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Majors on practicality and personalisation, but is that enough in today's fierce crossover segment?

What is it?

Few cars have it easy these days, in a competition sense, but fewer still have it harder than those like the Citroën C3 Aircross - one of the more overtly leftfield contenders for supremacy in the unfathomably popular compact crossover segment. 

Despite occupying a similar footprint to sales chart stalwarts such as the Ford Puma and Nissan Juke, it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath, leaning more heavily as it does on virtues of personalisation and quirkiness than outright panache or dynamic appeal. 

But it’s an important car for its maker, second only in sales terms to the C5 Aircross SUV and C3 hatchback (with an impressive 340,000 units sold since launch in 2017), so its mid-life refresh for 2021 has bigger implications than its slightly more chiselled front end and revamped options list would imply. 

There are, Citroën claims, more than 70 colour scheme configurations now available for its baby SUV, arriving alongside new Advanced Comfort seats, standard-fit LED headlights, added storage capacity and a larger infotainment touchscreen.

You can tell this latest iteration of the MPV-SUV chiefly by its more angular front end design and redesigned skidplate – or, if you’re really into your mass-market Citroëns, its pair of new alloy wheel designs and slimmer handbrake lever. 

What's it like?

While some 4% of buyers will still plump for the diesel option, which survives the facelift, it’s the 108bhp Puretech petrol option that will claim the bulk of sales.

A characteristically thrummy turbo triple mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, it provides a surprising turn of pace when put to work. It's hardly nippy or malleable in the same way as a Ford Ecoboost or Volkswagen TSI unit but is reassuringly grunty off the mark and far from asthmatic right up to the middle of the rev range.

It’s not a motor that rewards liberal use of the accelerator, but it manages to go big on economy (it officially gets 47mpg) without sacrificing too much in the way of zing.

A more powerful but barely less efficient 128bhp petrol is on offer, but it’s paired exclusively with a six-speed automatic that’s just dimwitted enough to make even the numb and inexplicably square-knobbed manual feel almost tactile and engaging, so we would go for the latter.

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By its own admission, Citroën doesn’t make cars to go round corners quickly, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the helm of the C3 Aircross. Dynamically falling far short of nimble segment leaders such as the Puma and Seat Arona, it tips into corners with wilful abandon, making repeated quick cornering a near-nauseating experience.

Unfortunately, that wallowiness doesn’t translate into a neatly cushioned secondary ride, either, with potholes and expansion joints sending tangible jolts through the seat bases and steering column. 

Where the C3 Aircross shines is in its impressive interior packaging and welcoming ambiance. The rear bench slides, reclines and folds flat, essentially turning this into a small van, while the now-unconventional flat roofline makes for excellent rear head room and load capacity.

Unusually, the front passenger seat also folds flat, which we’re told allows three Billy bookcases to be shuttled comfortably home from Ikea. What's more, a wealth of capacious cubbies are dotted throughout the cabin for all the oddments that family life brings. 

It honestly does feel like a big car. While competitors chase kerb-appeal marks with sloping rooflines and rising windowlines, the C3 Aircross remains as faithful to airiness and spaciousness as did its humble C3 Picasso forebear, and in doing so reminds us fondly of a whole class of upright, two-box cars that seemingly vanished overnight (the Skoda Roomster, anyone?).

It’s cute without compromise and for a certain sort of buyer will genuinely be all the car you could ever need, for far less money than you might think you need to spend.

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Should I buy one?

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the C3 Aircross wins out over competitors simply by substantially undercutting them at the till while just about edging them for real-life utility. 

More than half of customers go for top-end Shine Plus trim, but an entry cost of just £17,320 makes the Aircross one of the cheapest cars on sale outside of the supermini and city car segments; and at that end of the market, its stand-out styling, generous kit list and impressive cabin flexibility are of far more import than its handling finesse and straight-line pace. 

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Marc 8 July 2021
@Andrew1, I know, I was being sarcastic toward Autocar and their odd perception that a true car enthusiast must have a car that handles like cart and gives feedback, here, there and everywhere. It's AC's biggest failing in their self titled ultimate car test.
Phinehas 8 July 2021

When a decidedly car-oriented publication such as Autocar comes up with an opening gambit of "the unfathomably popular compact crossover segment" in a review of a compact crossover, you know you're not going to any insights into how the vehicle performs for its target market but you will be filled to the brim with observations on how it doesn't fit the template of Autocar's self-confessed limited perception. Isn't it about time that motoring journalists put some effort into fathoming why it is that the compact crossover segment is so popular and recognising that maybe, just maybe it's a sizeable chunk of the car-buying public? Then, and I know this is radical, you could review these motors in the light of what buyers in that segment actually want. Citroën are not the only ones who get so blithely dismissed.

The Apprentice 8 July 2021

Exterior, engines, even the handling is probably not as bad as made out - all fine. But the interior, no, just no.

There is flair, and there is silly for the sake of it.