This is the production version of the new Citroën C4 Cactus, arguably the most radical VW Golf-class model in decades.
Aside from its highly unusual looks, the Cactus – which arrives in the UK in October after its Geneva motor show debut this week – aims to revolutionise ease of ownership and be markedly cheaper to run than its mainstream rivals. Prices start at the equivalent of £11,500 in Europe, but insiders suggest it will cost from £13,000 in the UK, rising to £18,000 for top-spec models.
However, Citroën's biggest engineering achievement with the Cactus is in weight reduction. In base form the car weighs in at just 965kg – around 60kg lighter than a base-model Ford Fiesta.
The Cactus’s downsized engines are also part of the weight-saving programme, the 965kg applying to the base 81bhp VTi 1.0, three-cylinder, turbo petrol motor. Other engines include an e-THP 108bhp, a 91bhp eHDI and a 99 bhp BlueHDI, which scores 82g/km of CO2.
None are high-output, but the Cactus’s power-to-weight ratio will yield decent performance from all versions, say company sources. A manual gearbox is standard but PSA’s automated manual transmission, which now claims to be much smoother-shifting, is optionally available.
The exterior design is intended to combine fashionable crossover looks with more avantgarde product design influences; protection from urban scrapes comes thanks to the bold ‘Air Bump’ door protectors.
The interior is just as radical. Unlike the original C-Cactus concept, the C4 Cactus has a dashboard, but it’s been pared back and simplified to produce an elegantly functional effect. There are only 12 buttons on the dashboard. There’s no rev counter, no centre console, no gearlever if it’s an automatic, no asymmetric splitting of the rear seats and no wind-up windows for the rear doors.
One example of Citroën's lateral thinking is the way the facia’s bulk has been reduced by housing the passenger airbag in the ceiling. This, in turn, allows the facia to sit lower and releases space for a sizeable storage box in the dash-top.
Citroën says it has also trimmed overall running costs, which are said to be 15 per cent less than those of competing C-segment models. The Cactus is likely to be offered with a mobile phone-style contract, with the user paying a monthly rental plus servicing and insurance to allow accurate budgeting.
The Cactus is based on PSA’s Platform 1, which is also used by the Citroën C3 and Peugeot 208, rather than the older platform used in today’s C4 and DS4 models. Even though the Cactus is smaller than most of its rivals (it’s about 10cm shorter than a Golf, and only fractionally larger than Fiat’s 500L), it weighs 200kg less than the Ford Focus EcoBoost triple, and 135kg less than the three-cylinder, 1.2-litre, VW Golf.
The use of high-strength steels and an aluminium bonnet and crash beams help reduce weight. Further weight-shaving measures include a one-piece rear seat, which saves 6kg. Weight-paring has also banished the blind from the optional panoramic roof; instead, its surface is coated with heat-resistant materials, and dropping electric motors for the hinged rear side windows saved 11kg.
However, perhaps the biggest contribution to that spectacularly low 965kg base weight is the unique configuration of Cactus’s platform. It has been engineered for a vehicle series that will have a top speed of 118mph. This matters because the platform, suspension and braking systems – and even the cooling systems – can be ‘rightsized’.
When there is no need to engineer the car for larger wheels (which, in turn, demand stronger suspension components, larger wheel wells and stronger mounting points), bigger brakes and more powerful engines (which demand a more powerful cooling system) the car’s architecture can be simpler and, therefore, lighter.
This bold-looking car sprang from the 2007 C-Cactus concept, which was partly about seeing how much hardware can be removed from a modern car – including the dashboard. "We learnt a lot from the original," says British chief designer Mark Lloyd. "We learned that customers are interested in a simple approach, but won’t accept radical reductions in comfort. So we did a lot of work on what counts and what doesn’t."
"It all started because we were frustrated at the way things are," says Lloyd, "and had the feeling that we need to do things differently. Not for the sake of it but by creating a newness that’s refreshing, that makes life easier." Hence the quest for simplicity, for low weight and for a style that "looks lighter", he says.
"The Cactus has simpler surfaces compared to today’s busy sculpture. We’ve got super-pure surfaces, graphic contrasts and air bumps, and we’ll carry on with this."
By which he means that this same theme will be applied to the next generation of mainstream models that Citroën labels C-line. Despite the success of the classier DS model range, they account for just under a fifth of total Citroën sales, the C-line remaining the bedrock of the brand, and the Cactus a major part of it.
Speaking at the Geneva show, Citroën CEO Frederic Banzet explained that his firm is undergoing a full renewal, underlined by Cactus and C1. He said the Cactus is a manifesto for giving customers what they want and no more, while the C1 is about offering bold choices in terms of style, size and technology.
Anne Ruthmann, the Cactus’s project manager, describes the car as "very trendy, pure and non-aggressive, with very strong graphic elements that are functional". Most prominent of these are those Air Bumps, which are made from a flexible anti-scratch material embedded with air bubbles to heighten absorbency.
The Citroën’s plastic armour comes in black, beige, brown and light grey tints to effect a contrast or a blending with its 10 exterior colours. There are "three interior universes," says Ruthmann, "of brown, purple and grey," and plenty of scope for personalisation. The Cactus’s front seats are wide and sofa-like. Lloyd and team wanted them to "look comfortable". Although they resemble a bench, the front seats are separate.
But it's the architecture of the interior that’s really radical. Most of the subsidiary systems are controlled via the touchscreen in its centre; the instruments are reduced to a digital speedo, a fuel gauge and some warning lights.
The "driving interface is 100 per cent digital," says Ruthmann, the touchscreen handling the radio, navigation, climate, phone, vehicle settings and the handbook. It also provides connected services for weather, garages, the phone directory, the cheapest fuel and, when you’re stationary, Facebook and email.
Citroën’s brand strategy chief Julien Montarnal says the Cactus is the most radical embodiment of the values that will characterise other future C-line models. "Design and creativity are an absolute hallmark. C-line is pure, optimistic. It has technology, but it’s useful, intuitive and facilitates daily life. It’s about technological intelligence."
Montarnal also talks about well-being, which "stems from space, light, practicality and ease of use". And the C-line is also about "reasonable budgets – not the cheapest, but the best value for money". And that means a competitive price, and competitive ownership costs. The C4 Picasso "meets these criteria", he says, "and is a precursor to this repositioning".
"For the Cactus we asked, what really counts for customers? The world is changing – economic and ecological pressures are the backdrop. The method by which we make phone calls, or make coffee, have changed, for example. But there aren’t any car makers who have adapted to this new world. We had to do it because we’re Citroën."
Montarnal says that some of the Cactus’s character "will extend into the C-line, but this is the most radical". "Cactus is for European customers – it’s the most extreme. For design, comfort, intuitive technology and a reasonable price, the Cactus is the answer. It’s an emblem of our new positioning.," he said.