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It's an admirable family hatchback, but there is an abundance of superior rivals that makes the C4 feel a little outclassed

The family line that has led to this Citroën C4 dates back to the ZX in 1991. It provided spirited performance and quite exceptionally lively handling, even in the unsporting versions.

This good work was undone in 1997 by the terminally dull Xsara, which soldiered on with the support of a series of pricing initiatives until it was replaced by the first C4 in 2006. The fact that Citroën replaced it only four years later shows the pace of change in this most competitive class of the market.

The C4 needs to be very good if it's to take on the Volkswagen Golf

However, Citroën is a company that, of late, appears to have rediscovered its mojo. So hopes are riding high for the new C4. And good it will need to be, facing not only the Volkswagen Golf, but also the Ford Focus which is as formidable a competitor as it is possible to imagine, while a new-pretenders to the throne - the Seat Leon and Skoda Octavia providing stiff competition also. Naturally, this generation C4 has been on the market for almost eight years, and in 2015 was duly given a minor refresh to try and keep it competitive. A new engine and trim line-up were the major changes.

This is also the car from which the DS 4 and DS 4 Crossback have been spun, and while the DS3 could hardly have given the sub-brand a better start in life, its performance needs to be built upon if the series is not to be perceived as a one-trick pony. It also was the starting point for the C4 Cactus, which although pelicular has become somewhat a hit with buyers.

The C4 range comprises two diesel and two petrol engines, arranged over three different trim levels. The mainstay of the range will be one of the 1.6-litre diesels, which are available in 99 or 118bhp versions. However, the punchy turbocharged petrols are worthy of consideration for those opting to use their C4 on shorter journeys.

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While the gauntlet has been laid, it is now time to see if the C4 can come up trumps in the Autocar road test.

 

 

DESIGN & STYLING

CItroën C4 bi-xenon headlights
These bi-xenon headlamps are among the best we’ve tried

Unfortunately, the many good and genuinely new aspects of the Citroen C4’s design are somewhat undermined by the age of the platform that underpins it.

For all the avant-garde features, such as dials that change colours and your choice of polyphonic alert sounds, the basic engineering of the C4 is conventional in the extreme. 

The C4 features some interesting design touches, but you're ever concious of the old platform underneath

Citroën’s ever expanding double-chevron grille splits enormous front headlamps that can be specified with some of the best bi-xenon lights we’ve tried. They offer great light dissipation, but corner lights are already standard on other models.

Over-the-shoulder visibility could be rather better than it is with slimmer C-pillars, although small rear quarterlight windows do help. A blind spot monitor — part of the optional visibility pack — makes use of the parking sensors in the rear bumper to save money. Clever.

Large rear lights are unique to the C4 and work well with the rest of the styling, which has a distinct Citroën C5 look to it. 

The rear wiper seems ridiculously small and only wipes a small proportion of what is already a hardly generous rear screen.

 

INTERIOR

Citroën C4 interior
Thick leather steering wheel has a flattened base, which allows extra knee room

If you compared the cabin quality of cars like the Citroën C4 to its forebears of 10 years ago, you would have no doubt how prioritised this area of design has become. But Citroën has proven up to the pace of change and created an interior environment somewhat different from that of its rivals, but no less appealing for that.

Touches such as the sweeping, single-piece dashboard and smart centre console smack of an attention to detail we’d not have recognised from Citroën even a few years ago. Not everyone will like the way the dials blend analogue and digital readouts and may regard their chameleon ability to change colour as a needless gimmick.

The C4 has a practical interior; it's only a shame that a spare wheel isn't standard

Standard kit levels are acceptable, with the entry-level Touch model featuring air conditioning, cruise control, a CD player featuring an auxiliary port and hill start assist. Upgrade to the mid-range Feel trim and you'll be given the option to choose a spacesaver spare, alongside the customisable instrument cluster, lumbar support for the driver and the inclusion of DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity.

The range-topping Flair models come with a 7.0in touchscreen display for the infotainment system, rear parking sensors and dual-zone climate control included in the package.

Only the tallest drivers will quibble with the driving position – a shade more legroom and steering reach would be ideal – but the bewildering array of controls mounted on the wheel may prove less popular. Certainly we’ve never found ourselves gazing at a rival interior wishing there was more clutter on the steering wheel, particularly as it doesn’t seem to have materially made space for a cleaner, clearer dashboard.

The rear seat package is carefully configured towards the class norm, as most cars in this sector form part of a range of both bigger and smaller cars, so Focus or Golf owners will find no great surprises here. Headroom will be more than sufficient for almost every occupant, although knee room soon becomes a scarce and sought-after commodity if those in the front are not prepared to compromise their comfort to afford you some of your own.

As Citroën promises, the C4’s boot is admirably large, although with the seats folded down there is a larger than usual (for this class) step in the load bay formed by the tumbled seat backs. You must also choose between either practical underfloor storage or an optional spare wheel.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Citroën C4
The 2.0-litre diesel motor is an able and willing partner

Though the Citroën C4’s on-paper performance is not unusually special by current standards, when you drive the car in all of its guises you’ll find its engines able and willing partners. 

The entry-level 1.2-litre with 108bhp is sweet-revving and has enough verve to make swift enough progress, while the 128bhp version of the same petrol unit, also found in the DS3 and elsewhere in the Citroën range, moves the C4 nicely with decent refinement.

It's easy to make relatively smooth progress in the C4, even if you opt for the EGS gearbox

Of the 1.6-litre diesels, the 118bhp version is the better bet, offering strong in-gear pull. Its micro-hybrid e-HDi powertrain is clever too, incorporating a stop-start system that’s driven by the alternator. This reduces the need for a beefed-up starter motor so restarts are smoother and quicker.

Throw in all the usual eco-model add-ons, including regenerative braking and low-rolling-resistance tyres, and you have a C4 that is officially rated with very fine mpg and CO2 claims.

Even with the usually slow-witted six-speed automated manual ’box, progress off the line is smooth. We’re not fans of this gearbox, but it is suited to the less urgent, steady character of the 118bhp 1.6 HDi unit. The speed of gearchanges still frustrates, but they are smoother and faster and help put you in the eco-driving mindset.

The 99bhp 1.6-litre diesel focuses primarily on fuel economy and its emissions rating, which means its acceleration isn't its strong suit. Having said that, it is powerful enough to get the C4 moving quickly enough, although it does struggle if the car is loaded up.

Stopping performance is pretty good, but the C4 needs a more progressive brake pedal if it is to offer truly confidence-inspiring braking ability.

RIDE & HANDLING

Citroën C4 cornering
The softly suspended C4 has a comfy low-speed ride but poor body control elsewhere

Frankly, we’re used to Citroëns coming up short in handling tests. Before the DS3 showed that Citroën hadn’t entirely forgotten how to build fun cars, our expectations would have been pretty low. What is less easy to predict is that the Citroën C4 proves substantially deficient in its ride quality too.

There appear to be two problems undermining the C4’s chassis. First, the raw material simply no longer matches the calibre of the rest of the class. Even the Vauxhall Astra, which retains a torsion beam rear axle, has been fitted with a Watts linkage to take lateral loads and therefore allow the beam to be much more softly bushed, with attendant benefits to ride quality. The second problem is Citroën’s apparent solution to this issue, which is to provide the C4 with unusually soft springing.

The C4 provides someone who cares about driving with no pleasure at all

At first there seems to be sense in the decision. Amble around town and you’ll appreciate how well it soaks up lumps and bumps and, superficially at least, provide perfectly passable ride comfort. Trouble begins when you give it a somewhat sterner task, like a rising and falling country road or motorway undulations taken at speed with a full load on board. Then the C4 struggles to contain its body movements and maintain its ride height. 

It doesn’t bode well for its handling, either. Citroën has gone for overly light steering (no doubt to complement its overly soft springs) and while the wheels have plenty of grip, the numbed response from the helm, combined with notable body roll, means the C4 provides someone who cares about driving with no pleasure at all.

The ESP is switchable, but at speeds above 30mph it reactivates itself. In most cars we’d lament such nannying – but so little incentive does the C4 provide to make you want to drive fast that we’d care not at all if it stayed on all the time.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Citroën C4
The Citroën C4 range comprises three diesel and three petrol engines, plus three trim levels

Citroën produces some impressive graphics showing the Citroën C4 at the head of the class depreciation curve - we’re not convinced. It may give the new Ford Focus a run for its money, but shouldn’t worry a Volkswagen Golf.

The C4 should prove economical to run, for the most part. Yet in spite of the excellence and ingenuity of the e-HDi versions, they fail to get close to the all-important mpg and CO2 figures of the latest Volkswagen Golf Bluemotions, however, Citroën’s 20,000-mile service intervals are a welcome boost, too.

You'll most likely see some big discounts, which may make the C4 a more appealing candidate

Citroën dealers will do their best to make the C4 look more attractive with big discounts – not to the extreme levels of a few years ago, but enough to make the C4 cheaper than most rivals.

 

VERDICT

3 star Citroën C4
The new Citroën C4 is an admirable car, but there is an abundance of much better rivals

The Citroën C4 is one of those cars that’s quite easy to knock along with, offsetting its shortcomings against its talents and concluding that Citroën has had a perfectly reasonable stab at it.

And the notion will stay in your head until you think of the Volksagen Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Hyundai i30, Seat LeonRenault Megané or Peugeot 308 you might buy for similar money, at which stage the idea of a C4 will flee pretty smartly and never return. 

The C4 is worth a look, but its rivals offer more appealing and complete packages

In most instances, Citroën, but then everyone else in the class is improving at a similar rate. There’s plenty of kit on board and some interesting big-car options, but Ford has taken class leadership on that score.

When it comes to economy and CO2, the C4 is again pretty average, but some way off the class standards set by the economy minded Volkswagen Golf models.

While the C4 has admirable static qualities that will doubtless sell cars, out on the road there is not enough to commend it in the face of such able opposition. For all its modern looks, the car beneath is too conservative and too lacking in ambition to compete here.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Citroen C4 2011-2018 First drives