As Australia’s urban centres build in volume but not in space, it can be hard to find the right balance of compact size, premium features, and individual flair in a car that’s easy to park and thread through city streets.
Meet the 2020 Citroen C3, possibly the answer to your inner-urban transport needs.
Admittedly, it’s not the only light hatch to try to fill that aspirational niche, as cars like the Audi A1 and Mini hatch range offer something similar. Because of its premium price tag, those cars (maybe a little counterintuitively) form the competitive set for the tiny Citroen.
The C3 also brushes into the price range of a high-spec Mazda 2 and Volkswagen Polo, but differs from those with a more bold appearance: contrasting roof colours and armour-like door AirBumps giving it a point of visual difference.
Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is the starting price. At $26,990 before on-road costs, the Citroen C3 lacks a budget-friendly entry model like mainstream rivals, but the single-spec C3 Shine sold in Australia also goes without the personalisation options available from Mini and Audi.
For your outlay, you do get a lengthy list of inclusions like a 7.0-inch touchscreen with AM/FM radio, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus Bluetooth connectivity – it’s well featured but laggy in its responses. Traffic sign recognition, cruise control and speed limiter, lane-departure warning, grey cloth interior, manual seats, and single-zone climate control are also standard.
Changes introduced from 2019 include keyless entry and start, blind-spot monitoring, 16-inch alloy wheels (instead of the previous 17s) and city-speed autonomous emergency braking that operates from 5km/h to 30km/h with a distance alert at higher speeds to let you know if you’re too close to a vehicle ahead. While it's good AEB has been added, the narrow operational window is very disappointing given your typical Aussie street has a 40–50km/h speed limit in built-up areas.
The C3’s ANCAP safety rating was assessed before the addition of the newest specification update and remains in place today. Four stars from 2017, though the AEB system’s lack of pedestrian or cyclist detection makes the C3 ineligible for a higher rating against the latest ANCAP criteria.
Unfortunately, the options available in earlier versions of the C3, including a choice of exterior colour combos, different interior trim schemes and a fixed panoramic glass roof, have all been deleted in Australia. Although, contrasting roof paint and the exterior AirBumps that are optional overseas are standard here.
There are some missing touches you might expect for the price, too: distance-keeping cruise control, leather trim, digital radio, and an upsized infotainment display are available on rivals, but are missing here.
An updated version of the C3 has already been shown overseas, with an expected arrival before the end of this year. Price and positioning are yet to be confirmed for Australia, but don’t expect a major change from the current version.
Under the bonnet, the C3 is towards the head of the mainstream light-hatch pack for engine output rated at 81kW and 205Nm from a 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine. A six-speed automatic is standard, too.
The interior presentation is an interesting mix. The dash with its glossy inserts, chrome vent rings, and tablet-style screen integration does a convincing job of making the C3 Shine look premium. So, too, the soft fabrics trimming the seats, and leather-look door pulls and their buckle mountings.
Tactility isn’t a strong suit. There are hard plastics on all non-textile surfaces, itself not a bad thing (after all, the A1 does the same, albeit with more adventurous textures and colours), but a real absence of heft or sturdiness to things like the glovebox lid and door cards.
There's the lack of a raised centre console or armrest, and the basic monochrome screen between the instruments also looks a little off the pace as the world rushes towards digital displays (Polo, A1 and Skoda Fabia), which also betray where Citroen doesn’t play premium.
There are auto lights and wipers, but manual seat adjustment. Single-zone climate control, but no rear air vents. Three tiny cupholders that won’t hold a can or regular takeaway cup, and barely any room for your wallet and phone, but huge door bins. Driver warnings that should appear on the instruments, but show up on the centre screen away from your line of sight. For every hit, there seems to be a miss.
There is a real sense of space from within the cabin, though. No, it’s not outrageously roomy, though there’s enough distance between front occupants to keep from clashing elbows, the seats feel broad and comfy, and there’s decent rear space without having to crunch to fit the C3’s dimensions.
It’s pretty clear that creating room for people was job number one, and tweaking the cabin to accept their carry-on odds and ends played second fiddle.
The boot is impressively roomy at 300L with the rear seats up or 922L when folded. There is a decent load lip to have to lift over, and only one bag hook on the inside, but the ability to pack in more than most rivals gives the C3 a practical edge.
On the road, the C3 manages to feel more substantial than its dimensions suggest. It’s relatively lightweight with a kerb weight of just 1090kg, but it feels planted and stable at speed, which is reassuring.
The steering is softened off a little, rather than being darty and agile, but still light and effortless enough to twirl in and out of tight parking spaces. The ride is fairly plush, settles over big bumps quickly, and deals with most of the bumps, dips and joins that scar city streets.
Rather annoyingly, the car we had on test made a persistent knocking noise from its right front wheel, and had a chorus of cabin rattles from the dash, steering column and cargo area to go with it.
The engine has a neat bit of character to it. Three-cylinder engines, by their very design, are a little vibey, though Citroen’s is calm at idle and low engine speeds, building to a raspy bugle tone if you rev it out.
The engine and transmission are set to a more relaxed mode, however. There’s no real enthusiasm to rev quickly, nor are there the kind of pert quick gear changes as found in a Volkswagen Polo. The Citroen is softer and more measured in the way it goes about things. It’s not rambunctious in busy traffic, but with a strong and flexible mid-range, it offers a pleasing surge of acceleration if you need it.
Overtaking isn’t the most urgent, so you’ll need to plan accordingly, but nor is it breathless or tediously slow, so rolling acceleration builds with a steady and predictable pace.
Wind and road noise are kept at bay on the open road, making the Citroen C3 one of the better choices of city cruiser that can also handle the odd out-of-town run here and there.
Refinement is mostly praiseworthy, but at low speeds the transmission can exhibit some odd shunting and bumping. It’s a tried-and-true torque converter type, not a dual-clutch, but doesn’t always feel like one with the odd stumble from gear to gear and a tendency to lunge forward from standstill.
The engine also gets a right wobble up as you brake to a standstill, just before the stop-start system shuts the engine down. Once engaged, everything goes smooth and silent and it starts up again neatly.
Official fuel consumption is a rather optimistic 4.9L/100km, but after a week of mostly urban commuting, the trip computer showed 8.2L/100km. Citroen’s city-cycle figure is 6.1L/100km, and even brief highway-speed runs showed the average improving quickly, so mixed driving should yield better results.
Warranty coverage is for five years with no kilometre limit (for private use) and capped-price servicing at 12-month or 15,000km intervals will cost $381, $491, $621, $496 and $385 respectively for the first five visits. The service schedule also includes all filters, fluids, spark plugs, etc as described by the service schedule, plus periodic items like brake fluid without attracting additional charges.
Citroen’s smallest offering offers a lot to like. Its friendly design and bright exterior are sure to win it friends, but parked in showrooms alongside the taller but similarly sized (though more expensive) C3 Aircross SUV, it’ll struggle for attention.
Ignoring price for a moment, it’s a middle-of-the-pack light car to drive: comfortable though not exciting, and it comes with a list of standard features that also fall mid-range, neither leading nor following the class average.
Price can’t be ignored, though, and it feels like Citroen is simply taking a punt on the Australian fondness for European prestige without actually delivering it. Convincing buyers in a highly competitive market to part with over $30K including on-road costs when less money could get them into a larger, more powerful, more spacious, and equally safe Corolla, Cerato or Mazda 3 is never going to be an easy task.
You’d have to absolutely adore the C3 to move forward on one. There’s more brand cachet and a broader scope of personalisation options in an Audi A1, equivalent technology and luxury in a Mazda 2 GT, or sharper value and fewer interior rattles in a Volkswagen Polo Style.
The Citroen C3 Shine isn’t a bad choice, it’s just an average one with an above-average asking price. In Australia’s very busy new-car market, the pressure from quality competitors is on, making it difficult to take Citroen’s fun-loving light car very seriously at all.