Citroen says over 90% of exterior parts are new - relocation and shrinkage of the previous models airbumps is one obvious change

Citroen says over 90% of exterior parts are new - relocation and shrinkage of the previous model's 'airbumps' is one obvious change

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On the face of it, the UK launch of the updated Citroen C4 Cactus is just a mere, mid-life refresh - a new grille here, new tail lamps there, new interior colours and trims, the usual. Next! But, according to PSA's UK unit, it's a bit more significant than that and the newcomer has loftier goals to achieve than its quirky but well liked predecessor.

This update arrives not too long after Citroen axed the conventional C4 hatchback, a rare sight on my local roads (though, coincidentally, we did see one on the Cactus test drive). The first C4 Cactus was launched in 2014 and has since sold around 270,000 units worldwide and over 30,000 here in the UK. Since then, the Citroen range has had a bit of a brand-repositioning shake-up including the aforementioned C4 hatch axe and the (also delightfully quirky) B-MPV C3 Picasso being replaced by the repositioned B-SUV C3 Aircross.

"So," Citroen UK communications chief John Handcock told just-auto, "Cactus has been repositioned and is now our C-segment hatchback." There are seven versions mixing and matching two tunes (110 and 130PS) of the three cylinder, 1.2-litre PureTech petrol engine (with a delightful just-offbeat exhaust note) and a sole 1.6-litre, I4, 100PS manual-only turbodiesel with two trim levels. All manuals have automated stop/start, are five-or six-speed and the sole automatic is (Roberts seal of approval) the higher spec Flair trim with a six-speeder and also with stop/start. Which, with super-fast shifts, drives more like a twin clutch unit. We reported last year that PSA, which was buying in six- and eight-speed Aisin gearboxes made in Japan and China for the Peugeot, Citroen and DS brands, was looking at assembling this six-speed (which it refers to as the EAT6) in France to secure a competitive supply, reduce currency risk and help fill its own plants.

For potential buyers confused by the current MPV/SUV/crossover etc-speak from the ever-more-segmented auto industry, boiling Cactus down to plain ol' 'C-segment hatch' seems good sense as it's just what it says on the tin - a decent sized, practical car on what was, 30 years ago, a good sized D-segment saloon/estate car/hatchback 2,600mm wheelbase.

Repositioning aside, the changes are typical mid-cycle facelift - an exterior restyle that is actually more comprehensive than it looks at first glance (Citroen says 90% of exterior parts are new), revised interior trims and colours, specification tweaks, those aforementioned powertrain updates, LED daylight running lights and tail lamps, availability of up to 12 driver assistance technologies plus three connectivity techs, including currently fashionable Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink.

The previous Cactus introduced Citroen's famous 'airbumps' to the side panels but these, though still present, are much reduced in size and relocated lower, while the prominent plastic wheel arch protectors remain. This faux-offroad look - now being introduced to Europe by models such as the upcoming Ford Fiesta Active and already-on-sale Kia Picanto X-Line - is very popular in Brazil, where Citroen also fields locally-made models catering to this consumer preference. For example, it offered an AirCross, launched in 2010 and discontinued last year, which differed from both the European and locally made C3 Picasso with a higher ride height, plastic body cladding, an externally-mounted spare wheel and roof bars. A locally produced (in Porto Real) C4 Cactus is being launched there in this first half of 2018 and, like that 2010-2017 Aircross, will have specific features "responding to the expectations of South American customers".

Citroen UK says such models as this wider-spread Cactus line are part of an "all encompassing brand transformation" over the last few years, encapsulated by the tagline 'Inspired by You'. Handcock said this was a "customer-centric" effort to reposition the brand and also return, via a 'comfort is the new cool' approach, to the days when Citroens were renowned for seat comfort and ride quality on indifferent roads (both at home in France and in challenging export markets such as Africa).

Hence the Cactus' 'advanced comfort features' such as the Progressive Hydraulic Cushion (PHC) dampers for a "flying carpet effect" - 20 patents were filed in the development of the new suspension system. While conventional suspension systems use a shock absorber, a spring and mechanical bump stops at each corner of the car, the PHC system adds two hydraulic stops on each suspension unit to replace the mechanical stops. There is one hydraulic stop for compression and one for decompression. The suspension therefore works in two stages to match how the car is being used.

For light compression and decompression, the springs and shock absorbers control the vertical movements, with no assistance required from the hydraulic stops. However, the presence of these new hydraulic stops means the engineers have greater freedom in the car's set up. During major impacts, the springs and shock absorbers work together with the hydraulic compression or decompression stops that gradually slow the movement to avoid sudden jolts at the end of the range. Unlike a traditional mechanical stop, which absorbs energy and then returns part of it as a rebound, the hydraulic stop absorbs and dissipates this energy.

I had not driven the original Cactus for comparison and found two top-spec Flair petrol variants (130PS six-speed manual; 110PS auto) both rode and handled very well, on atrocious Buckinghamshire roads recently washed out and potholed by rain and snow though a consumer-focused colleague I shared a car with, who was familiar with the earlier models, opined he noticed very little difference. Regardless, the new Cactus errs on the side of comfort yet, if driven in spirited fashion turns in well, exhibits well controlled understeer and is unlikely to do anything nasty in an inexperienced driver's hands.

Still in the comfort zone, Citroen also emphasises the Cactus' 'advanced comfort seats' (the front bench offered only with automated manual in the previous model line has gone) with new high-density foam that improves seating comfort. Physical comfort has also been improved, with both softness and support provided on initial contact, thanks to thicker surface foam. Ride comfort is also enhanced with the use of a high density layer in the centre of the seat. These improved chairs accompany three new interior colour schemes (Metropolitan Red, Wild Grey, Hype Red), all of which are attractive and a welcome change from Germany's coal-cellar black or battleship grey all-but-monotones. Leather trim is a Flair option, too. Among other various seat design improvements are 15mm thicker foam enhanced by overstitching and graphic components similar to those used in recent C3 and C5 variants.

There is some cabin cost-cutting, reflecting the just-over-GBP17,000 starting price - height and reach adjustable steering wheel is nice but the front passenger misses out on one air vent and lumbar support, there are no seatbelt height adjusters and, as before, rear passenger door windows open on over-centre catches rather than winding down (a trick also used on the five-door Citroen C1 and its Peugeot and Toyota JV siblings) and the rear seat back is not split so it's all-or-nothing-folds. At least those rear door windows do open, unlike those on the DS4...

Oddly, although the revised Cactus is fun to drive, and appears very family friendly with a spacious rear compartment, a decent deep boot (high load lip though, and, bonus points, a spare wheel, jack and tools, I did not find the front seats particularly comfortable despite sufficient adjustments both sides; the front seats looked more supportive than they proved and the single zone automatic climate control in the top-spec Flair versions (entry level is Feel) did not blow some cool air through the face vents once the cabin reached the desired temperature, unless manually set via the fiddly central touchscreen which is now almost universal across the Citroen, DS and Peugeot brands. As a result, there are very few centre stack buttons though I'd like to see one for recirculated air - achieving that requires several touch screen stabs.

Overall, though, Cactus is a very likeable car and family-friendly. It looks set fair to cover 'C-segment hatch' well for Citroen.

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