Citroen is taking another swing at the burgeoning small SUV segment, this time in the form of the all-new C3 Aircross that touches down in Australia this month, priced from $32,990 before on-road costs.
Following the rather lacklustre local response to the now-axed C4 Cactus, which first arrived on Australian shores some six or seven years ago, the French carmaker renowned for its bold and quirky designs, has lobbed yet another distinctive, if more restrained crossover.
It's essentially a jacked-up version of the C3 hatchback, while also sharing its underpinnings with the Opel Crossland X offered abroad. The next-generation Peugeot 2008 will be based on the same platform, too.
We sampled the new French crossover across a range of roads between Sydney and Scarborough in New South Wales, including a stint through the Royal National Park, covering all types of road surfaces and traffic situations.
Let's start with the driving then.
Power in local versions of the C3 Aircross comes from the same 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine as the C3 hatchback and a range of other Peugeot/Citroen models, including the C4 Cactus, Peugeot 208, 2008 and 308.
Outputs are rated at 81kW (at 5500rpm) and 205Nm (at 1500rpm), with drive sent exclusively to the front wheels via a six-speed torque converter automatic co-developed with Japanese firm, Aisin.
Like its C3 sibling, the C3 Aircross is punchy in the low- and mid-range, perfect for urban commuting where this vehicle is likely to spend most of its time.
Having peak torque from just a little over idle makes progress from a standstill rather effortless, and in typical three-cylinder fashion there's a characterful, thrummy engine note that is a point of difference compared to most rivals.
We were very impressed with the three-pot motor's refinement across all speeds, never sounding coarse or thrashy even under full throttle, though you'll notice a lack of muscle if you need to make a quick overtake on the freeway.
The C3 Aircross is carrying more than 100kg over the C3 hatchback (1203kg kerb weight v 1090kg), and you can really feel that when accelerating to triple figures. Where the C3 feels spritely and almost brisk, the C3 Aircross is a little lethargic, meaning overtakes on highways require a little more planning.
Citroen claims an official 0-100 time of 10.6 seconds, with a top speed of 183km/h. While the latter seems largely irrelevant to the Australian market given our strictly-governed speed limits, the acceleration figure certainly matches the seat-of-the-pants feel in that it's not super quick.
Shifts from the six-speed automatic were pretty good, though, and a noticeable improvement from past Citroen products with the same transmission. Take-off is quite smooth and there's none of that jerkiness from first to second and second to third like we've noted previously with the C3 and outgoing C4 Cactus.
As for the ride and handling, the C3 Aircross is a refreshing change from the wider competitive set, staying true to Citroen's focus on comfort rather than sportiness.
Plenty of rivals in the segment try to bring hatchback-like dynamics to the detriment of ride comfort, and the C3 Aircross is very much the opposite.
For what is a pretty small vehicle, the C3 Aircross drives more like an old-school SUV. You sit high, it's cushy and soft over bumps, and the body roll in corners is more pronounced.
Regardless of whether it was Sydney's patchy urban roads or smooth sections of freeway, the C3 Aircross was comfortable, quiet, and inoffensive.
Speaking of quietness, the powertrain is very hushed even under load, and insulation from road and wind noise was pretty good.
The chair-like front seats from the C3 hatch also impressed with their long-distance comfort, offering good back and thigh support, along with a decent amount of adjustment for the driver so you can find your ideal driving position.
Visibility is great too, thanks to the large glasshouse, bar the rear window which is a little skinny. Standard blind-spot monitoring and a decent rear-view camera counter any over-the-shoulder visibility quirks, though. More on the features list later.
In terms of fuel consumption, we saw mid- to high-7L/100km on the C3 Aircross' trip computer, though our driving loop was skewed to highway driving.
Officially, Citroen claims 6.6L/100km and 149g/km of CO2 on the combined cycle, and we'd argue regular drives on urban highways with 80km/h speed limits would get you far closer to this figure.
With a 45L fuel tank, you can expect a theoretical real-world range of 550-600km per fill, keeping in mind the C3 Aircross demands 95 RON premium as a minimum.
We were interested to see idle stop/start deleted from local models, as it's included with other Peugeot/Citroen products with the same engine.
The official line from Citroen is the version of the powertrain fitted with idle stop/start is currently being prioritised for Europe given the recent implementation of stricter WLTP fuel and emissions regulations, and is also more expensive.
While some will rejoice at the deletion of the technology, it's a shame Australia doesn't get the high-tech and more efficient version of the engine available to other markets.
Now to the design and cabin. Like its stablemates, the C3 Aircross sports a distinctive exterior aesthetic with dual-tier headlights and plenty of 'squircles', though you won't find any of the company's signature Airbumps here.
If you take away the black plastic bumpers, and roof rails, you could mistake it for the C3 hatch, though the sheetmetal and light units are unique despite their design similarities.
The C3 Aircross appears quite tall and skinny, which makes it look a little awkward from the rear. Just the one 17-inch diamond-cut alloy wheel design is offered locally, though you can add a pop of colour depending on which exterior finish and colour pack you choose.
Speaking of colours, there's five exterior paints available, and each gets a corresponding colour pack. Natural White is the sole standard finish, and that comes as standard with a black roof and orange colour pack, which sees orange accents applied to the headlight surrounds, wheel centre caps, mirrors, roof rails, and rear quarter graphic.
Passion Red, Sand, Ink Black and Breathing Blue are all $595 extra, and come with silver, orange, silver and white colour packs respectively.
The colour range was decided based on the public vote Citroen put out last year, and the streamlined choices mean less complexity for stock, we're told.
Hopping inside you'll again notice the strong resemblance to the C3 hatchback, but the taller roofline means there's a feeling of enhanced space and airiness to the Aircross' cabin.
Perceived quality is a bit hit and miss, with the majority of surfaces finished in the same hard, scratchy plastics as the hatchback, though it's more of an annoyance in a $33,000 SUV, especially when you compare it to the likes of the Subaru XV and Toyota C-HR which feel a lot more upmarket.
The cockpit is also a bit austere compared to the loud design of the exterior, with just one interior colour scheme available – though the grey 'mica' cloth feels nice and is comfortable to sit on.
As tends to be the norm with French cars, there's some ergonomic and practicality quirks, too. There's limited storage up front, with decent door bins and a single bottle holder between the front seats the only real place to put things.
The wireless phone charger fitted as standard to Australian models removes the two cupholders that would normally reside under the centre stack, and there's also no centre armrest or storage bin between the front seats – sacré bleu.
A little further up the dashboard is the 7.0-inch touchscreen display houding much of the vehicle's interior functions, as is the PSA way.
In-built satellite navigation is fitted as standard, as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Props to Citroen for offering consumers the choice of both smartphone mirroring and factory maps.
We're still not sold on the incorporation of the HVAC controls into the touchscreen, which can be fiddly to use on the move and removes the one-touch operation of functions like air recirculation – you need to click the capacitive button for the ventilation menu, then tap the recirculate button on the screen.
The process may seem simple, but the lack of physical buttons can affect accuracy when on the move, so you can often find yourself missing the button or clicking the wrong one.
In saying that, the interface is much better than the ageing system still used on the outgoing Cactus, with quicker load times and fairly easy-to-navigate menus.
Moving to the rear, there are less amenities than you might like. Rear-seat passengers don't get vents or a fold-down centre armrest like you might find on some rivals, and legroom is a bit tight.
Headroom is good, though, and the seats themselves are quite comfortable. Just make sure your friends aren't that tall, then.
Behind the second row is a 410L boot, which is at the higher end for the segment. The boot floor is adjustable to maximise capacity or minimise the load lip, while the volume increases to a maximum of 1289L with the 60:40 rear setbacks folded.
If you have the boot floor in its higher position the load bay is pretty flat, offering near van-like practicality for when you need to transport larger items like furniture.
Back to the driver's seat, and the C3 Aircross features a number of driver assistance and active safety technologies as standard, including low-speed autonomous emergency braking (up to 30km/h), blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, hill-start assist, coffee break alert (driver attention monitoring), an automated self-parking assistant, and speed sign recognition.
As a guide, though, the Citroen managed 85 per cent in adult occupant protection, 82 per cent in child occupant protection, and 60 per cent in the area of safety assist – the latter score largely due to AEB not being standard on European models at launch.
On the topic of safety equipment, the C3 Aircross has six airbags, and two Isofix child seat mounts for the outboard rear seats. Three top tether points are included for the rear bench, too.
Standard features beyond the aforementioned infotainment and driver assistance features include LED daytime-running lights, front fog-lights with static cornering function, automatic headlights and wipers, electric folding side mirrors, leather steering wheel and gear knob, single-zone climate control, a rear-view camera that stitches images together to create a 360-degree view, front and rear parking sensors, cruise control with speed limiter, and a 12V power socket up front,
Rounding out the spec sheet are one-touch electric windows all round, a Qi wireless phone charger, tyre pressure monitor, six-speaker audio, USB input, and DAB+ digital radio.
Citroen was quick to point out the lack of options at launch, though items like alternate interior upholsteries and a powered panoramic sunroof aren't even available.
However, there will be a Launch Edition variant that includes a unique colour scheme inside and out and a panoramic sunroof for the same $32,990 ticket as the standard 'Shine' specification, though this version will be limited to just 20 units nationally.
As for ownership, the C3 Aircross is covered by Citroen Australia's five year, unlimited kilometre passenger car warranty, bolstered by five years of complimentary roadside assistance.
While the program isn't a standout given the increasing number of manufacturers offering at least five years' cover, it's added peace of mind for those wary of reliability.
Service intervals are quoted at 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first, with the first five years of maintenance priced at $2727.39 if purchased upfront as a package (a 10 per cent saving, apparently).
Citroen hasn't given a visit-by-visit price guide for scheduled servicing, though the five-year total is pretty high for the class, given you pay $195 a pop for a Toyota C-HR for the first four years of ownership (60,000km).
To conclude, the C3 Aircross is a left-field choice in a hotly-contested segment, but does little to separate itself bar its unique looks.
It does a good job of offering a comfortable, quiet drive, but lacks the polish of numerous rivals in terms of cabin ambience and creature comforts.
At $32,990 before ORCs it's hardly a bargain, either, so while it's a good thing in isolation it faces stiff competition from all directions.
If you're a die-hard Citroen or French car enthusiast, though, and you want a crossover that's cute, comfortable, and easy to live with, we'd recommend having a look – particularly if you can get your hands on one of those Launch Editions.