When the better half planned an Easter getaway to the Mudgee wine country, in regional New South Wales, she’d imagined four days of exploration nestled into something with two doors, three pedals, a convertible roof – preferably – and the word ‘sport’ made in every reference by the vehicle’s maker. Then I fronted up for the long weekend kick-off in 'a van'.
An MX-5 or Boxster she’d have loved. A LandCruiser she’d have at least understood. But even after an explanation that, no, no, no, this was a ‘van for people’, it failed to defrost a reception I’ll describe as mystified disdain.
By nature of my job, I pound umpteenth kays in cramped, firm-riding machines promising to inject fizzy fun into what happens to be my work life. That’s with no complaint. Thing is, for the mission of holing up in a metal box for days on end bouncing between regional café and cellar door, I’d wagered an MPV such as the 2018 Citroen Grand C4 Picasso might deliver a vastly more suitable and pleasing experience. I also spend enough time in aeroplanes to know that when the haul is long, spaciousness, comfort and relative tranquility rule – you wouldn’t choose to fly to Europe in a Cessna.
Given the stunning unpopularity of MPVs as a breed in Australia, the segment offers a) limited choice of options, and b) generally pretty sharp value in terms of moving loved ones by comfortable means. In Grand Picasso Land, you now have a (limited) choice of diesel or petrol motivation, the latter our choice of steed that, at $38,490 list and before options, looks a bargain once you stand back and examine what you’re buying into.
And while there are more affordable (Kia Rondo) and more opulent (Mercedes-Benz V-Class) people-moving options with which to explore the NSW Central West, I’m a sucker for the Grand Picasso’s overt French funkiness and particularly keen to see whether it brings positivity in a sense of occasion or negativity by way of frustrating quirkiness.
Despite rich appearances benefited by fetching Lazuli Blue paintwork ($800) and 18-inch Python rolling stock (up from 17s, $690), the circa-$40K price point for a seven-seater device does suggest low- (and slow-) flying economy class in terms of fiscal corner-cutting.
Unsurprisingly, the equipment list isn’t exactly brimming with bells and whistles: touchscreen infotainment, sat-nav, Apple and Android smartphone mirroring, 360-degree camera, DAB+, powered tailgate, and keyless entry are par for course. The humongous standard-fit panoramic glass roof and parking assist are treats, though. Active lane and blind-spot assists are certainly handy, though you have to stump up for the diesel version – a six-grand step up in admission ($44,490 list) – to get adaptive cruise control or, yikes, standard-fit AEB, the latter a glaring omission for such a family-focused machine.
None of this stuff would flip the better half’s negative preconceptions of the MPV quite as successfully as the $5000 optional Leather Lounge Pack. We hadn’t left our neighborhood and already the missus was revelling in her supple leather pew’s massage functionality, the electric-powered retractable footrest, the armrest and other addenda lifting the occupancy to the certifiably 'business class' ambience. Once you add the airiness of the huge glasshouse and more leg room than you can reasonably hope for…
Yes, as a two-up getaway vehicle, the sheer volume of space available in the Grand Picasso cabin is overkill. But in our regional travels, we also toured four-up with a couple of Mudgee friends, where the Citroen proved itself supremely adept and more than amply commodious. With the second-row seating slid rearward, there’s limousine-like leg room in each of the first two rows and a handy 632 litres of boot space with the third row of seating stowed (expandable to 793L with row two jammed forward on its rails). Row two also gets B-pillar air-con vents with individual controls, LED reading lights and aeroplane-like fold-down trays, which you discover are useful for drink placement until the MPV tips into a corner…
The degree of configuration flexibility in-cabin is truly impressive: with the triple-split-fold row two seats and the front passenger seat flat – a makeshift bed, then – it presents a whopping 2181L of volume, a surrogate van that’ll swallow half the contents of an Ikea warehouse. "You could throw a big mattress in here and camp out of it," my travel partner enthused.
What’s less convincing, though, is the real-world practicality of its mid-sized seven-seating claim. Unless you’re enacting 'Snow White and the Six Dwarfs', shoehorning seven adults into a medium-sized vehicle is a pure fairy tale, particularly talking SUVs, though the smarter packaging of an MPV provides slightly more hopeful aspiration. You wouldn’t cram your worst adult-sized enemy in the cramped row three for a trip around the block, let alone any trip of decent duration. A matter impacted in no small part by the lack of curtain airbags for the rearmost passengers (despite a five-star ANCAP rating).
Somewhat surprising for something as commodious as a large SUV or upper-large sedan is just how friendly the Grand Picasso is on the road, be it manoeuvring into tight parking spaces – outward visibility is excellent – or bombing along the countryside with a head of steam. That is, until you whip out the measuring tape. At just 4.6m long and a smidgen over 1.8m high, it takes up as much real estate as a mid-sized C-Class sedan, and is markedly shorter than either a Camry or Mazda 6.
The petrol powertrain is new for the Grand Picasso, one for the ‘diseasel-fobes’, and with just 121kW and 240Nm from its pint-sized 1.6-litre turbocharged motivation, it's a bit short on energy compared with the 110kW/370Nm oiler the range has been using for years. It’s a satisfyingly quiet operator with workmanlike muscle, and paired with the polite and obedient six-speed automatic, it offers useable and co-operative interest for balanced driving. It does, however, demand a solid kick in the slats for overtaking or hill climbing, even with two adults and minimal luggage on board.
Drivability-wise, there were complaints during our 600-odd-kilometre round trip, but despite Citroen’s assertion of equality in swiftness (10.2sec 0–100km/h) for both petrol and diesel versions, we wouldn’t recommended parting cash for the former without at least sampling the latter, even given the petrol’s significant $6000 saving. The official combined fuel claim is 6.4L/100km (diesel is 4.5L), though we were lucky to scrape as low as sevens at a light-throttle country cruise.
It is a sweet vehicle to drive: compliant and comfortable at any speed, well-damped over all manner of road imperfections, impressively accurate to place on the tarmac, and surprisingly and impressively lithe – dare I say even dynamically adept – once those long country roads begin to sway and bob. Part of its cooperative driving nature is surely due to its one-and-a-half-tonne kerb weight. Much of the rest is undoubtedly down to a smart chassis with emphatic car-like on-road calibration, free of those driving-disconnect compromises that SUVs can and do suffer thanks to inherent tuning concessions for so-called soft-roading.
And beaten paths did present themselves, not merely in nicely graded winery driveways, but across narrow and rocky paths to hiking trails deep in the Blue Mountains, and through kilometres of heavily corrugated goat tracks down steep gradients into the gully where our Mudgee mates call home. How the Grand Picasso isolates noise, vibration, harshness and powder-thin bulldust between the cabin and an environment that some might consider fit for LandCruisers and dual-cab utes – on evidence of numbers, at least – is worthy of applause. No rut, pothole or slippery incline caused the French MPV to become unflustered, let alone unstuck.
It’s perhaps the Frenchness, more so than anything, that’ll likely divide one's impression positively or negatively with the Grand Picasso experience. I found the central 12.0-inch ‘panoramic’ display that locates the driver instrumentation in the middle of the dash fascia easy to acclimatise to.
The novel transmission selector, the thin stalk perched at an angle behind the steering wheel, seemed initially intuitive enough, though strangely I kept trying to park and shut the car down while it was still in D for drive. Some neat touches abound, though, such as the additional second-row rear-view mirror targeted straight at the kids, or the sliding sunshade panels overhead in the front row.
Back in the Big Smoke, in the thick of overstuffed and undersized urban byways and cramped multi-storey shopping centre carparks, the Grand Picasso continues to endear as such a clever and cooperative solution to getting about with daily life. The more seat time I spend in this French MPV, the more compelling it is as an alternative to – and antidote for – the me-too SUV and bizarrely popular dual-cab ute solutions in going about daily motoring, questionable seven-seater convenience or not. It works right there for me and the now more-enlightened half as an all-purpose device we could easily live out of for a couple of weeks touring around Europe, say.
Will the sharpened $38,490 tip-in point, newfound petrol power and recently introduced, extended five-year warranty enticement create some paradigm shift in buyer preferences away from the predictable, the popular and perhaps less imaginative choices? No it won’t. Does the lack of AEB and third-row curtain airbags hamper its family-friendly pitch? Yes it does.
But regardless, there's an awful lot of appeal to the Grand Picasso, and if you’re already lured by its oh-so-French flamboyance, there’s now more reason than ever to have a dig beneath the flesh to discover an awful lot to like.