Car manufacturers have been taking vehicle styling to the extreme with some models, some with success and some without. Citroën are the latest to come out with an ‘interesting’ looking car, with its Cactus seemingly wearing a body jacket. Phil Curry finds out whether beauty can be found inside and out…
When I first saw this car launched I felt torn. Some examples of radical styling in the past I have liked, the Nissan Quashqi for example. Then there were the Fiat Multiplas of the world. I liked the front end of the Cactus, yet the pockets on the doors remind me of a rich country gent wearing a padded warmer. All it needed was a flat cap and wellies and it would be at home on the estate.
Kudos to Citroën however for doing something different. Realising that drivers hate having their car dinged, they have chosen to offer radical door protection. They have call this styling the AirBump and have continued the design traits inside. The question is, despite its intriguing looks, how does the Cactus drive?
Citroën has undergone a style revolution recently, moving from a rather boring visual effect to something bold and ‘out there’, the Cactus really represents this move. A clean front end with no visible grill follows the Nissan Quashqai school of thought, with high up sidelights and a main beam headlamp that is almost lost toward the centre of the sides, flanked by two bulbous padded areas. It is these pads that have allowed the Cactus to create its love-it or hate-it effect as they extend to the doors and the rear quarters too. Citroën noted that drivers hate having their doors hit in car parks, so took the humble bump strip and fluffed it out into the AirBump system, basically a flack jacket for a car.
It is a bold design cue, basically highlighting the Cactus as a car for town and city driving rather than in the country or off-road. Yet rather than just plonk padding on the sides, Citroën have taken the AirBump and made it a feature, the ‘padding’ element adding to other design inspirations inside.
Back on the outside however the Cactus has a high profile. Citroën have tried to incorporate a ‘floating roof’ design however it doesn’t really work on the model tested, looking like a black line rather than some element of clever disguising of the top of the C-pillar. The roofbars add a nice touch and a utility feel.
The exterior looks can excite or disgust, but the interior is where you will spend your time and this is where the Cactus needs to win, and I’m afraid it doesn’t.
The styling is nice, Citroën have taken the bumps of the AirBumps and turned them into patterns on the seats and dashboard, keeping the theme flowing throughout the car, there is no mistaking what you are sitting in. The dashboard features a flat glove box area which increases passenger visibility and you can comfortably sit four adults within, as there is plenty of leg and head room in the back (unless you opt for the panoramic glass roof which does impede rear headroom). The plastics inside don’t feel or look cheap, the steering wheel offers a firm grip, although it only adjusts for height, not reach. Even more impressively, there is a seven-inch touchscreen in the centre console.
Yet when you realise that this console is your main control panel for the car, things start to go downhill. It is rather cluttered with the vehicle commands for things such as air conditioning or heaters jostling for position with navigation and radio settings. There is also the issue of the instrument cluster – there isn’t one. Instead you get another digital display that will show your speed as a number (not a needle), which may work fine on high-end sports cars but looks cheap on this. There is no rev counter so drivers have to go back to using their ears when changing gear (itself a mission) and the fuel gauge is again digital, meaning you are relying on a bar rather than a needle and therefore not really knowing the true level in your tank.
The seats are comfortable although after a while they will end up affecting your back like a sponge mattress and with no lumbar support offered, a long journey could become uncomfortable. There is a handy central armrest however this gets in the way of the handbrake lever. Pull up and you’ll have to remember to have the armrest up before you can engage it, a pain for town and city driving where you’ll hardly have the rest down.
Finally, the gear lever. When I drove the Mk2 Focus ST I remember sating that changing gear was like running a hot knife through butter. This is like rolling a golf ball around in a box, the throw is long meaning although I was sitting in my optimal driving position, first, third and fifth are a long reach. The lever itself feels loose and uninspiring with a lot of play in the gear position too.
I drove the 81bhp 1.2-litre PureTech engine Cactus and have to say for its size I was pleasantly impressed. Despite its looks this is not a four-wheel drive machine, instead the engine is mounted transversely and powers the front wheels. It provided a comfortable run through the gears although acceleration deteriorated in fourth and was evidently lacking in fifth. The car was tested on the high-speed bowl at Millbrook and reached 100mph easily and sat a that speed comfortable too although with no rev counter there was no way of determining the range.
On the city course the car powered well in second and third but again was lacking acceleration in fourth. 0-60mph took around 13 seconds, not stellar but fairly respectable for a car of this size. Citroën claim 61mpg combined however I am sceptical of this with the work the engine has to do, I would expect a motorway journey to seriously eat into this figure.
Ride and handling
Comfortable is the only way to describe this aspect of the Cactus. It wasn’t spectacular but it wasn’t bad. The suspension is aided by the rather high-profile tyres in soaking up the bumps and potholes and the comfortable seats take the pain out of repeated jolts often found in city driving.
The steering however, is anything but comfortable. The power steering is light and the return is slow. In addition, at higher speeds the driver will have to make small adjustmants to keep the vehicle in line, making motorway driving in particular tiring. This was discovered on the high-speed bowl, even keeping steering to the right slightly made for tired arms after five minutes. There is no understeer detected and the traction control is precise, even when off it will only allow slip to an indicated 30mph. Braking is also good, the car responded well under heaving braking and turning in, something less likely to be encountered on every day driving.
I could hate this car for its looks but I don’t, it is quirky, and has grown on me the more I’ve seen them out and about. I don’t hate the car at all but I am disappointed. Something that is shouting for people to look at it should also give them reason to want to buy and drive it, yet the Cactus’ steering and awkward interior lets it down. This may only be a £12k + car but I would place it in the same class as the Dacia Stepway on equipment and that is £4k cheaper. The poorly thought out cabin, loose gear changes and tiring steering at high speeds mean this is an expensive city car, a statement given out by Citroën with the AirBumps. Does a car that spends time cruising really need a flack jacket to protect it from bumps and scrapes?
I like the interior comfort levels and the ride quality is good, I also like the braking precision and the fact that it features roof-lining airbags for additional safety. Unfortunately it is not a star standout attraction which it proclaims to be.