Refreshing, right-sized budget family hatchback has just enough performance and polish to maintain its allure

What is it?

The new C4 Cactus five-door hatchback may be the future of the Citroën brand, but it’s also a car with unmistakable historical resonance. Though its recent past may not be peppered with examples, the French car-maker has got notable older precedent when it comes to launching cars like this.

The Cactus comes from a place of rational pragmatism, fused with the kind imaginative freedom that only the double chevron seems to know. It is right-sized, lightweight, modestly endowed, cleverly packaged (stop me if you can tell where I’m going with this…) comfort-orientated, bargain-priced, bold and innovative-looking yet conventional under the skin.

Citroën would never saddle a new car with the kind of pressure that such an association would endow, but we’re certainly free enough to observe that the French firm has given us the closest thing to a 2CV here since, well, the 2CV.

But is the Cactus’s execution as inspired as its conception? A few weeks ago, our first drive in the car made promising reading. In the weeks to come, a full road test will complete the pronouncement. But here and now is our chance for some first impressions of the car on British roads, and with the steering wheel on the correct side of the cabin.

What's it like?

Even in dark grey, about as stealthy as a ground-level flying saucer. It's a curious-looking thing at first, but you warm to its quirky features as you learn about the function behind their form.

The ‘Airbump’ plastic cladding on the bumpers and doors is there to prevent scratches and dings in the bodywork, for example. It works too – although not extending it to the trailing edge of the rear passenger doors seems a bit of a shame.

The interior is certainly spacious, and a good deal more than you’d expect when told that this car is built on PSA’s supermini platform. The wheelbase is the same as a normal C4’s, so legroom is quite respectable. Headroom in the front is excellent, in the rear not so great. But then when was the last time you needed to seat a tall adult in the back of your five-door hatchback? In the Cactus’s pragmatic world, taller occupants sit up front – simple as that.

Pity, then, that if the driver happens to be tall, he’ll find the Cactus’s pedals a little too close for comfort and the steering column bereft of reach adjustment. And yet he’ll still appreciate a cabin packaged very cleverly indeed, with a low scuttle and fascia, big storage cubbies, a good-sized digital speedometer and broad, comfortable seats.

To drive, the Cactus doesn’t have the sparkling character that its styling expresses. Knowing that the supermini underpinnings wouldn’t be clever enough to handle two conflicting briefs simultaneously, Citroën has plumped for a soft, loping chassis tune that means that the Cactus is ever-comfortable.

That the ride regularly sends thumps, pings and so much surface roar up into the cabin is a bit disappointing in light of the comfort brief. However, the Cactus’s tidy, grippy handling is largely uncompromised by the soft suspension. And it may turn out to have better rolling refinement on smaller wheels than the 17-inchers this range-topping Flair-spec test car came on.

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The engine of our 99bhp turbodiesel, meanwhile, seemed fairly quiet and, even driving through fairly distantly space gear ratios, just about powerful enough. It won’t rival PSA’s new e-THP turbo three-pot on all-round appeal for low-mileage motorists, but it is frugal, returning almost 60mpg in the mixed conditions of our test.

Should I buy one?

If you like good value packaged with a bit of flamboyance and imagination, fill your boots. The Cactus may be no dynamic miracle, but it’s more pleasant to drive than any current Dacia, and several times as charming as a Skoda Rapid Spaceback. Its real achievement would be to effortlessly cover your everyday motoring needs without ever feeling worthy, basic or dour in the slightest. 

You’ll have to like it, mind. The Cactus won't be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s the kind of car that you can easily imagine littering Parisian streets a decade or so from now. If that happens, it will thoroughly deserve its popularity.

Citroën C4 Cactus BlueHDi 100 Flair

Price £15,900 0-62mph 10.7sec Top speed 114mph Economy 83.1mpg CO2 87g/km Kerb weight 1225kg Engine 4 cyls, 1560cc, turbodiesel Power 99bhp at 3750rpm Torque 187lb ft at 1750rpm Gearbox 5-spd manual

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.

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RCT V 21 August 2014

. . . before they part with even £16k !!

I really did take to this car when it was fist mentioned. The whole shape, idea, and presumed ethos.

I am pretty sure that the simple oblong instrument panel (in front of the driver), is a similar shape to the 2CVs that I remember. The 2CV front windows were also hinged, but horizontally and at half height. There is probably some reason why the Cactus rear windows have to be front hinged, rather than top hinged.

I really don’t “get” the ski-roof rails, other than they add some “substance” (height), to what would otherwise be a merely “jacked-up” normal hatchback (photo number 3 of 18).

I’ve yet to try the vehicle myself, but as merely a “jacked-up” normal hatchback, this implies a legs-forward driving position - rather than the more upright, knees and hips at the 90 degrees angle (that I prefer), which is associated with (true) “cross-overs” and SUVs.

I wish Citroen every success with the Cactus, but customers are going to have to walk-past an awful lot of other cars - before they part with even £16k !!

Bobstardeluxe 5 July 2014

So ugly

This will date quicker than a pint of milk left out in the sun! Also that interior is a mess! ... I really do not like this !
Simplicity is key 5 July 2014

Fresh as the North Pole.

I love cars that are different and fun however they come. I like the controversial i3 and would consider one if it wasn't for the 40k price tag for a well spec'd specimen. The cactus has all the drama of the i3 in a slightly more relavent way. Electric isn't for everybody, would the bmw i3 be more of a success if it was just a normal petrol car. I appreciate the need for manufacturers to go electric. They will be taxed heavily if they don't but it is expensive. The cactus has even more wow factor and is more practical. It's also a fraction of the price. Sure it doesn't have a carbon chassis and electric power but if a highly efficient petrol/ diesel can use normal material which are probably more sustainable why would Bmw need to make things so complicated?