Citroen is possibly as alternative as you can get in terms of mainstream offerings. Last year, only 400 cars with the double-chevron made their way into esoteric households across Australia.
As far as 2020 goes, only 114 have reportedly left the dealership, which is 61 per cent down compared to this time last year. To throw some context your way, Chrysler, which is alive in Australia only via a single offering, the 300 sedan range, has managed to outsell Citroen so far in 2020.
That does beg the question – what’s wrong with the brand or the product it sells?
Well, frankly, not much to be honest. The cars are fantastic to drive, supremely comfortable and unusually fun, too. Despite that, the brand does have its faults in our market. Interestingly, when one assesses said faults hierarchically, you do quickly realise that the most critical ones relate not to the product itself or its engineering, but more to things that can be fixed locally.
But first, the product.
The C3 Aircross comes in one trim level, dubbed Shine, and is priced from $34,990 before on-roads. The only options offered are a selection of metallic paints that cost $690. Interestingly, all colours are each tied to a ‘colour highlight pack’, as well as a contrasting roof depending on the option chosen. For example, a white car will always have orange highlights and a black roof, and cannot be ordered without either of those extras.
The C3 Aircross looks apart from anything else in the market. Its styling is most certainly in keeping with the segment guild, which is fun, colourful and, maybe to some, kitsch. Think Nissan Juke, Hyundai Venue and Suzuki Ignis for a second here. However, the Citroen does come across less ostentatious than those aforementioned. The French are pretty good at this whole design thing, don’t forget.
There are no sharp edges in its design, with affectionately dubbed ‘squircles’ dominating the shapes featured across its body. Its fog light surrounds, bumper trims, tail-lights, wheels, and even wheel centre caps, all pay rent to the rounded square that is the squircle.
Overall, the sheet metal is quite curvy, which results in a rather jazzy look. Glass or plastic, depending which window you’re talking about, dominates everything above its belt line, resulting in the roof looking somewhat pergola-like perched above the car itself.
Those musings noticed by my eyes come good when the dimensions are assessed. The C3 Aircross is shorter bumper to bumper than a Juke, by 55mm, and narrower, too, by 35mm, yet taller by 28mm. No doubt the height difference here is affected, and in this case exaggerated, by the other two proportions.
Love it, hate it, and subjectivity parked for a moment, it’s different and refreshing to see alongside the other oddballs in the segment.
Jumping inside, you’re greeted by more squircles, as well as the French’s complete disregard for storage. It’s a common theme among French cars to lack cupholders. Or in some cases, only offer ones small enough for a piccolo – as you know, coffee with milk is sacrilegious after all.
The C3 Aircross lives up to such stereotypes. Other than a pair of door pockets, which are not overly generous themselves, there is literally nowhere else to place the bundles of stuff from your pockets. A front, lower cubby area has a wireless charging pad, so keys and a wallet are best not stored there. The glovebox area doubles as a fuse box, meaning you’re left with a thimble’s worth of storage just aside of that electrical junction.
There’s no armrest, either, which not only makes your elbows homeless, but also removes a covered, protected storage area along with it. As for cupholders, there’s just one located behind the pair of front-row seats on the very back of the centre console.
Maybe we should embrace the mantra of joie de vivre and care less about superfluous items, which you possibly could do as an individual. However, this car is an SUV, and thus likely a family chariot or second family car at least. Therefore, this ideology does not translate well. More storage wouldn’t go astray, even in the form of an armrest, which can be seen fitted on overseas models.
What is nice about the cabin is the apparent light and airy feel you’re subjected to when riding inside. Its tall glasshouse pays dividends here, as does that perspex rear quarter window, complete with a funky decal that resembles a time when venetian blinds were used in cars. Like its exterior design, it’s refreshing.
Another factor that goes a long way to lighten the mood is the quality of the seats. They’re remarkably comfortable, and seemingly feel like they’ve been procured from a homeware store that specialises in occasional chairs, as opposed to a place that makes automotive pews.
There is little to no side bolstering on either the squab or seat back, which strangely isn’t an issue. The foam is soft enough to prevent you from being thrown around when partaking in the usual SUV antics around town. Sure, they do become slippery when you grab the C3 Aircross by the scruff of the neck, but we all know those situations will be far and few in between.
Plus, the level of comfort they offer far outweighs the lack of lateral support you’d need in such rare situations. It’s a city car, a metro dweller, so it's fair to say that Citroen's interior designers were playing to those strengths here.
The infotainment system does look and feel dated, especially for the pricepoint. A small 7.0-inch touchscreen does feature all the basics one needs, however, such as native satellite navigation and smartphone connectivity in the form of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
Frustratingly, it’s also in charge of the air-conditioning system. This makes on-the-move changes to its climate-control function irritating, and difficult to conduct while retaining 100 per cent of your focus on the road ahead.
Other trinkets one will immediately notice include wireless charging, as well as a colour head-up display. It’s a good system that is highly legible in all conditions, including when viewing through a pair of polarised sunglasses, too, which is good to see.
It goes as far as to present other information to the driver, not just speed. Speed sign information, blind-spot monitoring info and cruise-control functionality are all projected onto the system’s thin perspex blade.
Into the second row, those clever front seats strike again. Their backings are deeply scalloped in a manner that grants an extra five or so centimetres of knee room to those in the back. Given second-row space is always a commodity for a light-class SUV, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself fitting behind my own driving position with more than an adequate amount of room.
Its tall roof pays itself off here, as do those funky rear quarter windows again, offering plentiful light and visibility throughout the back of the car. Children will enjoy that fact, as will those in support seats. Given the tall roof line, loading kids into a rearward-facing seat is no trouble at all due to the tall area above the seat that you have to work with.
As for overall room, fitting a child seat in a rearward fashion will result in the loss of a significant portion of front passenger knee and leg room. With a convertible seat installed facing forward, there’s enough room for a 180cm adult to reside in front with some comfort. Two child seats across the back is about all you’ll manage to squeeze into the rear of a C3 Aircross.
Other than a 12-volt power outlet, there’s not much else offered in the back. There’s no fold-down armrest, so no cupholders for that matter. No storage on the back of the front seats, either. Oh, and the rear door side pockets are awfully stingy, too.
The only storage area where the C3 Aircross does fare well is with its boot. At 410L it’s third-best in the class when compared to others in the same light. Some cars in this segment do have sliding second-row seating, which the Citroen does not have. Therefore, one must compare apples with apples, or in this case compare a fixed second row to a sliding second row adjusted as far rearward as possible.
The cargo floor is dual height, meaning you can sure up the boot floor to the sill, which is handy if you’re loading something large and cumbersome and wish to push or pull it into the car. Underneath that you’ll find a space-saver spare wheel.
Equal in fun to its exterior is the way this thing drives. Powering the C3 Aircross is a great, character-laden 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine, which makes 81kW of power and 205Nm of torque from 1500rpm. All of its might is put through a six-speed torque converter automatic that drives the front wheels only.
Now, the powertrain does sound undercooked for an SUV, but it’s worth noting that it's only having to drag 1120kg worth of mass around. It’s a light car, and feels it, too. The engine’s gruff yet responsive nature is endearing, as is the rather light steering and supple ride that it offers.
Rarely are cars truly comfortable in inner-city areas, but the C3 Aircross is one of those special cases. It does lack body control as a consequence, and does wallow up and over drop kerbs and driveways, but never do you wish for it any other way.
It’s a marriage of two things, in fact: those aforementioned spongy seats, and the way in which its suspension has been calibrated. They both work so cleverly together, in a way that combines to offer more than the sum of their parts.
The engine, as mentioned, has a wonderful persona. I’ll put a caveat on my tenderness for it with the fact that it is breathless up top, and does require pre-emptive throttle inputs at speeds above 90km/h, but again such complaints are beside the point. It’s not slow enough to be dangerous, so it can do the whole motorway thing tolerably, and well enough.
It’s around town, zipping from a standstill up to 60km/h, where this car feels most natural. It’s highly enjoyable in such situations, becoming jovial when punted about the big smoke. It’s an inner-city car, and excels there, where it needs to most. In support of such claims was the amount of fuel it used. Despite enjoying the odd-cylinder engine maybe more than I should have, it returned 7.5 litres per 100km compared to an official claim of 6.6L/100km on the combined cycle.
As for active safety, the C3 Aircross receives low-speed AEB, blind-spot monitoring, and a passive lane-departure warning system as its key features. It lacks any form of rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, as well as lane-guidance tech that can apply steering input. This makes it under-equipped, especially so considering the pricepoint.
Which is the crux of the problem with this car. At $34,990 before on-roads, it’s just too expensive for what it offers. Things like storage need to be addressed, as does the infotainment system, and general lack of advanced safety tech, too.
While we're discussing safety, I'll throw in the fact that the C3 Aircross has not been subject to any form of crash testing in our market. Despite that, back in 2017 it was tested for overseas markets under the Euro NCAP regime, where it did earn a five-star rating.
Considering that you can now jump into a top-spec Volkswagen T-Cross 85TSI Style from $30,990 before on-roads, or a mid-tier Nissan Juke ST+ from $30,740 also before on-roads, does leave the Citroen looking a bit out of its depth.
It’s a shame really, as it’s such a fun car to spend time with. I just wish it were priced a bit more in the realm of reality, so others too could see, and more likely go on to enjoy, what a fun French car is all about.
Note: MY19 model photographed. Pricing information relates to the MY20 model.