Citroën rediscovers its roots with radical C4

As soon as you clap eyes on the new Citroën C4, one burning question forces its way to the top of the heap: how on earth has Citroën managed to produce this mostly excellent, individualistic car in one generational leap from the humdrum, unpromising and totally forgettable Xsara, a kind of French equivalent of the 1990 Ford Escort.

It’s a bit like a school sack-race winner suddenly taking Olympic gold in the marathon.

In the C4, Citroën has given us a car which not only brings a fresh look and a new philosophy to the trench warfare of the Focus-Golf class, but also easily exceeds its Peugeot family equivalent, the 307.

It also demonstrates to Citroën’s long-suffering band of enthusiasts that they were right to hang on all these years in the hope for something special to turn up. Suddenly, a double-chevron model is much more than a handy source of cashbacks and institutional discounts. In fact, such is its all-round desirability that it may soon bring an end to that whole market strategy.

Viewed dispassionately, the C4 is Citroën’s rebodied version of Peugeot’s conventionally engineered, steel-bodied, front-drive 307, with suspension (front struts, rear torsion beam) and major underpinnings simply re-tuned to suit different Citroën priorities.

In the metal, however, the C4 is surely one of the most successful exponents yet of a common platform policy. It has absolutely no visual link with the 307, inside or out. This C4 is as distinctive as Citroëns used to be – except that there’s nothing ‘funny’ about its controls, no super-fast steering or a zero-travel, over-servoed brake pedal – properties (market experts now tell us) which pleased the few and disenfranchised the many.

Citroen’s change of gear has much to do with the arrival, four years ago, of design chief Jean-Pierre Ploué (formerly ‘Mr Renault Twingo’) who has done much to flesh out and redefine Citroën’s core values. This C4 is the first all-Ploué car, and the designer’s gift to the fraught small-hatch class is a car which prioritises comfortable travel and avoidance of stress, unlike most of the class’s driver-oriented confections.

The seating is low and the seats are soft. Instead of an imposing array of ‘cockpit’ controls, the car has a central LCD display which shows speeds as digits.

The tacho is a modest graphical line ahead of the driver which grows as the revs rise. It’s not sporty, but it definitely scores by being neat and different.

The steering-wheel design has been perfected in several recent Citroën concepts. When you turn the wheel, the boss stays still, presenting a large, perfectly placed switch panel. Citroën have grouped switches for four different supporting functions around its edges: audio, cruise control, navigation and telephone. They’re the things drivers normally have to grope for, and having them so accessible feels amazing. Other functions (lights, wipers, turn indicators) are grouped on two steering stalks.

Top-spec C4s are laden with gadgetry unusual in this class, including swivelling headlights (an echo, for some, of the DS in the ’60s), a speed limiter, tyre-pressure warning system and a dash-mounted air freshener of startling effectiveness (with a choice of nine different scents).

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The newest gadget is a radar-activated lane-departure warning device designed to warn a drowsy driver that the car is straying out of its motorway lane by vibrating the right- or left-hand-side of the seat cushion, depending on which way the car is straying. We tried it, and it’s eerily effective.

For the C4’s exterior, Citroën is the latest mass maker to adopt two different styling philosophies for its three- and five-door versions of the same car. The five-door is a pleasant-looking, slightly beetle-backed affair, with a cab-forward windscreen that emphasises its interior and glass area. It’s long for the class at 4.25m, and quite low at 1.46m. It has an aerodynamic look (borne out by the low drag coefficient of 0.29) and draws from fondly remembered past Citroëns (not least the SM) and on some recent concept cars, such as British designer Mark Lloyd’s C-Airdream and C-Airlounge. But its face is distinctly family.

The three-door C4 – dubbed Coupé – is more rakish, courtesy of its long front door, raked B-pillar and the way its long, graceful roof sweeps down to a more abrupt Kamm-style tail, which evidently contributes to the aerodynamics, too (Cd 0.28).

The achievement is all the more impressive because the two C4 models share the same roofline and offer the same rear-seat room. The cabin feels spacious and has plenty of headroom front and rear, but the low, rather reclined front seating positions mean that while there’s a bit more rear knee-room than in the 307, it doesn’t reach the new standard established by the latest Ford Focus and VW Golf.

Citroën’s engine range is mostly familiar from the Peugeot 307. There are four petrol engines on offer (1.4i 90bhp; 1.6i 110bhp; 2.0i 138bhp and 2.0i 180bhp) plus three second-generation common-rail HDi turbodiesels (1.6 92bhp; 2.0 110bhp and 2.0 136bhp). All engines drive through manual five-speed gearboxes except the top-end diesel, which gets a six-speeder.

The 1.6 and lower-powered 2.0 petrol models are also available with an automatic transmission.

On the road, the C4 instantly establishes itself as supple and quiet, and its designers’ emphasis on comfort is obvious. The steering is high-geared yet light – perhaps rather too light when the car is being driven hard. The suspension feels quite soft and there’s markedly less road noise than in a Peugeot 307, yet body roll in corners is well controlled (and unobtrusive because occupants sit low).

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The car feels agile and holds the road well, its neutral stance moving into understeer as cornering speeds rise. It’s a long-legged, easy-cruising car which gives a decent account of itself in the city, although it’s not as agile or sporty as the current Ford Focus or even the latest VW Golf.

We tried two engines, a long run in the 136bhp diesel and a shorter taste of the top-spec petrol engine with 180bhp. They’re not as far apart in real-world performance as you might imagine, especially since the diesel is extremely torquey in the lower-to-middle rev range, whereas the petrol engine needs to be revved to give its best. Both gearchanges were light and the gates quite well defined, but the throws were longer than most rival’s.

Above all, these were easy cars to drive: Citroën’s particular attitude to coping with modern driving conditions is clearly to make its forthcoming cars simple and reassuring.

Citroën UK is still deciding about British trim levels (although the top three-door model will be a VTS, and there’ll be an Exclusive in both three- and five-door ranges). Sales are due to start in mid-November, and UK prices should start at around £11,500 and rise to £18,000 for full-house models.

In our book, and on the road, the C4 has made an impressive start. But it remains to be seen whether British buyers will be willing to buy a good new Citroën in its own right, or will expect a discount to be thrown into the package.

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Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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