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Citroen C4 Cactus 1.6 Blue HDI 100 (2016) long-term test review

Published: 26 April 2016

 Daily driver blog: we run a Citroen Cactus
► We're testing the Blue HDI 100 Flair
Innovative, or just quirky for the sake of it?

Month 12 running a Citroen Cactus - final report: and the award for least deserving car goes to...

Do you ever find yourself so at odds with what smells suspiciously like a consensus that you begin to doubt your sanity? Or, at least, your long-established criteria for adjudication?

Well, that’s precisely the position I found myself in when I first climbed aboard the Cactus, and absolutely nothing about the ensuing ownership experience has altered my initial perceptions. To wit; the rest of the world thinks it marvellous, and has lavished laurels upon it with sufficient abundance to make even a Caesar blush, whilst I’m afraid I consider it little more than an ergonomically disastrous flirt with wanton quirk.

I should reiterate that I don’t believe designer Mark Lloyd is altogether to blame. Certainly, the Spongebob catches the eye not so much because of the inadequately comprehensive application of adult bubble-wrap but, rather, as a result of his decision to eschew all concave bodyshell surfacing. Failing to polarise opinion as completely as, say, the relentlessly ghastly Triumph TR7, this is actually a surprisingly pleasing conceit.

Climb aboard and go for a drive of any distance, however, and it isn’t long before the missus’s motoring mantra, ‘If you climb into a car and don’t notice these things, then it’s all good’, starts ringing loud in the lugholes. Because, as previously discussed, in the case of the Cactus, there’s absolutely nothing you don’t notice.

Little renders a car more immediately worthless than a woeful driving position. Blend together a seat offering all the comfort of a large sherry trifle laced with haphazardly chopped kindling, a steering wheel with no reach adjustment, a cramped, ill-located pedal box and an obstructive centre armrest and there’s no coming back from the missus’s instant ‘hideously uncomfortable’ adjudication.

Moreover, if God, as architect Mies van der Rohe once averred, is in the details, then the Cactus is about as staunchly atheist as they come… For instance, because there’s no extra storage bin in the position it has vacated, the much-vaunted dash-top glovebox serves no purpose other than to remove one passenger air vent. The centre console screen and driver’s instrument screen are ill-matched. The latter is woefully short on information, whilst the former is unpleasant to use. And use it you must, even to change the temperature.

Lob in a driver’s door which must be slammed with sufficient vim to pepper your passenger with unsolicited pellets of ear wax, and the Citroën’s propensity to electrocute the missus every time she takes her leave, and you can understand why their relationship has been relentlessly shaky.

The hooligans, too, have been less than enamoured with Spongebob; nothing to do with seat comfort, however, rather the inability of the front-hinged rear windows to open wider than the panel gaps on a 1970s Fiat. Could be worse, I tell them; even more bizarrely, in the interests of exterior styling, the seal on the rear windows of a DS4 Crossback can only be broken with the help of a house brick…

Such rear window mitherings aside, then, my suspicion is that blame for the Cactus failing to live up to the promise of its highly individual couture in any other department must fall squarely on the shoulders of bean counters who – confronted with the cost implications of a more complete iteration of Lloyd’s concept – clearly came over all Charles de Gaulle with the cheque book.

And that’s more than a shame, not only because it would have been riveting to witness the full panoply of Lloyd’s vision made flesh, but also because under that fiscal dermatitis-decimated skin lurk the mechanicals of a perfectly respectable family car.

Performance from the 1.6-litre turbodiesel is merely adequate, and there’s little point over-stirring the gently over-long gearshift for overtaking purposes unless you have an aircraft-carrier-deck-length run up available.

But MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension systems compensate for front seat arse-ache with straight line comfort and composure aplenty. Body control is good and, if not overtaxed, the Cactus evinces perfectly acceptable cornering composure. Push too hard, however, and generous gouts of oversteer and dog vomit are there for the asking.

All of which leaves but one point meriting unalloyed praise, and that’s average fuel consumption of over 56mpg. I sincerely wish this ‘award-winning’ car delivered more over which the family could genuinely enthuse.

Count the cost

Cost new £19,330 (including £1340 of options)
Dealer sale price £13,335
Private sale price £12,975
Part-exchange price £11,790
Cost per mile 10p
Cost per mile including depreciation £1.16

Logbook: Citroen C4 Cactus Blue HDI 100

Engine 1560cc turbodiesel, 99bhp @ 3750rpm, 187lb ft @ 1750rpm  
Gearbox 5-speed manual, front-wheel drive  
Stats 10.7 sec 0-62mph, 114mph, 89g/km  
Price £17,990  
As tested £19,330  
Miles this month 447  
Total miles 8951  
Our mpg 56.4  
Official mpg 83.1  
Fuel cost overall £703.50  
Extra costs £0

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 11 running a Citroen Cactus: rummaging around the instrument binnacle

Despite having long championed the analogue wrist watch (digital versions don’t work because you actually view a clock to establish what time it isn’t), the Cactus has quietly won me over to the merits of the (ugly) digital speedometer. And an ideal automotive combination is, it strikes me, an analogue rev counter whirring away around a digital speedo.

Sadly, the Cactus spurns provision of the former in favour of... well, acres of blank binnacle black hole. In truth, however, this is not a powerplant that rewards revving, so no harm done. 

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 10 running a Citroen Cactus: the dying of the light

Two winter illumination issues. Firstly, the reversing light is tea-light-powerful pants. I’m having to master left-foot braking merely to up the lumen quotient, the resultant manoeuvre feeling somewhat akin to backing into brothel alley.

Secondly, we’ve noticed that the door-linked interior lighting has been bean-countered down to just one measly overhead lamp of an efficacy on a par with the novelty torch from a cheap Christmas cracker. Who’d have thought it possible to lose an entire Labrador in the footwell?

By Anthony ffrench-Constant 



Month 9 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: our screenwash reservoir runneth over

The Cactus’s screen-washer system has been chugging water like a Chicken Korma-cautious visitor to the 2015 World Championship Chili Cookoff – this year held in Reno, Nevada, where the inhabitants briefly forfeit racing P51s round pylons in favour of racing piecemeal for the Portaloo.

Odd. I had assumed a system which introduces water to the screen via the wiper arms themselves to be more frugal than one which takes a run-up from the bonnet.
Either, then, a notably petite camel in Day-Glo orange waterwings has furtively claimed squatter’s rights in the reservoir, or the latter has all the capacity of a blunt-eared bat’s bladder...

One litre of overpriced screen washer fluid later, I had my answer; optimistically wobbling a large watering-can over the filler nozzle, I’d barely emptied the spout alone before the pipework frothed into overflow, leaving the mixture so concentrated I wouldn’t be surprised to see the wipers melt like boiled liquorice within the week.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

Citroen Cactus screenwash


Month 8 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: her ups, her downs, her smiles, her frowns...

Not, to my eye, that the Van der Graaf Cactus is going to promote a sudden upsurge in the fortunes of any ship yard near you in the immediate future, but, to paraphrase Rex Harrison’s resolutely un-sung sentiments in My Fair Lady, ‘I’ve grown... accustomed to its face.’

I’m unsure whether or not it’s down to designer Mike Lloyd’s determination to eschew all convex surfacing but, if you can get beyond the horse-pee-yellow couture, there is something indefinably yet fundamentally pleasing about the Cactus’s appearance. As with the first Bangle 7-series, it has, I suspect, much to do with delicious proportion desperate to throw off the shackles of hit-and-miss detailing. If only, for instance, the ‘Air Bump’ panel was less appliqué and more integrated in appearance.

Sadly, life on board does continue to elicit rather more exasperation than enthusiasm; the piecemeal exile of switchgear in favour of a catchall touchscreen, for example, a particularly deceitful purse-string-driven flattery which we fell for only as long as it took to discover that old-fashioned knobs and knockers are infinitely faster, easier and, let’s face it, more pleasing to get to grips with on the move.

Citroën is, of course, far from the only culprit in the context of this burgeoning, bung-it-all-on-the-wiring-loom fad. But it has here proved all too clearly that if you are going to ask your customers to embrace this approach to instrumentation, you’ve really got to get it absolutely, incredibly right. 

By Anthony ffrench-Constant



Month 7 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: by name, and by nature 

This just in from the missus: Back now. Good thing to have done. My arse hurts from the Cactus

Said freshly texted titbit renders two insightful snippets of information; firstly, the Cactus has now achieved such global renown that it merits its own emoticon and, secondly, it’s still an absurdly uncomfortable conveyance during a journey of any length whatsoever. We’d celebrate average fuel consumption edging 55mpg far more vociferously were but one of those miles to prove even vaguely comfortable. 

By Anthony ffrench-Constant



Month 6 running a Cactus: does cheap = cheerful?

Another week, another award for the Cactus; the Motor Trader Awards 2015 now dubbing it ‘New Car of the Year’ and lauding it as ‘a welcome move for customers and dealers alike’.

Hmmm. I’ve always considered those two groups to be mutually exclusive in the ‘welcome’ stakes. Surely, if the dealer’s making a stout profit then either the car’s too expensive, or the money’s all been taken out at production level to maximise the margins? In the case of the undeniably affordable Cactus, surely only the latter can explain why the content of said Spongebob casing is so regrettably underwhelming.

Though I admire immensely Mark Lloyd’s chutzpah in creating the Cactus, six months of living with the thing makes it all-too evident that the former suffered mightily at the hands of the bean-counters throughout what must have been a gruesome gestation; every potential innovation ruthlessly demoted to mere quirk via the castrating ‘clack’ of the abacus.

How else are we to explain an intriguing bodyshell Air-Bump concept relegated to mere appliqué door bubble-wrap status; the ergonomic cystitis that is a lack of steering reach adjustment; a seat designed to fit a body still 100 years hence down the path of human evolution (small pockets of the USA excepted); an all-powerful touchscreen that’s so recalcitrant to the touch; a non-matching, throwaway instrument binnacle offering a breadth of information on a par with the Speaking Clock; the raft of attendant compromises inherent in merely hoiking the glovebox up the dashboard; non-winding rear windows in a family car?

In truth, despite a prolonged dry spell of late, I have yet to see much of a proliferation of Cacti in Mudfordshire. But I gather they are flying off the shelves, so perhaps the bean-counters are right. In this More Bigger Snacks Now age wherein we are cajoled into replacing our cars more frequently than the average student changes his pants, perhaps parting with Manhattan simply because those beads are just so irresistibly shiny is the accepted norm.

All of which leaves me struggling to persuade my children that saving their pocket money to afford something more expensive but on a higher plane of quality, functionality and longevity is, in fact, a Jolly Good Idea.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

Citroen Cactus airbumps


Month 5 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: whatever floats your boat

Cast aside aspirations of long-haul ergonomic contentment and cutting-edge dynamics, and think more of the Cactus as a solid mahogany Riva Aquarama from the thigh-scorching turquoise leatherette bench seat of which you are helming your way over a glittering chuckle of light, mid-summer Mediterranean chop… 

Though engine notes decidedly do not, respective ride qualities actually have much in common; fundamentally smooth with an ever-present, non-intrusive veneer of jostle, nudge and surface bicker. Lob into the equation the fact that the steering does what’s asked of it with appropriately little effort and adequate accuracy, and the Cactus acquits itself perfectly well on the average, family-encumbered run. 

The gearlever, however, boasts sufficient throw and travel to offer a left-arm workout on a par with the steering oar of a Greek trireme. Mercifully, individual gears are invariably where you left them, and the missus and I are now fully acclimatised to locating them without baulk, bitch or bluster.

There’s no point pushing the whole ensemble too hard. Though MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension offers respectable body control and an unexpectedly flat cornering stance when oozing along A-roads, attempts to hustle down Rolling English Drunkard-sponsored byways merely unsettle the composure, upset a powerplant which bursts into tears when asked for ramming speed, and herald the onset of oversteer. 

Though the resolutely unsold missus would kick me for saying this, then; treat it like a boat offering gently somnambulant float, and the Cactus actually exudes a certain, well, charm.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 4 running a Citroen C4 Cactus 1.6 Blue HDI 100: electric shocks!

We are a family divided... Whilst I and the younger hooligan remain immune, the elder and – ulp – the missus cannot climb free of the Cactus without reaping a belligerent belt of static electricity.

This, as you can imagine, goes down like a porcupine in a prophylactic factory. Though, interestingly, the commiserations of her social media chums tend to begin ‘bet it’s a Citroën...’, a cure has proved elusive.

I suggested shunning the Converse in favour of something with a 4in stiletto heel. Good job the spare room bed’s so comfortable.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Citroen Cactus interior

Month 3 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: a minimalist interior, but does it work?

News that our Citroën Spongebob has just garnered yet another gong – the ‘2015 World Car Design of the Year’, awarded to ‘the new car with the most innovative design that challenges the industry’s conventional styling codes’ – makes me wonder, yet again (see diverse Twingo honours for further details), whether any of the jurors actually took the time to sit in it, let alone drive it any distance.

Don’t get me wrong; as an ex-wielder of the HB, I’m all for design which pushes the outside of any envelope. But – to stick with Wolfe’s finest stuff for a moment – as many a test pilot would attest were they still around to do so, even the most challenging design is only worthwhile if it actually works. 

In this context, then, we need to ignore whatever appeal you may or may not find in the gentle eccentricities of the Cactus’s envelope, and focus on life on board…

This morning, climbing out of a Volvo V40 D4 the instrument binnacle of whose virtues I had been extolling, the missus somewhat dismissively opined: ‘If you climb into a car and you don’t notice these things, then it’s all good.’ 

Well, in the case of the Cactus, there’s absolutely nothing you don’t notice. It’s entirely regrettable that, as a design exercise, the interior adopts the role of Glen Close in Fatal Attraction; initial attention-seeking appeal all too quickly deliquesced by the haphazard boiling of assorted bunnies. 

Herewith a run-through of what we like, and what we don't:

  • Steering wheel Lack of reach adjustment promotes ghastly driving position with arms straighter than a Coldstream guard’s trouser seam and knees for earrings
  • Driver’s seat Bliss for the first eight seconds, then you shop for a cushion. A bizarre meld of boulder and blancmange combining little support with unsolicited intrusion
  • Pedal box Unnecessarily cramped, requiring feet bound in the manner of a 19th century Chinese courtesan to squeeze between clutch pedal and transmission tunnel in the quest for rest
  • Instrument binnacle Ugly, ill-matched graphics and precious little information. Speed, fuel, odometer and auto wiper notification. No rev counter, no temperature gauge and no joy
  • Driver’s door Steadfastly refuses to shut politely. Needs slamming at a velocity more usually reserved for the shoe of a Jehovah’s Witness
  • Centre armrest Pointless. So utterly obstructs gear changing that it was flipped up on day one and has stayed there ever since
  • Air vents Relocating glovebox removes passenger air vent. And no; enlarging the left-hand centre vent is not adequate air-supply recompense
  • Rear seats No junior comfort gripes, but the absence of a properly opening rear window in a four-door family car is daft
  • Centre console screen Not great looking, a tad stab-tastic and a pain in the arse having to access it for everything, even adjusting the air-conditioning
  • Glovebox Clever overhead airbag location facilitates neat solution. But the vacated space below? No extra storage, just a bland blanking plate
  • Door armrest Actually matches the seat upholstery. Easily the most comfortable part of the interior. If only one could drive whilst sitting on it

There’s little overall cohesion. The steamer trunk styling of the glove box and attendant luggage handle door-pulls constitute less a theme for the interior than a mere guest appearance, whilst, from a graphics perspective, the two screens are distant cousins at best. Worse, at the most basic level of ergonomics, the front seats look comfortable, but aren’t, and the driving position is succinctly pigeonholed by the missus as ‘Hideously uncomfortable’. 

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

Like many neighbours these days, central screen and instrument screen seem never to have met...


Month 2 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: diet pays off

The benefits of weight-saving are nowhere more evident in everyday motoring than in the Cactus. Having witnessed the Qashqai struggle to shift some 1400kg with just 109bhp and 192 lb ft of torque, the prospect of living with 99bhp and 187lb ft had all the immediate appeal of injudiciously applied Deep Heat.

Happily, as affirmed by the bald statistics, the lightweight, 1225kg Citroën appears to make progress with slightly more vigour than the Nissan, though you wouldn’t pick either as a getaway car.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 1 running a Citroen C4 Cactus: the introduction

Quite the finest example of perambulatory self-promotion I’ve ever witnessed was meticulously sign-written onto the tailgate of a builder’s lorry in Bantry, southern Ireland. ‘THERE’ it bellowed ‘GOES O’SHEA’.

Here presented in a hue against which traffic wardens instantly mutate into mysterious self-propelled trousers, the new Citroen C4 Cactus does exactly the same job for the missus without recourse to calligraphy. And she is livid. ‘Men, women, children… even gum-chewing teenage girls who wouldn’t bat a lash at a Ferrari gawp at it,’ she growls. ‘I have no anonymity. Imagine trying to have an affair owning this…’

Naturally, the hooligans christened it Spongebob the instant it landed. And the missus concurs. Not, though because of its appearance, but because ‘Everything about it is spongy; the doors, the seat, the gearchange…’ Hmmm. Having had consistently little to say about the largely nondescript and recently repatriated Nissan Qashqai, I have a sneaking suspicion she may prove a somewhat pricklier customer when it comes to the Citroën.

The Cactus is rather more striking on first appearance than I had remembered; leaner and more svelte than a bodyshell boasting only one concave surface throughout (pedestrian impact legislation forcing Mark Lloyd’s hand atop the front wheelarch) has any right to appear. 

In truth, however, though couture inspired by watching ramming-speed Parisians park at each other is an interesting conceit, the fact that the door panels constitute the only exterior finish to boast genuine bubble-wrap status does somewhat relegate the idea to just that.

A Cactus may be yours for about 13 grand. Armed with a 1560cc, 99bhp, 187lb ft turbodiesel mated to a five-speed manual transmission, however, this one will set you back £17,990, the price rising to £19,330 with the addition of such tit-bits as a panoramic sunroof, a trim upgrade and self-parking proclivities. 

Within a thesis-worthy interior – the forensics of which we’ll gleefully fall upon next time – standard equipment levels at ‘Flair’ grade are respectably high. Knobs and knockers are in short supply, though, because a 7in touchscreen interface accesses everything from automatic air conditioning and satellite navigation to DAB radio and Bluetooth phone connectivity. However, if it does not wish to be wrenched from its mounting and lobbed disdainfully under the wheels of a passing artic, the latter had better buck up its ideas and connect the missus’s phone, pronto.

In size terms, I’m not sure the Cactus merits C4 status; C3.5 would, perhaps, be more apposite. But the hooligans have been so busy complaining about the lack of properly opening rear windows in a four-door car that they have yet to adjudicate on anything else. The evil-smelling dog will, however, assuredly prove something of a tight fit.

The Citroën counteracts what I feel is a slightly stiff asking price with a kerb weight of only 1225kg. This might just allow the sub-100bhp powerplant to shift it at velocities greater than those requiring painstaking scientific techniques to measure. It should also prove a boon to fuel consumption, though – same as it ever was – the average is currently reading 30mpg less than that quoted.

I’m rather looking forward to the next six months. The Cactus is a sufficiently interesting proposition that I suspect even the dog will find something to say about it. Whether what we have here represents genuine innovation or mere appliqué quirkiness, however, remains to be seen.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

CAR's Anthony ffrench-Constant meets his new Citroen C4 Cactus

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