It has taken a while, but the French have gone all out on new SUVs the last few years, with the Peugeot Citroen group taking lead of manufacturing some of the best in the market. It really started with the Peugeot 3008, which – for yours truly – remains the best mid-sized SUV on sale today.
But what if you want to keep the French theme, yet something a little smaller? Something even funkier than Peugeot’s offerings? Then you’re in luck because that would be the upcoming 2019 Citroen C3 Aircross.
The C3 Aircross is heading to Australia in the first quarter of 2019, but on our recent trip to the Paris Motor Show, we took the small French SUV for a solid drive through Parisian streets and surrounds to find out if it will stack up when it arrives locally.
From the outside, the C3 Aircross is clearly a jacked-up version of the C3 hatch. It sits about 20mm higher and wears plenty of black body cladding to emphasise its extra height and to give it that SUV appearance. It’s a great-looking thing, but ultimately it’s a front-wheel-drive hatch on stilts, much like its direct competitors in the segment (think Mazda CX-3, Toyota C-HR and Honda HR-V).
Although it’s not pretending to be anything it’s not, in the age of SUVs perception is everything, and while you may never consider buying a C3 hatch if you've got one or two kids, you would – and should – consider the C3 Aircross if you’re after a small SUV.
Now, it’s important to relay here that while it goes up against the likes of the CX-3, the Aircross does feel far roomier inside, particularly in the back seats. You can indeed fit two kids in the back comfortably (ISOFIX points and all) and, if you really had to, squeeze someone in between for those short trips.
The car itself measures only 4.15m long, but it offers the best ceiling height of any SUV in its class; something to think about if you happen to be vertically gifted. It also brings about a fair few interesting features that make it super practical. For example, the front passenger seat folds completely flat, which when combined with the fully flat rear seats, allows you to fit those big IKEA boxes (or a surfboard up to 2.4m) without any issues.
The boot is also pretty handy, with a luggage cover that easily stores vertically to allow those taller objects when required, and a dual-floor set-up that’ll let you keep your valuables safe. It measures 410L in capacity, but extends out to a very reasonable 1289L when the rear seats are folded out of the way. It’s the little things that add up, and the Citroen is full of them.
Jump inside and the interior is as you would expect from a mainstream European manufacturer. It’s not on the same level as you may find in a Peugeot in terms of seat and surface material, but it’s – in our opinion – a step above what you’ll find in a Mazda CX-3. It’s also a little more characterful with styled air vents, flat-bottom steering wheel and other little quirks.
As fans of Citroen would perhaps expect, we found the seats to be very comfortable for long-distance travel (although, on a side note, we tried the new Advanced Comfort seats in the updated C4 Cactus and they were – by far – the best car seats we’ve ever sat in, even compared to those on offer from Rolls-Royce) and the seating position is high enough to give that illusion of SUV-ness.
Speaking of illusions, there is a somewhat humorous drive-mode selector that will let you pick between normal, ice, gravel, dirt etc. The French, being French, have prioritised having a drive-mode selector as a physical switch, while the air-conditioning system has to be controlled via the screen and after one too many presses.
For us, that’s a poor choice of priorities, because for a front-wheel-drive hatch on stilts, the idea that it will be traversing mud and ruts, or off-road terrain in general, is pretty hard to swallow. Yet, a simple rotary dial to change the temperature would be far more useful.
The satellite-navigation system works well (in France at least), although the 7.0-inch screen could be a bit better, but the good thing is there's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration so you can always skip the internal system in its entirety.
Other useful features include wireless phone charging, so you simply drop your phone into the centre compartment and it will go ahead and charge all by itself (if it’s a recent iPhone or one of the many supported Android options). On the downside, it doesn’t have wireless CarPlay, so if you want that to work, you will still need to plug it in. Wireless CarPlay would have really sweetened that deal.
On the more technical side of things, the C3 Aircross is powered by a 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine that pumps out a somewhat lacklustre-sounding 81kW and 205Nm. The reality is that with the new six-speed automatic transmission, the little SUV actually feels pretty spirited and gets up and goes with relative ease.
Through the busy Parisian streets or out on the highway, it never felt underpowered or lacking pull. We would certainly say to give it a chance before you write it off based on the power figures alone (especially if you’re comparing them to the CX-3), because it will surprise you.
The main reason we loved driving the C3 Aircross was due to the comfort factor. Besides the seats, the actual suspension set-up definitely caters to comfort and not dynamics. That’s not saying it's not dynamically decent, it is, but it's not. Sure, it doesn’t have the new tricky ‘progressive hydraulic cushion’ suspension system, but the French brand has happily admitted that it cares more about comfort than anything else, and that’s perfectly okay for a car in this segment.
On the safety front, all Aircross models heading to Australia will come standard with a host of active safety features including:
- Active Safety Brakes (Basically autonomous emergency braking)
- Forward collision alert
- Auto high-beam assist
- Driver-attention alert
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Parking assistance
With a five-year warranty and capped-price servicing (though not all that cheap: look up the costs of servicing a standard C3 hatch and you’ll have a good idea), the biggest question for Citroen will remain price.
The company is yet to finalise its local pricing, but we suspect the C3 Aircross will come in the mid- and high-grade spec and cost somewhere between the low to mid $30,000s and up to, or just over, the $40,000 mark for the fully loaded model. Let us not kid around, that’s a reasonable amount of money for a car this small. In fact, you can shop that against the base-spec small SUVs from the Germans.
Ultimately, the French have alleviated reliability concerns with longer warranties, but buying a Citroen is still not something the average punter goes out and does. Nonetheless, there is no reason not to give the C3 Aircross a chance as part of a test drive, because it will likely be a positive surprise.