Approach the new Citroen C4 for the first time, as I did the other day, and you’re presented with a surprisingly smart hatchback with a softened soap-bar quality and a rare, look-at-me vibe. You won’t see many around, since Citroen only sold 15,500 C4s last year (in its run-out year). Put that in context: Volkswagen flogged 58,000 Golfs, Ford 78,000 Focuses and Vauxhall 81,000 Astras. You’ll stand out in one of these.
What price exclusivity? You can argue all you like about the finer points of supply and demand, but after spending some days in the C4 I’m left thinking here’s a refreshing mid-sized hatch in a class that’s become homogenised. It’s far from perfect, but an interesting choice nonetheless.
What’s the new Citroen C4 like inside?
Equally alternative, if not quite as smart as the class best. Which in my view is cars such as the VW Golf (quality of finishings) and Volvo C30 (freshness and clarity of design, an over-riding cabin minimalism). Don’t get me wrong: the C4 isn’t wobbly and brittle like French cars of yore; it actually feels well built and there’s a pleasing level of detail such as the rubberised feel of the heating controls.
There’s certainly a pot pourri of influences in here. The HVAC ventilation controls bear a passing resemblence to Volvo’s seal-balancing-a-ball design; there’s a Saab-influenced black-out display to concentrate on the speedo at night; the Lexussy fluorescent dials flip between Golfy blue and a cool white at the touch of a switch; and there are more boings and beeps than your average Japanese car.
More worrying is the space inside. Front-seat passengers will be fine, but we found rear legroom and space for feet poor. Slot two childseats in the back and it feels positively cramped compared with the roomy Golf. Rear headroom’s fine though. The bootlip is very deep and our car’s optional Denon stereo brings an sub-woofer that snaffles a good handspan from the right-hand side of the boot.
There’s no mistaking the technology on offer. The new C4 has plenty of gadgets not long ago the preserve of executive models. Ours had leather, excellent massaging front seats, blindspot monitors and a fancy sat-nav. Yep, it was absolutely loaded in the best press car tradition.
Do we rue the loss of the fixed steering wheel boss, a quirky, typically French detail on the last C4? Not the most ground-breaking innovation in Citroen’s long history, but it was a stand-out feature in a class increasingly alike. And the new C4’s wheel is absolutely festooned with switchgear; we counted 16 buttons on ours.
And what’s the new 2011 Citroen C4 like to drive?
There’s a blissfully simple fly-off electric parking brake (can’t be long now until the death of the humble handbrake) and we’re off, clutching a Germanic flat-bottomed wheel. Almost immediately, poor front visibility manifests itself, thanks to those chunky A-pillars. Only really a problem at roundabouts or sharp junctions, but an annoyance nonetheless.
First impressions are of a really fast hatch; a 8.6sec sprint to 62mph confirms this is snapping a the heels of warm hatchbacks. Our C4 on test is the most powerful 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel and it simply flies around at most speeds in most gears. Thank the 218lb ft of torque that slingshots the modest one-and-a-half-tonne mass around at will – it’s a muscular, smooth and typically French turbodiesel. Your accountant will nod approvingly at the claimed 57mpg and 130g/km of CO2 too.
And through the corners?
Rather more disappointing is the quality of the chassis control, which lets the side down. We associate French cars, and Citroens in particular, with a fluidity of travel across all manner of road surfaces and the C4 – in this particular spec – does not manage that.
On big 17-inch wheels, our Citroen C4 bounces around on cross-country roads and feels disconcertingly loose. It’s better on M-ways and longer, more flowing, high-speed roads, but on many British highways it proves downright bumpy. Ride quality is often overlooked these days for corner carving, but this car is crying out for a softer, more supple drive. Perhaps a lesser equipped C4 on the smaller 16in rims would float better.
The C4 is a solid effort, and one that deserves a look. The style is refreshingly pleasing and it’ll cut a dash in business car parks hogged by the more mainstream choices.
Although ours is the most expensive C4 at a punchy £21,495 in Exclusive trim, the C4 range starts at £15,595 for a 1.4 VTR. That’s £1500 more than the cheapest Astra 1.4 but £700 less than the equivalent Golf and £400 below the brand spanking new Focus; evidence suggests that Citroen dealers aren’t averse to the odd haggle, even if the days of the heavy-handed cashbacks are now a memory.
You’d probably buy a C4 for its alternative style, good value and spec galore. Sadly you won’t choose it for interior space, ride comfort (at least not equipped with 17in wheels) or thrills. Which means the C4 will play second fiddle to the class best.
It’s a good effort, but you'd be deliberately veering away from the mainstream choices and heading down Leftfield Boulevard.