Thermoplastic polyurethane Airbumps a world first

Thermoplastic polyurethane Airbumps a world first

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With innovations galore, including air-filled bumpers, low CO2 thanks to a base weight of under a tonne, and production ramping up at a once-doomed Spanish plant, the Citroën C4 Cactus is very much the new, profit-driven face of PSA.

As for the face of the car itself, well, that’s certainly a distinctive one, and won’t necessarily be to everyone’s taste. That doesn’t matter, according to Chef de Projet, Anne Ruthmann, who I interviewed on the recent media drive event in The Netherlands. The word from other sources is that as long as sales fall somewhere in the range of 50,000-100,000 units per year, PSA will consider this new, additional model a success. Those estimates are undoubtedly conservative as Villaverde, the only plant building the car, has capacity of 200,000 cars and apart from the C4 Cactus, builds only the low volume and aged Peugeot 207 CC.

Before examining this new Citroën, it’s worth backing up a little to see what inspired it. Seven years back we saw the C-Cactus concept, and after a lot of research and restyling, this evolved into the Cactus, a design study which wasn’t too far away from the eventual production model. The car that’s now being launched in France, Belgium, Spain and then other LHD EU markets - UK dealers must wait until October - was officially revealed on 5 February 2014. This was the fifth anniversary of the launch of the DS range and the 136th birthday of Andre Citroën. The press and public first saw a pre-production example at the Geneva show in March and after France, deliveries to other LHD EU markets will take place later this month, and into August and September.

The Cactus’ size is intriguing, especially given the first part of its name. While based upon the C4, it’s more of a B/C segment model. It’s 4.16m long, 1.73m wide and 1.48m tall. The height and 2.6m wheelbase are identical to those for the C4. The best way to think of it is as a Juke rival, especially with the new Qashqai having become closer to the D segment, given its extra length compared to the old Qashqai. 

The compact dimensions help with weight, though PSA has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent any unnecessary bulk in the car’s design. Base versions weigh in at some 200kg less than the C4 five-door hatchback, and at 955-965kg, this is now one of the lightest vehicles in the B/C crossover class. Except that in some ways, this isn’t a crossover. It doesn’t sit high on the road, but the heavy-on-plastic front and rear ends lend it that sort of look, as do the Airbump cushions attached to its doors and corners.

Taking weight out at the design stage also meant PSA would be able to play up the benefits this could mean for owners - fewer new tyres and brake pads, as well as inherently better fuel economy and the ability to fit smaller engines for lower CO2 averages. Some of the compromises made were a single piece folding rear bench seat (11kg claimed saving), no sunblind for the heat and UV-reflecting glass roof, and back windows which pop out rather than roll down (said to mean a 6kg saving for each). Other places where money and/or weight was saved include the aluminium bonnet and tailgate, plus the welcome sight of an ignition key and handbrake, while the parcel shelf is made from that thin grey, cardboard-like material which covers the dashboard and doors of the BMW i3. 

The C4 Cactus has also given Villaverde a new lease of life. Once production of the Peugeot 207 CC ends in 2015 (no replacement is planned), this factory in suburban Madrid will likely be making only the Citroën. The plant began building the new car in April and will continue ramping up until it reaches 380 units a day later this month. At this level, Villaverde will be building 85,000 units of the model per annum, assuming 220 production days. 

I mentioned world firsts or new-to-Citroën features and these include the Airbumps, as well as a 120-litre passenger airbag, plus an integrated front wiper system called Magic Wash (see attached images and this recent news story). I wasn’t too sure about the rear seat not having a split-fold facility but in reality, it’s not too much of a hassle to open the boot, lean in and push down buttons on either end of the backrest. This doesn’t fold flat, but just flops onto the seat - just like how French cars used to be until the 2000s.

The so-called sofa seating in the front isn’t quite what it seems. At first I presumed we were talking a series of three separate seats in the style of the Honda FR-V but no, in this case it’s simply an armrest and fabric covering for the centre console which gives a linked look. It also only applies if you order the ETG semi-automatic transmission as the gear lever is replaced by D, N and R (but no P) buttons.

I’m not a fan of this robotised manual system as it has the same flaw as the one in the smart fortwo: you accelerate, it pauses, gravity wants to tip you slightly forwards as progress is becalmed, then it catches up and you get tilted back into your seat - up to five times after every traffic light. Why not a simple torque converter automatic, or even the second best option: a dual clutch 'automatic'? Weight, and cost, it would appear. The manual shift on both diesel and petrol versions is excellent. Even so, my advice would be to give the Efficient Tronic Gearbox a miss. And yes, I did drive smoothly as I really wanted to give ETG a chance.

Ordering a manual C4 Cactus I’d miss the look of the sofa seats but the rest of the interior is well designed, even if there’s no reach adjustment for the steering wheel. There’s lots of hard plastic but PSA has done well to disguise it. The door pulls and a deep dash-top storage box are meant to remind you of vintage leather luggage and yes, they more or less do.

Some passengers might miss the overhead grab handles - there are none - but plus points to rebalance things include extremely deep door pockets with integrated Airbump-esque patterns on them, and very clear digital instruments in front of the driver and a highly intuitive 7-inch monitor in the middle-top of the dashboard. The passenger side giant airbag is deployed from the top of the windscreen and covers the monitor too, in case you’re wondering.

I had a play around with the optional Multicity Connect, which is a USB that plugs into a slot on the dashboard and in media preview cars had apps such as Trip Advisor and Koyote, the latter being very good at warning me about speed cameras. 

Roominess is a strongpoint, and perhaps surprising given the dimensions but there’s lots of sprawling space in the back even if headroom isn’t too generous. Having said that, I didn’t manage to sit in a base model, which have been better as it lacks the glass roof. The boot has a capacity of 358 cubic litres, expandable to 1,170.

What about engines? There are just two, though with various outputs: a 1,199cc three-cylinder ‘PureTech’ petrol and a 1,560cc four-cylinder diesel. The Puretechs have outputs of 75, 82 and 110PS, with the last two also available with Stop-Start. The diesels can be ordered in e-HDi 92 (PS) or BlueHDi 100 form. As for transmissions, depending on which engine you order, this can be a manual with just five speeds (yes, really) though the ETG will have five or six ratios, depending on the engine. Fuel economy can be spectacular - up to an official 91.1mpg with CO2 of 82g/km.

The UK will receive all engines but our trim levels will have different names - Touch, Feel and Flair - to those in most other European markets. In France, it’s Start, Shine, Live, Feel and Business. Prices for Britain aren’t yet official but indicative levels are GBP 13,000 for the PureTech 75 manual Touch, rising to just over GBP18,000 for the e-HDi 92 ETG6 Flair. The diesel/petrol and fleet/private sales mixes are both expected to be 50/50.