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Citroen Aircross Concept 2015 review

It took a prickly plant to show Citroen the way out of its design desert. With the Aircross Concept, the French brand wants to make sure everyone knows there's much more where the C4 Cactus came from.

The Cactus compact crossover, which will arrive in Australia around February, is a truly original piece of car design. It has won awards and customers alike since going on sale in Europe last year.

The Aircross Concept, unveiled in April at the Shanghai motor show, is a one-off show-car SUV about the same size as a Mazda CX-5.

Its rounded bodywork and emphasis on protective features are obvious visual links to the C4 Cactus.

Here's an example. Airbumps are the Cactus's most talked-about feature. These rubbery side protection panels, with their bulging air bubbles, make it unmistakable. The higher-riding Aircross Concept instead shows off the side-impact-absorbing aluminium honeycomb built into the bottom edges of its four doors.

Citroen, once revered for brave design, seems poised for a big-time comeback.

So when the French company called, CarsGuide accepted the invitation to go to Paris to drive the Aircross Concept. There would be time, too, to talk with Frederic Duvernier.

As well as being design manager of the Aircross Concept project, the lanky 38-year-old Frenchman also penned the exterior design of the C4 Cactus and invented Airbumps.

The Aircross Concept is awful to drive. All concept cars are. They're hastily made, for showing, not going. The hand-built Citroen jerks as if it's been poked with a cattle prod when its auto is put into gear. The unassisted brakes barely work. The steering is unbelievably heavy. The reflections from the white dashboard make it hard to see the road.

The internal rear view mirror has fallen off somewhere between Shanghai and Paris and the fixed external mirrors give a view of the road behind, nothing more.

The massive 22-inch Continental show-car tyres whine louder than the jets taking off from the runway beside our drive route on the outskirts of the French capital. The electric motor and battery in the Aircross's hybrid drivetrain aren't working.

Worst of all, there's no aircon. It's about 30 degrees on a sunny summer day and the Aircross has a fixed glass roof and side windows that don't open. It's like driving a very noisy fan-forced oven.

Think of it instead as a statement of intent

But none of this matters. The Aircross Concept isn't a prototype of a car that's headed for production. Think of it instead as a statement of intent.

According to Duvernier, there were doubters inside Citroen who couldn't believe its unique look could work on other kinds of cars.

"We really had to prove it and make a car in an upper segment (of the market)," he says of the Aircross Concept. "This aesthetic...we will really develop it for production."

The Aircross shows Citroen's designers can create mainstream cars that stand out, just as the brand did in the past.

"If we look back at Citroen's history, there was always this out-of-the-box thinking," Duvernier says. "There was a good question, and a nice answer."

The designer cites Citroen's post-WWII economy car, the 2CV ("a simple car for simple people with a basket of eggs"), and the comfort of older Citroens' pump-up suspension technology ("incredible on the street"), as examples of the brand's ability to produce original answers to real needs.

Why are cars uncomfortable? Why are cars too complicated to use? Why are cars too big, overdesigned?

Duvernier isn't interested in finding out whether Citroen can survive by doing cars like everyone else's. "Isn't it more interesting to ask the good questions?" he says.

"Why are cars uncomfortable? Why are cars too complicated to use? Why are cars too big, overdesigned? If you ask this series of questions, maybe you have different answers than the competitors."

"The simpler, the better, basically," is how Duvernier sums up his design thinking. Simplicity survives, the designer believes, and he names examples ranging from Ferraris from the '50s and '60s to Citroen's own futuristic DS of the mid-'50s.

"I believe that this kind of design can last longer and create a kind of calm and quietness," he adds. What's more, there's room for cars that aren't styled to look snarly.

"Maybe there's a different approach to car design that can convey a kind of friendliness. Not being like a friendly face but just being not aggressive. I think some brands are very true to this.

All the other competitors, maybe they try to add more

"Porsche is not being over-aggressive. What they do has a function. They are not being show-off, because they don't need to."

Citroen should aim to be more Porsche-like, even though the French brand must operate in the mainstream. "All the other competitors, maybe they try to add more," Duvernier says. "We believe that maybe we can put less."

"On the Cactus, I think we've put the value, the money, where we wanted to. It's not a more expensive car than the competitors. It's quite affordable, but Airbumps, they cost some money. But we decided to have the Airbumps to be different.

"So we placed the value there, and maybe not on the rear windows, which nobody Europe at least."

Citroen's designers are making similarly tough choices that will change the brand's image for years to come.

"Now we work on the 2020 generation," says Duvernier, "and we have to think about all this."

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