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.