With the new C4, the French manufacturer has once again forgotten what it used to do best
It's strange how things go in cycles.
We progress around the circle, and then we end up where we started having seemingly forgotten what was learnt on the way. With the new C4, Citroën is suffering from just this malaise.
Citroën has created some of the most innovative and unconventional cars in the whole history of motoring. Periodically, though, it gets a dose of amnesia and forgets – denies, even – what it is.
Sometimes this is caused by a bang on the head, as in the 1990s when the blow was administered by Jacques Calvet, then head of the Peugeot-Citroën empire. He decided that Citroën was to be a value brand, downmarket of Peugeot. So we had the simple, likeable but not remotely Citroënesque ZX, followed by the similarly simple and entirely characterless Xsara.
Then came a renaissance. Out went the Xsara, in came the C4 containing things no one had done before. Best was the fixed centre of the steering wheel, containing lots of frequently-needed switches just a thumb-span away. The central dash display, wide and populated with digital, liquid-crystal readouts, was also unusual and effective. The C4 looked interestingly different from anything else. It was a beacon of individuality in a uniform world, and exactly the sort of car Citroën should sell. I made it my Car of the Year when voting for the Europe-wide honour came round.
As with the Xsara, the C4 became a hugely successful World Rally car, a feat out of which Citroën made curiously little marketing capital mainly because there was never a credible rally-inspired road version to wear the halo. It was an opportunity missed.
Citroën's rally efforts are now directed at the excellent DS3, a compact and sporting hatchback properly able to bridge the gap between showroom and rally. That's a relief, because there's now a new C4 and it's the Xsara syndrome all over again. The circle has closed, and it's a car about which it is very hard to get excited.
Apart from the optional stop-start system, which uses the alternator as a motor to ensure instant, clatter-free restarting, there's nothing here of innovative depth. The steering wheel is conventional now, because the fixed centre was too expensive and too heavy. You can alter the instrument lighting from blue to white, but they are normal, round instruments with needles.
Which leaves the alterable warnings for indicators and unfastened seatbelts as the sole novelty. However, Citroën makes much of the C4's improved quality. And it is indeed a pleasant sort of travel module, with soft surfaces, neat chrome accents and even an optional massage function in the front seats. Modern toys such as speed limiters, blind-spot warnings and a sophisticated stereo abound. This time the body style is five-door only, and it looks tidy enough. Double-chevron nose apart, though, nothing shouts "Citroën".
The intention is for the C4 to be comfortable and quiet, but again the message is muddled. That the steering is precise, road roar is sometimes prominent, and bumps aren't smothered with quite the creaminess of past Citroëns, all suggest a slightly sporting demeanour at odds with notions of cosseting transport. The opportunity to create a car of uniquely outstanding comfort was there, and it was missed.
Engines? Three diesels, including that "micro hybrid" 109g/km unit with stop-start, and three petrol units make up the range, starting from £15,595. I sampled two: the 1.6-litre, 155bhp, petrol turbo unit is lively and comes with a six-speed sequential-shift gearbox, while the 150bhp turbodiesel – available only in the top Exclusive model – is well suited to the C4's notions of relaxed travel with its effortless pulling ability.
Both engines are competent. Objectively, so is the entire C4. All it lacks is the trigger of intrigue that would make you buy one, as if the character has deliberately been sucked out of it. If that sounds harsh, it is because the C4 should be more than just a commodity.
Peugeot 308 2.0 HDI: from £19,545
Mechanically similar to C4, currently uses older 140bhp engine. Curious styling, upmarket-feel, somehow more fluent than C4 to drive.
Vauxhall Astra 2.0 CDTi: from £21,485
As large as a "compact" family hatchback can feasibly be, quite handsome, fine handling and ride qualities, annoying electric parking brake.
Volkswagen Golf 2.0 TDI: from £20,310
A Golf always exudes timeless integrity, and this one continues the theme. Well made, visually subtle, a good long-term purchase.
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