Cactus: most of the world knows the word as referring to a spiky plant renowned for its hardy nature; but in Australia, where slang is the dog's bollocks, it means broken, dead or not functioning. That said, there’s actually a pretty smart methodology behind the name of the 2016 Citroen C4 Cactus.
Cactus plants have spikes to protect themselves from the elements, and while the new Citroen compact SUV doesn’t have spikes on the outside, it does have sections of protection known as AirBumps.
Strange styling aside, these functional thermoplastic polyurethane sections mean the C4 Cactus's doors will not be as susceptible to trolley dents, door dings or accidents involving kids and cricket balls.
It’s clear this is a car aimed at urban buyers, and as such it’s no surprise that there are two downsized turbocharged engines to choose from.
The petrol version is powered by a 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine producing 81kW of power and 205Nm of torque, which is paired to a five-speed manual gearbox. The diesel model has a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo powerplant producing 68kW and 230Nm, and it comes as standard with a six-speed semi-automatic transmission.
Yep, you read that right – there is no petrol automatic drivetrain to be had here, folks.
We wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority of small SUV buyers stopped reading right now. It is a massive oversight, one that will cost the Citroen C4 Cactus a lot of sales.
Still, the fact the diesel automatic is priced at a not-ridiculous premium over the petrol manual –$29,990 plus on-road costs versus $26,990 plus costs – means the diesel will surely have some inherent attraction. In fact, Citroen says the order take-up of the diesel semi-auto model has been 85 per cent so far.
The C4 Cactus is also well equipped — you can read our pricing and specifications breakdown here — though there are a few omissions like smart entry and push-button start and a passenger-side vanity mirror, as well as some safety equipment. More on that later.
Part of that could come down to the ludicrously low claimed fuel use of the diesel – just 3.7 litres per 100 kilometres, making it the country’s most efficient non-hybrid/non-electric model with five seats.
While semi-automatic gearboxes always lack the precision and refinement of conventional torque converter transmissions, this one is more user-friendly than most - depending on your driving style.
It still works best if you predict when you think it might want to shift gears and lift your foot off the throttle to allow the shift to occur (otherwise you lurch back and forth when cog-swaps happen). If you’re applying heavy throttle, the lurching is not passenger-friendly, but at the very least there are paddleshifters if you want to take matters in to your own hands.
That said, the manual mode doesn't stay on, and we noted some instances were it was far from perfect. For instance, when the car kicks down from second gear to first at low speed, it can lurch and forget what needs to happen next. This is also notable when your climb hills at low speeds.
However, the engine itself offers good roll-on acceleration and plenty of torque for such a light car – the C4 Cactus weighs in at 1020 kilograms in petrol-manual spec and just 1055kg in diesel-auto guise.
The petrol manual model also has the guts to deal with the majority of duties, and like the diesel it builds pace nicely, with a refined yet slightly raspy nature. It is a characterful drivetrain, if you can deal with doing the shiftwork yourself.
The gearshift action is smooth but the throw is a little long, while the clutch is light – but the driving position could be better: there’s not quite enough reach adjustment to the steering wheel for taller drivers to comfortably position their feet (particularly in the manual) as the pedals are quite extruded from the firewall.
The petrol's claimed fuel use is impressive, too, at 4.7L/100km.
Citroen is renowned for making cars with plush suspension that equates to a supple and comfortable ride, and while the C4 Cactus isn’t the last word in isolation from bumps, it does a fine job of dealing with lumps and larger bumps at lower speeds.
As speeds rise, though, the body can be flummoxed by jittery surfaces, particularly in corners, and on rougher country back roads the suspension doesn't settle down as much as some rivals.
The steering is precise enough to make for some fun in the bends, though, if the surface is smooth, and there’s a lovely balance to the car in corners. It is also light at low speeds, which makes parking easy. And even if it weren’t, you’d still be sure to get plenty of people watching you attempt your best parking moves: it’s just that much of a head-turner.
The outside is perhaps not as mind-bending when you first sit inside, but take a closer look and you notice some interesting elements to the cockpit.
The front seat in the diesel model, for example, looks more like a bench – or a couch – with an arm-rest that folds up or down to allow for cuddles (when stationary, of course). The layout of the petrol manual’s gearbox and handbrake lever means it goes without this clever solution, but thankfully the seats are couch-like in their comfort – not the most supportive, but certainly amenable to long-distance travel.
The luggage-strap door pulls, the rubber picots on the dash-top, and the 8.5-litre “top box” storage caddy that can swallow lots of loose items are all impressive elements to the front of the cockpit, and the fact the passenger airbag pops out from the headlining of the car is another cool talking point.
There’s a 7.0-inch touchscreen media system that controls almost everything: Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, digital (and AM and FM) radio, USB connectivity and the mapping via the in-built satellite navigation. There’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, though, and no voice control, either, which means you may need to try and fiddle with the screen on the move – a little bit distracting.
The digital speedometer, though, is clear and concise. It doesn’t even have a tachometer.
Being a French car there are some further ergonomic quirks, including the fact that there’s just one cup-holder, and it’s a small one. Further, the door pockets don’t have bottle receptacles, either, but they are deep enough to allow a 600mL bottle to sit inside lying down.
The rear door pockets are another matter altogether. Citroen claims you can fit two 1.25L bottles in the back, and we believe them. The reason the pockets in the back are so big, though, is because the back windows don’t actually wind down – they open outwards on a hinge, which is a weight-saving measure (the brand claims it rids of 11 kilograms of mass).
That’s all well and good, but if you’ve got a travel-sick child in the back seat, they’re not going to get the best amount of air-flow from a pop-out window. And there are no rear air-vents, either. Thankfully the cabin is small enough that air-flow isn’t as big of an issue as it could be.
Still, the fact the optional tinted panoramic glass roof ($1000) doesn’t have a blind to cover it up – another weight-saving measure, with 6kg axed as a result – could be frustrating over time. Heat seep through the glass was minimal on test, though the climate control was set to a breezy 21 degrees…
The back seat is surprisingly spacious – there’s enough legroom and shoulder room for two larger adults to side alongside one another in the back, though three adults across the rear pew would be a squeeze. Headroom is good, but not great. There are dual ISOFIX points on the outboard seats, and top-tether anchor points, too.
With such petite dimensions, the Cactus’s 358L boot capacity is impressive. It’s much bigger than the likes of the Mazda CX-3 (264L) and way short of the class-leading Honda HR-V (427L), but its high boot load-in lip could be a pain for parents with prams. The cargo hold can expand by way of 60:40 split-fold rear seats, with the maximum capacity claimed at 1170L.
As mentioned there are dual front airbags (one in the steering wheel, one in the headlining), as well as side airbags up front and full-length curtain airbags. The C4 Cactus has cruise control, a rear-view camera with guidelines and rear parking sensors as standard, too, but it misses out on any of the advanced safety items like radar cruise, forward collision alert or auto-braking, and lane-change/blind-spot assistance. As such, Euro NCAP awarded the car a less-than-stellar four-star rating. It hasn’t been tested locally.
As with all Citroen passenger models, the C4 Cactus is offered with one of the longest warranty plans on the market – the longest in this small SUV segment, too: six years and unlimited kilometres. The company also offers a capped-price service plan spanning six years or 90,000km, with visits due yearly or every 15,000km, whichever occurs first. The petrol model costs an average of $545 per visit, while the diesel averages $626 per — that appears high, but the Citroen service model includes all consumable fluids unlike some other brands. And the company offers six years of free roadside assistance, too.
The 2016 Citroen C4 Cactus is anything but prickly. There are some sticking points, sure, but it’s a really likeable car, one that will offer baby SUV buyers something a little different – that is, if they can put up with the lack of a proper automatic drivetrain.