Richard Berry road tests and reviews the Citroen C4 Cactus diesel auto with specs, fuel consumption and verdict.

Citroen is back. Well it never went away, but the arrival of the C4 Cactus small SUV sees the French carmaker return to doing what it was always best at – being weird and cool.

It's taken long enough. By the middle of the 20th century Citroen had earned a reputation for being rebellious in its design and innovative in its technology.

This is the company which pioneered such mechanical magic as front-wheel drive, rain sensing wipers, self-leveling suspension, adaptive headlights and speed-sensitive steering.

Then there's the iconic 2CV and the futuristic-looking DS which fans refer to as the ‘Goddess' for its beauty.

We have chosen to develop a line that will be loved by some and hated by some.

But in 1980s and '90s it's as if Citroen was too busy watching Full House to come up with cars that would amaze us any more, turning out conservative and dull vehicles instead.

When the Cactus Concept surfaced at the 2013 Frankfurt motor show it was easy to dismiss it as just another wacky concept car… then they actually built it. In production form the C4 Cactus retained nearly all of its quirkiness.

"We have chosen to develop a line that will be loved by some and hated by some – it is better that way than being an average choice in an overcrowded market," said Citroen's then CEO Frédéric Banzet.

That's the spirit, Fred. And loved it has been, so much so that the Spanish factory which builds it had to put on more shifts to cope with Europe's demand for it. Originally intended to be a Europe-only model the popularity of the Cactus saw Citroen decide to sell it in other markets – like us – too.

The Cactus arrived Australia in early 2016 in one grade – the Exclusive specification – with a choice of two engines: a petrol with a manual gearbox for $26,990 or a diesel with an automatic transmission for $29,990.

The Cactus has its quirky rivals in the small SUV segment. There's the Jeep Renegade and its Fiat 500x sibling for $28,000 or the Nissan Juke which undercuts them all at $23,490.

Design

Where do you start? OK the Air Bumps, then. Designed to protect the Cactus from rogue shopping trolleys and gronks who open their doors into yours in carparks, they really work. We couldn't resist the temptation and hurled trolleys at it, too. But the Cactus is more than the bumps.

As we said that almost ‘future beach buggy' look stayed true to the motor show concept – with its rounded nose and low-placed headlights, short front and rear overhangs, chunky C-pillars and (optional) ski-like roofracks.

It's a small SUV, 4157mm end-to-end and despite its name suggesting it's part of the bigger Citroen C4 family it actually has a C3 platform under it – a stretched version of the sister brand Peugeot's 208 platform.

Personalisation is a big strength for the Cactus.

The cabin is just as unique looking as the exterior. Up front there's wide sofa-like seats, an ‘Eames looking' fold-down middle armrest and a handbrake which appears to be an aircraft throttle leaver. There's vintage-style baggage strap door handles and that theme is carried across to the top opening glovebox, too.

Instead of a center console-mounted gear shifter there are buttons for Drive, Reverse and Neutral on the dash, this and a ‘scooped out' roof make the cabin roomy, despite looking a bit like a letter box with its narrow windows from the outside.

A retro digital instrument panel for speed and fuel sits behind the steering wheel, while a seven-inch display mounted on the low textured dash looks after everything from media to temperature.

Other standard features include satnav, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, digital radio, auto lights and wipers, and leather steering wheel.

The back bench seat splits 60:40, and at 191cm I can fit behind my driving position – but my knees are hard-up against the front seat back. The rear windows are on a hinge and push opened – a clear cost-cutting measure – and it makes things a bit claustrophobic.

Boot space is close to many rivals such as the Nissan Juke at 358 litres, and there's a spacesaver spare wheel beneath the boot floor.

Despite all its innovative features there is only one cup holder in the whole car, which if you're French you'd possibly use as an ashtray.

Personalisation is a big strength for the Cactus and buyers can chose from billions of combinations of trim, colours and options - well 23,184 combos. Our car was painted, wait for it - Hello Yellow ($800 option), had roof racks ($250) and Cactus lettering near the back windows ($100).

None of that will protect you in an accident. But this will - in a world-first Citroen proves that safety can be quirky too by placing the front passenger airbag in the roof and not in the dash. Curtain airbags are missing from the back seat however, but the front occupants are covered.

For child seats there's two ISOFIX mounts and three top tether points across the back row.

About town

Be prepared to be stared at, maybe even laughed at. But it'll only come from boring people who think being adventurous is having a coffee after 8pm. You'll also get admiring looks from the like-minded, even photos at traffic lights.

There is other good and bad news. The good first – the front seats are up there with the most comfortable I've ever sat in. Fold the armrest up and it's nearly a bench across the front – so you can almost snuggle with your loved one while you're driving along, or stretch out a bit – actually don't stretch out behind the wheel.

The digital speedo is clear and perfectly positioned – great for our speed camera-crazy world. To adjust the climate control you need to access the control through the main display.

Our weekdays with the Cactus were spent picking the boy up from daycare and commuting to and from work. The raised ride height made it easier on the back for getting him in and out of his car seat. Its size made it easy to park in tight spaces while the steering is fast and light, but accurate and natural.

Adding even more comfort is the Cactus's excellent ride. Soft suspension sees it glide over patch roads and pothole, while the dampers are great at controlling the bounce.

Under the little turned-down bonnet is a 68kW/230Nm four-cylinder diesel engine, it's amazingly fuel efficient and after 434km of highway, city and country driving we had an average of 4.9L/100km without even trying to be frugal.

Now the not so good news – the transmission. Mon Dieu, Citroen! Pourquoi? Citroen calls it a semi-automatic. It's a bit different from a traditional torque converter automatic in that it uses a clutch when selecting the next gear – the car does it all for you though, there's no clutch pedal.

The result in Citroen's version is slow gear changes and a jerky motion at low speeds. It's almost as if the car is learning to drive a manual. The soft suspension exaggerates the issue more with the car's nose lifting up and down like the bow of a boat at sea as the power comes on and off. For those not used to it – and maybe you will over time – this pause in power could even compromise safety.

While we're being critical, the placement of the accelerator and brake pedals feels too high. It's no biggie, but the bad driving position spoils the fantastic seats a tad – perhaps Citroen doesn't want you to get too comfortable?

There's also only one light in the cabin - over the dash. That leaves a pretty dark back seat at night so parents may need to bring a mining helmet.

On the road

All the problems with that automatic transmission are left behind when you hit the highway. At 110km/h in sixth gear the Cactus cruises effortlessly, with great slingshot acceleration as the little turbo winds up. Even changing down to fifth and back to sixth is free from the jerky action at low speed.

Sydney to Newcastle via the M1 is a weekend routine and the Cactus's ride and seats provided what I'm prepared to say was the most supportive and comfortable trip up I've done.

The cabin is quiet and the sound from the six-speaker Arkamys stereo is outstanding.