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).