EXPECT the unexpected from Citroen today and you’ll be disappointed. Expect a new-wave family hatch with sensible design, startling economy and a leap forward in quality and you’ve just met the next C4.Since the 1930s, a bent towards weird automobile design and left-of-centre mechanical experiments made the world know the name Citroen. But in the 1980s, innovation and absinthe-induced engineering were ejected in favour of making a buck. And time has stood still for Citroen ever since.
Now there’s a new C4 - Citroen’s bread and butter compact family hatch - which replaces the old C4 that was renown for the innovative fixed steering wheel hub. Nothing else - just the hub.
I’ve been driving in France the new C4 that gets here late next month. To be honest, I was expecting a bit more than a fixed steering wheel hub. But I didn’t even get that.
This is the very, very important model car that aims to assure the company will make a buck. It’s up against some heavy hitters - the Volkswagen Golf is obvious - but as an affordable European, the C4 may take a bigger bite than its rivals expect. And that’s unxpected.
Don’t expect a big change in the price but expect more features. The C4 Confort (Comfort) is the entry-level version tested here, fitted with a 1.6-litre turbo-diesel and a six-speed manual gearbox. Technically, it’s a simple car and I hope that’s reflected in ownership costs. Even the base model has upmarket seats, full-size spare tyre, dual-zone airconditioning, trip computer and steering wheel controls for the iPod-compatible audio and cruise control. And on that note, the audio controls are integrated into the wheel - not attached like an after thought on a box on the steering column.
Think a more rounded version of the Golf and you’d be on the money. The C4 is only 50mm longer and 20mm wider than before yet cabin space feels bigger. The shape has also given it the biggest boot space in its class - 408 litres with the seats up - yet it retains a full size spare beneath the cargo floor. Why can’t other carmakers do this?
It is definitely more conservative in design than its predecessor but won’t date as quick. Cabin design is almost spot on, highlighted by the attractive soft-feel dashboard. Big gauges combine a perimeter speedo encircling a digital speed readout in the centre and a conventional tacho to one side. The centre console stack is busy with switches and requires familiarity.
The base model skips a sat-nav monitor and has a small digital readout for the trip meter. Upmarket models will get a different console with a big screen. Cabin room is bigger but most noticeably in rear seat room, offering Golf-size leg and headroom. All seating finds the balance between firmness for long distance driving and absorbance to cushion the body against French cobble streets.
Citroen will offer Australians eight versions of the car with three engines, two petrol of 88 and 115 kW, and one diesel, the 82 kW turbo-diesel. The diesel will have a choice of two gearboxes, a six speed manual and a six speed EGS robo manual. The petrol C4 will start in the low 20s and the diesel in the mid 20s, which means lower than the outgoing car's pre-run out pricing and with better equipment. All the diesels will be e-HDi cars with the micro hybrid stop start system.
Citroen has kept the car simple but introduced some fuel-saving techniques. The car is more aerodynamic than before and gets standard Michelin “energy saver’‘ tyres, gearshift indicator light (manual gearbox models) and a lower weight thanks to laser welding and lightweight materials. The green aspect is also reflected by 15 per cent of the car’s components being made of materials from sustainable sources. The engine is as simple as Simon. It’s also as common as belly buttons, shared with the Mini Cooper diesel, some small Ford cars (Fiesta included) and BMW. It’s a little ripper that is so easy on the fuel yet with gobs of low-end torque. It’s also really quiet.
The C4 has recently won the maximum five star safety rating by Euro NCAP, including a score of 97 per cent in the “safety assist’’ category. It’s claimed to be the highest score for any vehicle of its type. Standard features include six airbags, ESC, emergency brake assist and hill-start assist. The test car had cornering lights which may become standard here.
Is this a Citroen? It all seems so conventional that I had to pinch myself. Drive this and it’s more like a soft Golf - the tautness has been taken out by more absorbent dampers and springs but the body remains rigid. That makes this a compliant - and for a small-bore diesel, remarkably quiet - city car and for once, dips its brow to its automotive ancestors.
The steering is electric but it’s a decent job that is perfect for city and suburbs and didn’t cause drama on the 130km/h autoroutes south of Paris. But all this comfort has to pinch a nerve. This time, it’s handling. The C4 - at least in this base-model guise - is a bit wallowy through the corners and taking things a bit quick will induce eyebrow-raising understeer.
The C4 uses a diesel engine that’s also flogged off to other car makers - and there’s a reason why they want it. The oiler is smooth, easy to use because of its strong torque and has superb fuel economy. I ran this through France, from idling it through cities to running with the autoroute pack at 130km/h and averaged 4.8 litres/100km. That’s a range of about 1250km!
The controls are easy to use - and I bet that’s the first time you’ve read that in a Citroen test - and well placed, while the driving position can be adjusted to fit pretty much any human shape.