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The relaxed big Citroen family car turns SUV. A smart move or copycat compromise?

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Citroën took longer than most of its European-market rivals to jump into the popular family SUV market and came via a wandering, indirect route, considering its various experiments with platform-shared Mitsubishi models and the like. The company's first fully committed attempt at a mid-sized offering, the Citroën C5 Aircross, finally arrived in the UK in 2018 – and it has barely stood still since.

Coming to market initially with a choice of three- and four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, it started life with more powerful pure-combustion options, only to quickly move beyond them. We tested an early car with 2.0-litre BlueHDI 180 diesel power but, as customer preferences changed, that engine was withdrawn in 2020 along with Citroën's conventional 177bhp 1.6-litre petrol.

It's a cleverly proportioned car, this: still fairly compact on the outside, but with adult-appropriate passenger space in both rows, and a big boot. Plenty of cars in this class offer less practicality than you think they should, but the C5 Aircross is the other way around.

In their place, to complement the C5 Aircross's smaller engines, came a 1.6-litre plug-in hybrid the same year. And towards the end of 2023, the French marque launched another electrified variant of the car powered by a modified version of the 1.2-litre Puretech petrol engine, which is paired with a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Integrated into the gearbox is an electric motor, with power drawn from a 48V battery located under the front passenger seat. 

The new mild-hybrid engine is an important addition: parent firm Stellantis has been developing it for several years and is set to roll out the new powertrain across its entire brand portfolio. 

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Plainly, and not only in respect of the engines that power it, the C5 Aircross is a car that plays a little fast and loose with SUV convention. As we'll go on to explore, it's a car with proper five-seat, adult-appropriate practicality that converts well as a voluminous cargo tender when required, but it does not offer widely articulating independent suspension, nor four-wheel drive - and neither has it ever.

Read on, then, to find out what this peculiarly modern family car brings to the mid-sized SUV class, and exactly what kind of dynamic tribute it pays, if any, to the classic big Citroëns of old.

The range at a glance

VeRSIonPowerPRice
PureTech 130 manual 129bhp £24,280
BlueHDi 130 automatic 129bhp£26,880
Plug-In Hybrid PureTech 180 222bhp£36,495
Hybrid PureTech 136 134BHP£31,490

The C5 Aircross is offered in a choice of three trim levels and four engines. The entry point to the Aircross range is the Plus, available with either a 1.2-litre petrol or a 1.5-litre diesel engine. It comes as standard with 18in alloy wheels, LED headlights, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and automatic climate control.

Mid-level Max trim, which can be had with the 1.6-litre plug-in hybrid, or 1.2-litre mild-hybrid petrol engine, gains black roof rails and a driver assistance pack that features a suite of additional safety features.

Topping the C5 range is the newly launched ë-series trim. It comes with larger, 19in wheels, heated front seats, adaptive cruise control and a panoramic sunroof. You can have the ë-series model with either the plug-in or mild-hybrid powertrain.

DESIGN & STYLING

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The C5 Aircross cuts an unmistakable figure on the road, with its high bonnet line and broad, sweeping grille, plus a headlight treatment that somehow captures the aesthetic of the Starship Enterprise. There is nothing exceptional - or especially innovative - about its architecture, though. It uses the same EMP2 platform as – and therefore possesses very similar dimensions to – its Stellantis cousins, the DS 7 Crossback, Vauxhall Grandland and Peugeot 3008.

The car gets automatic gearboxes predominantly - eight-speed in most cases, but six-speed in some, with a six-speed manual still offered on the entry-level petrol model. All are front-wheel drive. Engines mount transversely and can be had with three or four cylinders, sipping petrol or diesel. The range-topping plug-in hybrid, meanwhile, pairs a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine with a 107bhp electric motor and uses a 14.2kWh drive battery to grant a WLTP lab-test electric range of up to 41 miles.

As with the smaller C3 Aircross, the C5 Aircross’s light signature is made up of two elements. A narrow daytime-running light sits atop a main headlight unit, which uses a halogen bulb

Citroën's addition for the 2024-model-year is the Hybrid 136 derivative, which uses lighter-touch 48V electrification and a smaller engine than the PHEV. Pitched at a more accessible list price than the plug-in alternative, it is primarily driven by a 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine that runs on the Miller combustion cycle, and it gets up to 28bhp and 41lb ft of assistance from a gearbox-mounted electric motor. Performance is more modest than in the PHEV - but the Hybrid 136 is still claimed to deliver 30% better urban fuel economy than the C5 Aircross 1.2 Puretech petrol.

For suspension, the C5 Aircross uses a MacPherson-strut front axle, with a torsion beam attached via trailing arms at the back. The big development for the car's 2018 European launch was Citroën’s Progressive Hydraulic Cushions suspension, which aspires to do for the C5 Aircross something at least passably comparable with what Paul Magès’s hydropneumatic technology did for the original DS of 1955.

Truly superlative ride quality is absent from any rival C-segment SUV, says Citroën; to which end it developed front struts for the C5 Aircross, each with a pair of hydraulic bump-stops (one for compression and another for rebound although, at the rear axle, the rebound stop is omitted) that replace traditional rubber ones. Rather than absorbing energy from the road and then partially returning it, they are able to dissipate it entirely. The result, so the claim goes, is the freedom to tune the suspension more softly, as well as the manifestation of much less discernible rebound in the car’s ride, and something of a ‘magic carpet’ feel.

Citroën’s familiar Grip Control electronic traction management is optionally available to lend the C5 Aircross at least a little rough-road readiness, to go with a ground clearance of up to 230mm. Designed to work with 19in wheels shod with mud and snow tyres, the Grip Control option takes the form of an additional layer of anti-skid software beyond the standard ESP and works through modes including those for driving on sand and snow. In addition, the new Aircross features hill descent control and the latest raft of Citroën's drive assistance technologies, including active emergency braking with pedestrian detection, active lane keeping, speed limit monitoring and adaptive cruise control.

INTERIOR

citroen c5 aircross sunroof

If you’re looking for an allegory for the C5 Aircoss, consider this: if you nudge the windscreen wiper stalk down for a one-flick wipe of the screen, you also activate – or deactivate, if they were on – the automatic wipers. So to give the windscreen a one-flick wipe but revert to the original automatic wiper state, you must push the stalk twice.

The car's touchscreen infotainment system, while it has had some incremental improvements over the lifecycle of the model, is guilty of some similar usability shortcomings, integrating the climate control temperature adjustment functions, and making you jump between menus a bit too often for every little thing (although the menus themselves are at least easy to access, thanks to some shortcut keys lower on the fascia).

The cabin is disappointingly monochrome for a Citroën, with a bit too much soft-wearing 'piano black' trim for my liking. The standard-fit Advanced Comfort seats are indeed comfortable, but electronic adjustment of the passenger seat would be nice.

As a rule, Citroën’s menus are more complex to fumble around than, say, Volvo’s all-touch version, and quite a bit less intuitive than Hyundai's latest touchscreen equivalents. All you’d want – DAB radio, navigation, personalisable 12.0in instruments and so on – are present, but the system is slow to respond, and if you’ve selected reverse to bring up cameras, it’s then impossible to bring up another screen until you’ve driven off forwards. At times, burying the car's climate controls in one of these menus seems borderline unforgivable.

The C5 Aircross’s cabin, then, isn’t exactly a paragon of ergonomic accomplishment, which is a shame because there’s a lot about this interior that’s easy to like. The seats are well positioned and comfortable, though somewhat flat in both cushion and squat, and occasionally lacking in support. Citroën fits Advanced Comfort seats with variably dense foam in their construction and they feel quite soft, although opinions were divided on our road test jury as to whether they made for good long-distance comfort.

There are well-spaced pedals, and there's a nicely aligned, smallish steering wheel that isn't overburdened with controls. You get plenty of space in the front, and three individual sliding, folding and removable chairs in the rear, in front of a boot whose capacity can extend to beyond 700 litres with the back seats still in place.

Funky trims abound and material quality feels fairly strong, even if it doesn't look particular rich or expensive. Plenty of different material finishes make it a busy-looking interior, but less so for the driver. The mouldings feel soft under your arms, soft on the dash top, and squidgy on the door tops, and the doors have metal handles.

As a driving environment, then, the C5 Aircross is a slightly conflicted place: at once frustrating yet also accommodating and pleasing, a theme that extends as far as the digital instrument binnacle. The big speedo is supplemented by a retro horizontal one that scrolls along the top of the display. Yet even if you put the customisable panel into ‘dials’ mode, the rev counter remains a tiny, undecipherable line that gives you only a vague idea of the engine speed. Both hybrid versions of the car get their own instrumentation styles, which work acceptably well, though they lack some useful information.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

citroen c5 aircross driving

Even in its more powerful guises, the Citroën C5 Aircross isn't an SUV with remotely sporting pretensions. While the plug-in hybrid just about dips under 9.0sec to 62mph by its manufacturer's claims, every other version needs 10sec or longer for the same sprint. And, if you're buying this car for the right reasons, that shouldn't discourage you one jot. 

The BlueHDI 180 model we performance tested in 2018, in slippery, chilly test conditions, needed 9.0sec to hit 60mph from rest, which fell about half a second behind the official performance claim, but was nonetheless close enough to where you’d expect a tall, automatic 174bhp SUV to be on standing-start pace. On getaway, its eight-speed auto hooked up quickly and shuffled through shifts briskly and effectively.

The torquey diesel engine was plenty capable of providing enough grunt to haul the C5 Aircross’s 1540kg mass uphill

The 2.0 diesel engine was a quiet unit most of the time. At idle, lower speeds and cruising, it stayed mostly quite muted, although when accelerating gently it became more audible and, when worked harder, developed a notable and slightly irritating, albeit muted, top-end clatter. Step-off was smooth, though, and shifts on part-throttle pretty much undetectable.

Citroën's petrol-fuelled options deliver better running refinement by and large, especially the hybrids, which both offer periods of engine-off running. Neither is quite faultlessly refined though, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine of the PHEV booming a little when called upon to really perform, and the 1.2-litre three-cylinder of the Hybrid 136 vibrating in distant but familiar fashion at certain crank speeds. The Hybrid 136 also produces a faint whine from its gearbox-mounted drive motor as energy is scavenged while the car slows for junctions and roundabouts, though it's nothing loud enough to burst the agreeable bubble of calm in which the car generally operates. 

In all automatic versions, you can take control of the gearshifts yourself via some slightly cheap- and flimsy-feeling column-mounted shift paddles, although it’s hard to imagine owners will do so particularly often. Ditto the variable drive modes. Enter Eco driving mode and throttle response gets a bit treacly, and if you just adjust your accelerative style, you can achieve the same results. In Sport mode, the gearbox has a marginally keener appetite to kick down and hold a lower gear – more so, again, than we can imagine any buyer being particularly inclined to. No, normal mode is where the car defaults to, where it’s at its best and where, we suspect, it’ll stay.

Measured braking performance was competitive in the BlueHDI 180 model we tested in 2018, and there’s respectable feel through the pedal when you’re moving. We noted some drivability flaws in the diesel's pedal progression, which often caused less than smooth halts from low speed, but Citroën seems to have addressed these lately, at least in some models. The PHEV retains some annoying low-speed braking foibles, according to our testing, but the Hybrid 136 is better-mannered. 

RIDE & HANDLING

citroen c5 aircross driving

Citroën has heralded its Progressive Hydraulic Cushions suspension technology far and wide but, just as with the Citroën C4 Cactus on which they first appeared, you may have at least one or two disappointments in store if you’re expecting a softness of ride quality that makes you think time has turned back 40 years.

What they do, first and foremost, is allow the C5 Aircross a softness of springing, and a pliancy in its ride, that’s missing from most of its mid-sized SUV rivals. With the bump-stops there to guard the extremes of travel in the suspension struts, Citroën can tune the spring itself for greater permissiveness. Absorption is good over lumps and bumps, and there’s seldom any harshness to the car's out-of-town ride. 

It rides with pliancy, but it’s not a ‘magic carpet’ – and the softness of the suspension means you’ll strive to be measured with your braking, steering and throttle inputs

There’s a touch of road noise at speed and there does seem to be a clear limit to the suspension's capacity to isolate the cabin from sharper inputs and severe road imperfections around town, where the softly rated suspension can seem to lack some shock absorption and general impact filtering. But for pottering around urban environments, the ease with which a C5 Aircross simply goes about daily driving, is generally good.

Come to a corner and you'll find a noticeable quantity of body roll, which is unsurprising – though the car is still some way from a listing, heaving, unchecked mess at fast road speeds. As a result, it pays to be smooth with the controls. Be harsh with the steering, brakes or throttle and the movements the car makes can begin to stray out of phase with the gentle natural frequency of its ride. Like so many comfort-oriented cars, the Aircross very much handles best with measured inputs.

The steering is light. Perhaps it’s overly light, and although it firms up with a press of the Sport button, that only ever adds contrived weight rather than contact patch feel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Most cars of this type have only an approximation of steering feel and the C5's is at least accurate enough, and fairly consistent, while asking for very little investment of effort.

Attempt to drive this car too hard and you'll certainly know that you're doing so. When exiting a bend on a moderate throttle or more, while there’s nothing you’d clearly define as torque steer, there’s definite traction-related steering corruption. Sometimes it pulls the wheel straight, sometimes farther into the corner, but at all times disturbing the sense of easy handling precision and calm that you'll feel at the gentler speeds at which the car is clearly most comfortable.

Millbrook’s Hill Route wasn’t a happy hunting ground for the Citroën C5 Aircross. The track’s sharp, cambered turns and dramatic elevation changes often emphasise the inherent top-heaviness common to taller vehicles, and the Citroën was no exception. Body roll was abundant through tighter bends and hairpins, but it did at least build progressively and predictably.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

citroen c5 aircross 001

The C5 Aircross is a pretty competitive value offering. At its cheapest, it remains a sub-£30,000 purchase and cheaper than any Peugeot 3008, Hyundai Tucson or Mazda CX-5 on the market. And while it's a lot pricier in top-of-the-line, fleet-friendly PHEV form, the new mild-hybrid model brings an electrified ownership proposition to the range at a much more affordable price that private buyers are more likely to approve of. The Hybrid 136 is about a grand cheaper than the Hyundai Tucson 1.6T mild-hybrid and about the same price as a Renault Austral E-Tech Full Hybrid. 

The BlueHDI 180 model (which is not longer on sale) we tested in 2018 returned 47.8mpg on our habitual touring economy test. Citroën's smaller-engined BlueHDI 130 ought to trump that. 

It won’t quite hold its value like best-in-class rivals, but its punchy list price should still make it good value

The plug-in hybrid's advertised 40-mile electric range translates, in our experience, into somewhere between 28 and 32 miles of electric autonomy in real-world driving, depending on usage. Range-extended fuel economy in that model, once the battery is depleted, is more like 33mpg, so buyers should consider what opportunities they'll have to charge their car before committing to the priciest C5 Aircross on the promise of efficiency savings.

Citroën claims its new hybrid engine delivers 30% better urban fuel economy than the standard Puretech petrol unit, and 15% in mixed settings. The addition of mild-hybrid technology typically results in better economy, but during our testing, the benefits appeared limited. On a 53-mile test route, which predominantly involved motorways, the C5 achieved 42.1mpg. 

If you want Citroën's full suite of active safety and convenience features (radar-based AEB, blindspot monitoring, speed limit detection and active cruise control), you'll need to buy the car in mid- or high-level trim. But fleet users should be careful not to overload an upper-level PHEV with too many options that adversely affect its electric range and associated benefit-in-kind qualification.

VERDICT

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The Citroën C5 Aircross courts a particular sort of mid-sized SUV customer: one who might be put off by the spuriously sporting positioning of so many premium-branded alternatives and who's attracted instead by cabin and cargo space, carrying versatility, ease of use, comfort and value for money.

It's a particular kind of customer who wants a practical option but doesn't want a seven-seater; who needs the versatility of an SUV, but doesn't need four-wheel drive; and who wants some of the advantages of electrification, on either company car tax or running costs, but doesn't want to go fully electric. But even if that doesn't sound like you, you could appreciate this car's appeal as a simple, functional, easy-going, everyday-use family car - because it has plenty of that.

This is one Citroën in which alternative style doesn't come at the cost of rational substance. The simplified, affordable mild-hybrid version feels particularly Citroën.

Despite having lost some of its original engine options, the C5 Aircross has gained new ones that give it plenty of rational appeal. Its 40-mile-electric-range PHEV is certainly one of them - but, if anything, the Hybrid 136 may be the most appealing choice. The addition of the dual-clutch gearbox benefits refinement somewhat, with the smoother gearchanges improving the car's all-round drivabilty. There are still some issues with mechanical refinement, particularly at lower speeds, but overall the hybrid is a well-mannered SUV offered at an affordable price. 

It's a shame that the car's comfort-oriented suspension doesn't do a slightly more thorough job of filtering and isolating the cabin around town and that some of its on-board digital technology doesn't give the same priority to usability that the wider car clearly does.

But, whether it's quite the perfect relaxing five-seat SUV or not, this car is certainly welcome within its class simply for attempting to be - and for doing it at a reasonable price. 

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips
Title: Staff Writer

Sam has been part of the Autocar team since 2021 and is often tasked with writing new car stories and more recently conducting first drive reviews.

Most of his time is spent leading sister-title Move Electric, which covers the entire spectrum of electric vehicles, from cars to boats – and even trucks. He is an expert in electric cars, new car news, microbility and classic cars. 

Sam graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2021 with a BA in Journalism. In his final year he produced an in-depth feature on the automotive industry’s transition to electric cars and interviewed a number of leading experts to assess our readiness for the impending ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Citroen C5 Aircross First drives