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Originally planned to make its Australian debut by year's end, the Citroen C4 Cactus now won't bring its 'bizarre but charming' sub-compact SUV style into local showrooms until early 2016. But with a choice of two drivetrains, an expected starting price of around $25,000, and new 60:40 split-fold rear seats thrown into the mix, the 2016 C4 Cactus has a fair chance of pricking the establishment.
Before getting to taste the Citroen C4 Cactus on our turf, we hopped a plane to the land of Champagne and Chabichou du Poitou to sample the funky ‘Air Bump’-laden Cactus in its hometown of Paris.
Ah France, where Parisian traffic is nearly as bad as the (falsely suggested) arrogance of Parisians themselves. It’s certainly different to Oz, that’s for sure.
For one, in France, having a single-piece folding rear seat backrest doesn’t hinder a car’s engineering relationship with fitting child seats. In Australia it does. Which is why Citroen Australia made the decision to hold out for its source company to engineer the important change for the 2016 car – an inclusion made specifically because of our land’s strict Australian Design Rules (ADRs).
Hence the new 60:40 split-fold rear seats, which aren’t due to find their way into Cactuses until November production, and hence the delay.
Based on a stretched and modified version of PSA Peugeot Citroen’s PF1 platform that underpins the current Peugeot 2008 and old Citroen C3, the C4 Cactus – as confirmed earlier this month – will be offered to local buyers with two turbocharged engines.
The entry-point is a Euro 6-compliant 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine with 81kW of power, 205Nm of torque and a claimed combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 4.7 litres per 100km. The other is a 68kW/230Nm 1.6-litre diesel claiming 3.6L/100km.
Despite being Euro 5-compliant, once on sale, the diesel promises to become the most fuel efficient non-hybrid vehicle on the Australian market.
Opt for the petrol and your sole means of forcibly turning the front wheels is a five-speed manual. Go the more expensive diesel – tipped to slip in just under the $30k mark – and your only option is a six-speed robotised automated manual (or semi-automatic).
Specifications across both variants will be largely identical with cruise control featuring a speed limiter, automatic halogen headlights with LED daytime running lights and front fog lights with cornering function, automatic wipers, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera all standard, along with satellite navigation, rear privacy glass and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Inside, a seven-inch central touchscreen joins a digital instrument cluster, automatic air conditioning and a six-speaker stereo with DAB+ digital radio and Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming.
And while all Cactuses will have hill start assist and tyre pressure monitoring, the diesel auto exclusively gets an ‘Easy Push’ ‘D, N, R’ push-button gear selector, shift paddles and an ‘Aircraft-style’ manual handbrake.
In an effort to keep weight down – the 4157mm-long Cactus impressively weighs around 200kg less than a standard C4 at between 1020-1055kg – the steering wheel is only rake and not reach adjustable and front power windows are the only ones with rear windows being pop-out style (a la the axed Volkswagen Up!).
A thermally insulated blind-free panoramic glass roof (with “advanced heat protection”) will be optional, adding yet another choice to the other 23,184 colour and trim personalisation possibilities that will be initially available on the Cactus.
Splitting a 220km-plus drive loop between the two drivetrains, we first jump into a white petrol manual Cactus featuring ‘Chocolate’ Air Bumps.
Tucked into the C4 Cactus’ stubby nose, the petite 1.2-litre PureTech 110 three-cylinder is instantly fun to drive.
Gutsy and tractable for its size, its three-cylinder off-beat thrum adds to the smile-inducing experience, though, a lack of a tachometer does feel like an omission.
The engine doesn’t love being caught out with few revs on board – you’re definitely made aware of its preferred operating range in those situations – but get it, and the turbo, up and running and, it’s a smooth and responsive unit.
Shifting your own gears is also a plus thanks to a light and hassle-free manual gearbox and an accompanying clutch that, while light, is not devoid of feedback.
Swapping into a yellow diesel with black ‘bumps’, things feel similar, but different.
The base Cactus’ open and spacious cabin feel, forgivingly soft dynamic character and light, consistent and pleasingly direct and involving steering all remain, however, the petrol’s organic and docile personality is subtly changed into a more highly-strung one.
Noticeably more torquey than the manual petrol, in the semi-automatic diesel some vibration is felt through the throttle pedal, the petrol’s progressive brake pedal is a little touchier, and diesel clatter is more prominent than any petrol purr.
Vastly comfortable in its ride on smooth surfaces, more weight over the front wheels also seems to accentuate the occasional crashy moment felt when encountering potholes, speed bumps and sharper imperfections.
But while the e-HDi 92 turbo-diesel engine easily brings with it far more grunt, it’s the single-clutch ETG six-speed semi-automatic transmission that’s the biggest letdown.
A generation behind the newer Aisin six-speed found in EMP2-platform models such as the second-generation C4 Picasso and Peugeot 308, the gearbox, while an updated version, is largely unintuitive and almost unavoidably tied to jerky and painfully slow ratio swaps.
On top of being partly responsible for Citroen’s selection of auto transmission, the Cactus’ older platform is also the reason the second-row floor is interrupted by a transmission tunnel instead of having the same flat floor seen in the C4 Picasso.
What makes the troublesome automatic all the more frustrating is that that aside, the Citroen C4 Cactus is a genuine little crackerjack of a car and a massively impressive starting point for an all-new model.
It’s agile enough to zip around ultra-narrow French roads, hugely comfortable both up front and in the back with ample head and legroom, and its 358-litre boot is about mid-pack for the class.
Factor in too that, once launched, it will be covered by Citroen Australia’s six-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, six-year/90,000km capped-price servicing program, and come with six years free roadside assist.
Patchy, poorer quality Sydney roads will be a good test for the car locally, along with Melbourne train tracks and tram lines, and Citroen and the Cactus will no doubt have to work hard to successfully crack the ultra-popular and ultra-competitive segment.
That said though, if you’ve been holding out for something that looks and feels genuinely different from current offerings – and likely will for years to come – the bold, interesting and funky Citroen C4 Cactus might just be the thing to quench your small SUV thirst.
Click on the Photos tab for more Citroen C4 Cactus images by David Zalstein.