I became the first person at the dealership near to where I work to test drive a Cactus, to the extent that the car itself was in a pre-pre-delivery state and had 1 mile on the clock when we set off in it.
The salesman (like policemen, they all look young to me these days) seemed bemused that the owner of a C6 might be thinking about “downsizing” to a Cactus (which I suppose is understandable), but he humoured me, nevertheless.
Seeing the Cactus in the context of the showroom emphasised some things about its size and proportions. It’s not a tall car (the C3 and C4 alongside it were both taller), and yet it has raised ground clearance. It’s a small car – much smaller than it looks on paper/ screen – and has a nice stance. However, it’s a car that makes a big, if slightly busy, visual impression. The combination of Airbumps, sill/ wheel arch extenders and those stylised roof rails almost overwhelms the car, but it’s just about saved (to my eyes) by otherwise plain and simple surfacing. You can also delete those roof-bars gratuit, which I believe would take away some of that fussiness, although it would also dilute the original concept look. I think “the nose” is a minor triumph, but the rear is a little out of sorts, with the rear lamps being slightly too small. The car is also very colour sensitive, and looks under-wheeled in anything less than the top-line 17” alloys. There were three examples at the dealership: a “Feel” in “Hello Yellow” (the only no-extra-cost colour) with black Airbumps (also no-extra-cost) and 16” “anthracite, square” alloys – a look that did nothing for me at all; a “Flair” in Pearl White (£730) with “Chocolate” Airbumps (£150) and 17” “diamond-cut, cross” alloys – which was lovely (and is the most common combo you see in the press); and a “Flair” in “Deep Purple” (£250 even though it’s “flat”/ non-metallic), black Airbumps, white roof rails (£50), white door-mirror caps (£50) and the same alloys – a look which grew on me (although not the white detailing) and was the car I drove.
Walk up to the car, pull the handle and the lightweight build is immediately apparent as the door swings open with no effort at all. Inside “Deep Purple”, I was presented with the Purple Highlight Pack (much nicer than it sounds), which means black and purple seats (reminiscent of black current – liquorice hard-boiled sweets) and a nice dark purple dash. In fact, the upper-dash is a triumph and probably the most successful aspect of the car. It’s very clean, stripped, and yet gives a sense of style with a touch of luxury. There’s some wit in the graphics on the main instrument panel straight ahead, and I liked the touch-screen. Some writers have moaned that it’s not as slick as an iPad, and that it’s a bit of a fiddle going through the menus just to adjust the heater/ fan, and they have a point in each instance, but, it did not bother me on my brief drive and I found it all quite fun. There is no CD-player, just ports for iPods, USBs, and the like, which would be an inconvenience to me (another reminder on this test drive about how old I am becoming). There is no vent for the passenger at the end of the dash, which is either endearlingly eccentric or a bit tight-fisted depending on your view. Below the eye-line, it’s a wee bit fussy, and opportunities have been missed to add cubbies and storage. My old AX, and our current Xsara Picasso shame it on this front. The only annoyance to me was the fact that, even on this top-line model, there was no “one-touch” feature for the electric windows, not even for the driver; why not go the whole hog and just fit little handles that you have to twirl around by hand? What this underlines is that some of the de-contenting is aimed at reducing production costs rather than weight. Further evidence of this is in the lack of upper seat-belt adjustability, the lack of reach adjustment for the (oddly shaped, but nice in the hands) steering wheel, and, the now well documented pop-out rear windows and one-piece folding rear bench. On the latter, I read one journalist describe this as an innovation, but, given remember the ballyhoo made by BL at the launch of the miniMetro when it introduced the asymmetrically split rear seat, surely this must be a more of a dis-innovation.
Space inside is remarkable for a car this size these days, and the sense of it is even greater. The rear is a little boring for its occupants, faced with those rear windows and a lot of hard-moulded black plastic – only the little cloth door cushions and nice deep pockets providing relief. I’d say the panoramic roof (£395) is a must for the avoidance of the doldrums setting in out-back.
Overall, I really liked the interior, but that sense of penny pinching in the details took away some of the shine.
Setting off, one instantly notices the super-light, “stiction-free” steering (although it was direct and made the car feel very agile) at parking speeds, the heaviness of the clutch, and the usual long throw, rather floppy and imprecise PSA manual gear change. Now, I know the car was very new, and I got used to it very quickly, but this car’s ‘change was worse than my wife’s Xsara Picasso (now 8 year’s old). Moreover, 20-odd years ago, I owned a new AX 11RE that had one of the best ‘changes (albeit was a 4 speed) of any car I have owned. So precisely when did PSA thus ruin a perfectly excellent gearbox? The diesel engine is fine; quite refined and lugs the lightweight Cactus around rather lustily. I’d like to try the 1.2, 3 cylinder petrol turbo for comparison (I have driven the non-turbo in a C3 courtesy car and found it a bit loud and thrummy, but charming), but the diesel will make for a super-frugal (60+ MPG must be pretty nailed-on) motor suited to my 25k+ p.a. mileage.
Down the road, over a few roundabouts and onto the country lanes between Banbury and Southam, and the Cactus was pleasingly eager, rode very nicely (very tight damping and body control over a soft-ish set up, not sloppy though), and I found it light on its feet, chuckable and responsive to the helm. The suspension, being very simple in design and engineering terms, does get caught out over ridges and pot holes, crashing somewhat. The steering feel weights up with speed, which feels a bit artificial, but I really took to the direct and light-but-connected feel of it at lower speeds. The overall sensation is control and lightness, an impression reinforced by my drive home afterward in the C6 which felt loping, elastic, and incredibly heavy by comparison (which it is, of course – the moon probably weighs less than a C6).
The Cactus is acceptably quiet. I had feared that, being based on a C3 Picasso and built to a low cost and weight spec, there would be little sound deadening, but it was not too bad. The car does not sound tinny, but the engine and road noise comes into the cabin with a damped but hard sound, not soft and muffled (the C6 spoils me in this regard; and, yes, I know that’s not a fair comparison). I did not drive quickly enough to truly test wind noise. I know it was a brand new car, but it felt very well built; nothing squeaked or graunched or rattled. Fit and finish inside and out was very good – the body panel gaps are superbly tight and, in this respect, PSA has advanced massively. The driver’s seat was firmly squidgy and supportive, although there is a strange ramp at the rear of the cushion where it abuts the seatback which felt – erm – unnatural and proved a distraction to my enjoyment. The driving position is a bit off-centre and the gear lever set a bit low and far back – I think the interior design is conceived for the installation of the ETG autobox (one can only have the much discussed, full “bench seat” effect with this option), although, from a driving perspective, that’s not an appealing option, even allowing for the failings of the manual highlighted earlier.
So, I enjoyed my test drive. I found the car better than expected in some places (the ride-handling balance), disappointing in others (gearbox). Overall the interior is appealing, but it’s uneven in the details. Overall, I walked away feeling a bit empty about the Cactus, so why was that?
I think some of my doubt relates to the way the car is being marketed. I left the dealership with a nagging concern that it may actually end up being a commercial failure when it first seemed so close to being a nailed-on winner. The car looks quirky, and I really like it, but I’m not the average buyer of a car like this. I dislike the Juke with a passion, but I can see that it has a chunky funkiness that many (women?!) find chic, and helps it to sell in huge amounts in the UK. I’m not convinced the Cactus’s visual quirkiness will translate into that appealing funkiness. Furthermore, by restricting the number of colour combinations allowed in terms of mix of paint, air-bump and interior, the prospective buyer is denied the chance to really personalise the car and create something bespoke (if you want Chocolate Airbumps and Habana (brown) interior then you have to order Pearl White or Arctic Steel – when I really think it would work best with Blue Lagoon). This is what really sells this kind of car, especially one that can boast such concept-like visual presence.
Furthermore, the real-world pricing is much higher than it first looks. I think that once the average punter goes into a showroom and sees a Flair with a Habana or Purple interior, non-black Airbumps and the improvement that the panoramic roof makes, then they are not going to want to settle for anything less. Thus specc’d, a Cactus costs a smidgen short of £20,000 (and no discounts available as yet). That’s just too much for a car that, even with every gadget, carries the whiff of penny-pinching in the details. It blunts the Cactus’s claimed key selling point of providing affordable and low-cost motoring. I reckon I might feel a bit silly admitting to people that my fun little car cost more than their much more sophisticated, better engineered, more rounded Golf/ Mazda 3/ Focus, etc., or more fun-to-drive Fiesta ST, Mini Cooper S, etc. I know that those cars are not seen as being true rivals to the Cactus, but they absolutely are in price terms.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the car and it drove well enough, but I found out that I like the idea of it more. From an enthusiast’s perspective, it is not (yet – at least) a redefinition of Citroen-ness, and it certainly bears no comparison with the GS, 2CV, Ami, etc. I guess I felt that the Cactus was too cynical in its conception. It’s bog-ordinary in its engineering specification, and although I think that there is a little magic in the way the chassis engineers have got struts and torsion beams to work, it’s not enough to make it a really interesting drive. But beyond that, the thing that really attracted me to the car in the first place was the idea that it had been engineered to keep weight down at all costs – instead, I think that concept has been weighed down by a drive to keep production costs down at all costs.
I really wish the car well, and the Press (not just the volume Motoring Press) certainly seems to have got behind it (I think PSA needs to understand that there is a lot of goodwill for this marque in the big bad world), so I hope some of my doubts are proved wrong; but, for me, the Cactus was just pleasantly disappointing.