There’s a titanic battle for the hearts and minds (and cash) of Australia’s ravenous small SUV buyers. In 2017, over 104,000 compact SUVs rolled out of dealer showrooms and into the garages of their new owners.
Sadly, only 567 of those sales were accounted for by this French duo.
The polarising Citroen C4 Cactus only found 190 new homes in 2017, while Renault’s entry into the small SUV segment, the Captur, racked up sales of 377 units. It should be noted, they are playing in an extremely crowded market with some 35 different models (and 121 variants) competing for sales supremacy.
With such an array of choices, it’s little wonder these two left-of-field choices struggle for traction in a market where the best-selling compact SUV, the Mitsubishi ASX, shifted over 19,000 vehicles.
In fact, the top five sellers in the segment accounted for 72,392 sales (or 69.1 per cent of total compact SUV sales). That leaves the rest of this already crowded segment fighting for scraps.
With that in mind, what do these two French SUVs offer in a bid to lure a share of the market?
There’s not a lot between this pair. The Citroen C4 Cactus Exclusive we have on test is priced at $30,190 plus on-road costs. That is, to be honest, an exxy proposition when compared to segment leaders from Mitsubishi and Mazda, both of which offer similar drivetrains for far less money.
The Mitsubishi ASX in FWD form with a 2.0-litre petrol engine is priced at an even $25,000 (plus on-road costs), while Mazda’s CX-3 Neo with FWD and 2.0-litre petrol motor costs just $20,490 (plus on-roads).
The Renault Captur Intens here is the top-spec variant in the Captur range, priced at $30,990 drive-away.
There are cheaper Capturs available, with the 0.9-litre Zen starting at just $23,990 and the slightly more powerful 1.2-litre Zen available from $26,990.
So what do you get for 30-large? Quite a lot, actually.
In the case of our Cactus, the list of standard inclusions is healthy: a rear-view camera with rear parking sensors, active fog lamps, cruise control, 7.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, and six airbags including head protection for the second-row occupants.
There is also Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, keyless entry, LED daytime running lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, climate control, cruise control, tyre pressure monitor, hill hold assist, leather steering wheel, heated and powered wing mirrors, DAB+ digital radio, privacy glass, and roof rails.
The Renault matches the Cactus pretty much blow for blow in this tussle with little to separate the pair. Standard highlights on the Captur include 17-inch alloys, 7.0-inch colour touch screen with satellite-navigation, and six airbags (same number as the Cactus although, somewhat infuriatingly and disappointingly, none for the second row).
The list continues with a rear-view camera, leather steering wheel, LED daytime running lights, hill hold assist, heated and powered wing mirrors, climate control, DAB+ radio, tyre pressure monitor, and park assist.
Neither car on test featured a long options list.
The funky Cactus upped the funk quotient further, finished in a no-cost Blanc Nacre paint to complement the no-cost option Onetone Edition styling. It’s an interesting look, for sure, one that you’ll either love or hate. Personally, this tester reckons it’s a winner. After all, if you’re going to opt for an SUV with interesting styling, you may as well go all out.
The Captur, for its part, features metallic paint at $600 and a nice $500 BOSE sound system that brings the as-tested price to $32,090 drive-away.
The Renault and Citroen approach their respective interiors in different ways. Whereas the Renault errs on the side of conservatism, the Cactus has gone all out matching its edgy exterior with an equally funky cabin.
There’s nothing outstanding or remarkable about the Captur’s cabin. It’s all nice and modern enough, if a little bland. If it wasn’t for the Renault diamond logo emblazoned on the steering wheel, you could be sitting in a Toyota, Hyundai or Mazda.
The heated front seats are firm and comfortable while, interestingly, the front passenger seat features ISOFIX anchor points to complement the two in the back (without, as already mentioned, airbag protection!).
There are some ergonomic quirks, such as the volume controls for the (rather excellent optional BOSE) sound system being located on a stalk behind the steering wheel, which, if you are of a height of around 177cm (like me), is totally out of eyesight. It’s annoying.
You do get get DAB+ digital radio though, and the satellite-navigation, once fired up, is commendable. Although, after aborting one entered trip, it took about 10 minutes to find the function to cancel the route guidance, which meant the Captur persisted in trying to navigate me to the destination I no longer needed.
Storage is lacklustre with a decent-sized glovebox and a small flip-top cubby on the dashboard.
There’s an open cubby in front of the gear stick and a small cubby under the centre armrest, while in typical French fashion, the cupholders are so tiny they are next to useless. This seems to be a quirk with French cars, and we can’t help but wonder why the land of the Tricolore is so against providing usable cupholders?
The second row is a compromise, really. As well as the missing airbags, there are no air vents, and no USB or 12V charging points. Head room is decent enough, but leg room is lacking, even for someone of an average height like yours truly.
Boot space is okay with 377 litres on offer, with the second row in use. There’s further storage under the floor that sees the available space expand to 455 litres. With the second row folded down (60:40 split fashion), boot space increases to 1235 litres. There’s a space-saver spare too.
If the Renault’s cabin is a bit generic, the same can’t be levelled at the Cactus’s interior, which presents as an exercise in bold design.
Little design touches abound: from the leather-strap door pulls to the dash-mounted and upward-opening glovebox, which looks like an old steamer trunk, there is a feeling of the avant-garde inside the Cactus.
The 7.0-inch touchscreen is crisp and clear and features a volume knob, something increasingly rare in modern cars. Yay. It is the only tactile function, though, with all other functions accessed via the touchscreen.
Disappointingly, there is no smartphone mirroring, nor is it available as an option, so connectivity and streaming come via Bluetooth streaming, which, it should be noted, works effortlessly.
The six-speaker sound system is a cracker too, thanks in part to the ARKAMYS digital amplifier, with crisp sound and seamless audio streaming. There’s DAB+ radio as well.
The eMyWay sat-nav proved a bit disappointing on one occasion, sending me to the wrong address.
Sure, it found the street I was looking for, but the final destination – according to the system – was approximately 1km from where I actually needed to be. To be fair, this happened only once, with all other destinations reached accurately and efficiently.
Like the Captur, the Citroen’s cupholders are next to useless, certainly as cupholders, and storage options remain limited (bar the stylish 8.5-litre glovebox already mentioned). There are door pockets, but they are shallow and narrow.
The second row is spacious enough with adequate head and leg room, but like its French cousin, it’s not a place you’d want to spend a huge amount of time.
The rear windows feature privacy glass, but in a strange quirk they do not open in the standard up-down fashion. Instead, the rear windows pop out approximately 6cm. Just weird.
Boot space is slightly less than that available in the Captur with 358 litres, expanding to 1170 litres with the second row folded (60:40) not quite flat. There’s a space-saver spare too.
Look, both interiors have their flaws, but both also have their positives.
The Renault is nicely finished inside, and looks and feels premium-ish. But for sheer outré styling, the Cactus stands tall, although granted not to everyone’s taste. But, getting into the Cactus feels almost like a cultural experience, whereas sitting inside the Renault feels like, well, sitting inside a slew of small, semi-premium SUVs.
Remove their respective skins and this French pair are remarkably similar. At the heart of the Captur beats a four-cylinder 1.2-litre petrol engine with outputs of 88kW at 4900rpm and 190Nm of torque peaking at 2000rpm.
The Citroen, down a cylinder, albeit with the same displacement, loses out in the power stakes, extracting 81kW from its 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol unit. However, the Cactus makes up for it in the torque stakes, with a far more satisfying 205Nm coming on song at a more user-friendly 1500rpm.
On balance, there’s not much in it; however, the Citroen’s extra torque can be felt, especially around town where moving away from intersections and finding those little traffic oases is done with confidence.
That same feeling of confidence is lacking in the Captur, the Renault unwilling and unable to fill those gaps in traffic with the same aplomb as its French comrade.
That’s not to say the Renault isn’t enjoyable to drive. It is, but with the caveat that cycling through traffic needs a bit of circumspection, whereas the Cactus allows for a more seat-of-the pants experience.
Renault and Citroen have taken a different approach to how drive is sent to the front wheels. For Renault, a dual-clutch transmission is the pièce de résistance, while Citroen has opted for a more conventional six-speed auto.
And in this instance, it’s the Cactus that is a clear-cut winner, its six-speed auto tranny far more adept at choosing the right ratios at the right time than Renault’s EDC (efficient dual clutch) ’box, which was found wanting on several occasions and hunting for the right gear for a given situation.
One CarAdvice colleague remarked, not a little unkindly, “It’s like there’s some dithering fool in the transmission and he can’t decide which ratio and when to swap. He just doesn’t know”.
Not so the Cactus, which almost instinctively knew the right ratio.
That said, on the highway where gear selection is not as tantamount, this pair are evenly matched, both humming along nicely without breaking into a sweat or breaking the licence points bank.
That’s not to say neither is capable of tootling along at slightly exaggerated speed that could see you lose a demerit point or three, but in reality, the sweet spot for both of these small SUVs is around the 100–110km/h mark. At that speed, the engine isn’t overly worked and the power outputs are nicely adequate for the task at hand.
But even then, the Cactus holds a slight edge over the Renault, thanks to its 15Nm more torque available lower down in the rev range.
Where the Renault spanks its compatriot is in fuel consumption. The Reggie claims a combined fuel use of 5.8L/100km, which when compared with the 7.9L/100km we achieved seems a touch ambitious. But not as ambitious as the Citroen, which claims a meagre 4.7L/100km. Did we get close? Hells no.
Try 9.7L/100km, and rest assured we weren’t driving it like motoring journalists. Maybe Sydney’s stop-start traffic was particularly bad that week. Score one (a big one) for the Renault.
There’s not much between this paire on the road, both proving adept at dealing with imperfections in an unruffled fashion. Neither is a corner-carver, but then neither makes any claim it is.
Around town, the Captur settles nicely after bumps and provides a nicely cushioned ride, settling easily and comfortably over speed humps and the like. The Cactus, too, deals with these traffic incursions with ease, settling quickly after sharper hits. Sure, it’s not the same cushioned driving-on-clouds experience of Citroens of old, but it is perfectly fine.
Add some spirited driving into the mix and the Captur has just a little more poise, with minimal body roll and with steering that is nicely weighted and direct.
The Cactus’s steering is a little on the light side, lacking feel and feedback. As a positive, it is easy to twirl around tight spaces and carparks adding to its certifiable ‘urban’ SUV feel.
The reality is neither Frenchie is ever likely to see as much as a patch of dirt as a proper dirt road, nor likely to be thrown wildly through a set of mountain twisties. That’s just not their raison d’être.
That said, the Captur is just a little more fun and engaging on the open road despite the predilection of its DCT for fluffing gear changes. But if city driving is your primary focus, then the Cactus is marginally better at dealing with the daily grind of driving to and from work/school/shopping centres and the like.
Niche brands need to provide surety for buyers, and in that regard the Renault is a clear winner with its five-year/unlimited-km warranty over the Cactus’s three-year/100,000km offering.
The Renault scores on servicing too, with scheduled maintenance required every 12 months or 30,000km (!), whichever comes first. Citroen demands a 12-month/15,000km servicing schedule for the Cactus.
Renault’s capped-price servicing costs comprehensively spank Citroen’s too, with the first three scheduled services costing just $299 each. Citroen asks for $350, $459 and $626 for the first three scheduled visits to the service bay.
It’s a tough call, really. If this were a football friendly between France A and France B, the Renault and Citroen would battle it for a 2-2 draw, with both displaying strengths and weaknesses.
The Renault’s more conventional approach to styling, while still presenting a funky front, is a winner in a lot of eyes. The Cactus, polarising as it is, is definitely the more avant-garde of the pair, and while that is admirable, it’s not to everyone’s taste. And that’s clearly reflected in sales figures, where the Renault is outselling the Citroen comprehensively.
Because they are so evenly matched, it’s the nuances that could sway buyers. The Citroen holds the edge in performance, but it’s the Renault that wins the ownership battle with its generous warranty and affordable maintenance costs. But, those missing rear airbags count against the Renault.
Ultimately, neither Frenchie can match a swathe of Japanese and Korean rivals in the segment on price.
On the flipside, there is a certain cachet in being behind the wheel of a Euro offering, even if French cars are not quite held in the same regard as their German counterparts. But then that’s reflected in pricing too, with the Renault and Citroen both considerably cheaper than their Teutonic counterparts.
But, as in most contests, there can only be one winner, and in this instance, after a penalty shootout, the Cactus takes the médaille d’honneur thanks in part to its polarising design (which this writer likes), but mostly because around town, where it’s likely to spend the bulk of its time, it’s just the more pleasant small French SUV to drive. Vive la différence.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.