Head into a Peugeot-Citroen showroom right now with a view to driving out in something compact and city-centric, and you might come out a little confused.
On the Citroen side of the dealership you’ll find two petite urban runabouts, both bold and colourful, and both styled with an SUV skew. The newest of the pair is the 2019 Citroen C3 Aircross primed to take advantage of Australia’s insatiable thirst for SUVs.
The other, in case you missed it, wears a simpler C3 moniker, and while it’s not exactly an SUV, it wears a slightly taller ride height and plenty of black plastic cladding to take advantage of the craze all the same.
Honing in on the C3 Aircross, though, there’s just one version available locally. The C3 Aircross Shine, which comes with a long list of standard features, but starts from a fairly eye-watering $32,990 before on-road costs.
Of course, that kind of pricing isn’t without peer in the compact SUV segment, it’s just that other brands lure showroom traffic with cheaper, less comprehensively equipped models. Citroen’s single-spec approach represents a bit of a break from the market norm.
Power comes from a turbocharged 1.2-litre three-cylinder petrol engine producing 81kW of power at 5500rpm and 205Nm of torque from 1500rpm. It’s linked to a six-speed torque converter automatic driving the front wheels – and again in the spirit of keeping things simple, there are no other options, no manual, and (as is the case with all Citroen vehicles currently) no all-wheel drive.
It’s a charming little engine. As is often the case with three-cylinder vehicles, there’s a perky under-bonnet engine note. Given the C3 Aircross’s compact dimensions and low weight it’s also quite zippy – not outright fast, but with only 1203kg to shift it gets along nicely.
Given the size of the engine, the torque figure – which is where all the heavy lifting occurs – is quite robust and means you can maintain pace uphill, or with a full load of passengers, without needing to rev the engine mercilessly or change down multiple gears.
Citroen arguably made the right choice leaving the manual version at home, as an auto is the way to go for the vast majority of buyers in the segment. The six-speed unit used in this (and other Citroen models) is a good transmission, though not a great one.
It’s a little conservative when it comes to downshifts (the torquey engine helps disguise this), and there are a few situations around town where it could stand to change up a gear. For instance, it stubbornly holds fourth gear at around 60km/h and fifth gear at 80km/h, where an upshift would make things smoother and quieter.
There’s some shuddering (a combination of engine balance and transmission tuning) at very low speeds, and releasing the brake from a standstill can result in a jolting movement instead of a smooth progression. Perhaps wisely, there’s no stop-start system to shut the engine down at a standstill, which actually improves the city behaviour of the C3 Aircross markedly.
At highway speeds, there’s quite decent insulation from tyre noise, although strong crosswinds tend to buffet across the car and upset the serenity. Steering is very, very light with minimal feel or feedback – no problem on city streets, though less secure at the freeway limit.
Soft-riding suspension is sure to be welcomed by anyone who regularly traverses cobbled streets, patchwork tarmac, or dips, drains and grates on their regular drive to work. It isn’t magic-carpet smooth, and takes a moment to settle over big bumps, but it’s mostly impressive.
There’s a bit of wow factor inside, too, particularly for anyone who isn’t used to the way Citroen sets its cars up.
For the most part, the design and construction are fairly conventional. However, Citroen contains most of its interior controls within the 7.0-inch touchscreen in the centre of the dash, reducing button clutter around the cabin, but also hiding everything from infotainment to climate control and vehicle settings within different screens, making one-touch operation difficult.
Clever use of textures and textiles brings the tone of the interior up, particularly the sturdy-feeling seat fabrics that use horizontal colour offsets to make the cabin feel more spacious. However, unlike the C3 hatch with its bold colourways and contrasting colour options, the C3 Aircross takes a more basic grey-on-grey approach.
Plastics quality is respectable, but lacks any kind of high-end look or feel. The matte-grey decor panel that spans the dash looks and feels more bargain basement than aspirational, with no soft-touch plastics to be seen – much like the now discontinued C4 Cactus before it.
Apart from a wireless charging pad at the base of the centre stack, there are few other places to store things. A rubber-lined trinket tray ahead of the front passenger can hold a few small items, but the glovebox is tiny, bottle holders in the doors don’t hold a bottle securely, and there’s no covered storage in the centre console, which is mostly dedicated to the odd-looking park brake lever.
The boot at least comes through with very useful space, a whopping 410L to the rear seats (for comparison's sake a Mitsubishi ASX claims 393L, a Mazda CX-3 only 264L). There’s a two-level rear floor so you can pack things under it, drop it down to maximise space, or raise it up to provide a level floor with the 60:40 rear seat folded.
There are also a pair of bag hooks in the boot walls, but their rounded-edge design means not much stays attached to them, limiting their usefulness.
In equipment terms, Citroen’s decision to load the C3 Aircross up means a comprehensive list of standard features: inbuilt satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, digital radio, auto lights and wipers, a self-dimming mirror, single-zone climate control, colour head-up display, proximity key with push-button start, 17-inch alloy wheels, and automated parking assist are all bundled in as standard.
You’ll appreciate the smartphone connectivity, which simplifies audio and navigation functions – Citroen’s native system can be clunky and slow to respond. Unfortunately, even getting CarPlay to connect (which should be as simple as plugging in a cable) can be hit-and-miss at times.
Safety systems include six airbags, city autonomous emergency braking up to 30km/h, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, driver-attention alert, traffic sign recognition (linked to the speed limiter), front and rear park sensors, and a multi-mode rear-view camera.
The 180-degree camera includes a makeshift surround-view function, which uses a single camera but ‘stores’ an image of the area around the car as it moves backwards, superimposing an image of the vehicle over the top to help avoid stationary obstacles. The image feed is jittery and jumpy, with a delay between what's really happening and what the screen shows. It's also unable to assist with moving objects, like someone walking in from the side of the vehicle, and shouldn't be relied upon.
While the traffic sign recognition is handy, illuminated variable freeway signs appear to be beyond its scope of recognition. The system is typically more responsive to traditional signs, but defaults to '60' for overhead LED freeway signs regardless of the actual speed. As is often the case for such systems, school zones and bus speed signs also cause it some confusion.
Unfortunately, just below the $32K mark competitors like the Honda HR-V RS and Mazda CX-3 sTouring load up with larger alloy wheels, LED headlights, electric park brakes, and more premium interior finishes, along with more powerful (but less torquey) engines. There’s some specification tit-for-tat, though, of course.
Few other SUVs look as bold as the C3 Aircross, however. The machined-face wheels and bold white roof rails, headlight surrounds and mirror caps are hard to miss against the cheery Breathing Blue paint.
Unfortunately, whereas European buyers are offered a mix-and-match range of bright body colours, contrasting accessories, and interior themes (beige, blue, orange and fabric dash inserts to name a few), low-volume projections for Australia mean local buyers are locked in set combinations.
Oh, and if you were wondering about those controversial rear louvres, they’re cast into the rear plexiglass windows and can’t be removed.
On the ownership side of things, Citroen backs its cars with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. Capped-price servicing is also available at 12-month/15,000km intervals (whichever comes first) priced at $2623 including fluids and filters as scheduled over the first five visits, or with a 10 per cent discount as part of a pre-purchased service package.
Citroen lists a 6.6 litres per 100km fuel consumption figure for mixed city-highway driving. My time with the car was far more urban-oriented and ended up at 8.3L/100km – a little on the high side for such a compact car. The C3 Aircross also calls for 95RON premium unleaded.
What to make of the C3 Aircross then? There’s no denying Citroen’s premium pitch puts it at a disadvantage. It’s hard to grab the attention of buyers when competitors are able to dangle a circa-$8000-cheaper carrot as a way to get attention.
It isn’t lacking for equipment, nor is it underpowered for the price, but the interior lacks the tactility and practicality that many other cars in the segment possess. Citroen sits as something of an entry-level brand in Europe, so the play as a more premium marque in Australia shows up the rough points.
A soft and spongy ride is the right fit for city streets, compact dimensions with a roomy interior make ideal sense, and lightweight steering ensures easy motoring in tight spaces, so the whole thing should be a recipe for success!
It is odd, though. It has tall and narrow proportions that give it a slightly awkward stance, an ergonomically flawed touchscreen system that controls too many functions, and transmission ‘wobbles’ that aren’t deal-breakers but are far from ideal.
Ultimately, Citroen has built a car much like its iconic 2CV: utilitarian, simplistic and comfortable, but instead of a cheap and cheerful price tag, premium positioning creates a schism between the brand’s historic virtues and its confusing attempts to position itself upmarket in Australia.
With a more accessible list price, the C3 Aircross would be a compelling choice in the busy small-SUV segment. Right now, though, it is outranked by more compelling competitors and is bound to struggle given the high starting price.