunblind housing. And if you put a hand inside a front door pocket, the contents are automatically lit. A gimmick? Yes, but it will make you smile.
Outside, the light show continues. The headlights, straddling a curvier version of Citroën's current double-chevron-with-whiskers nasal motif, are bounded by long indicators whose lighting elements are themselves repeated double-chevrons. The tail-lights, which sandwich a rear window that can be opened independently of the tailgate use LEDs in zig-zag tubes.
Let's move back inside again. Suppose you have ordered your new Picasso with the clutchless, sequential, semi-automatic transmission with controls on the steering column and paddle-shifters on the steering wheel. Your Picasso has no centre console, no floor-level clutter (all models have an automatic electric parking brake operated by a centre-facia button) and a large drop-down, air-conditioned storage box where the gear lever would otherwise be. There are two more storage boxes on the top of the dashboard, big enough for one to hold the CD-stacker with room to spare.
As you would expect in a car called C4, it has a central LCD display, including the speedometer, and a fixed hub in the middle of the steering wheel which contains many minor controls. Unlike the C4 hatchback, though, with its hard-to-assimilate bar-graph rev-counter, the Picasso has a normal round one albeit still formed by an LCD display.
And back to the back seats. The rearmost row allows enough space for occupants not to "feel punished", according to project leader Gilles Caulliez. You get there by pressing a button on one of the centre row's outer seats, upon which the cushion flips up and the seat can be pushed far forward to meet the front seat ahead and create an easy pathway. The centre seat doesn't do this, so you can't flip up the cushions and create an across-car, bike-size channel as you can in a Honda Jazz.
Timid parkers will like the next bit very much. There's an optional gadget which assesses the length of a potential parking space on whichever side you are indicating. You drive slowly past and it will tell you if parking is possible, difficult or not even worth attempting. Front and rear sensors then help you achieve your parking objective.
A lot of cleverness, then, combined with some expensive-feeling textures for the interior with soft-touch surfaces, fabric-covered screen pillars and a metallised rubbery finish for some of the (few) hard plastics. It's all very welcoming.
So, what is this new Picasso like to drive? The front wings are plastic and the bonnet is of aluminium, as with the C4 hatchback, so the engineers have tried to save weight. It's still a hefty 1,500kg or so, though, so the engines - the usual PSA mix of a 127bhp, 1.8-litre or a 143bhp, 2.0-litre petrol engine and a choice of turbodiesels, a 1.6 with 110bhp and a 138bhp 2.0 - have a lot to do. I drove a 2.0 petrol manual in mid-level trim first, which proved to be the least pleasing Picasso. Its engine needs to be worked quite hard and its steering feels vague at speed, especially over undulations and when entering a fast bend. These were early examples of the C4 Picasso, so I hope there has since been time to improve things here.
One very impressive part is the quietness. The ride comfort is serene in the front, too, but rear passengers have a slightly more turbulent time. That's to say the ride is merely good; any negativity here stems from the fact that the Exclusive version has air-sprung, self-levelling rear suspension and its rear-seat ride comfort is truly excellent.
I drove (and rode in) this car with the 2.0 HDI diesel engine and semi-automatic gearbox, and it flew along with almost disdainful effortlessness. The transmission shifted smoothly in manual mode - the best Peugeot/Citroën attempt at such a gearbox yet - and didn't surge too much in automatic mode. You could learn to live with it. This car had firm, positive steering and felt confident at speed. Could that be thanks to its heavier engine? No, because the 1.6 HDI diesel also felt keen and stable, and that modest engine proved well up to the job of hauling the hefty C4 Picasso. And all have properly progressive, non-snatchy brakes. I hope the right-hand drive versions are similarly blessed, unlike the C4 VTS hatchback I ran for a year.
This new Picasso is an impressive MPV even if it isn't very compact. Prices have yet to be settled but they will be keen. Meanwhile the old five-seater Picasso continues for another year or so in the UK. After which we won't need to be confused any more.
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