Quick Test Drive – Cactus Revisited

Today, Providence has provided me with a chance to drive one of the facelifted C4 Cactii.

2018-citroen-c4-cactus-gets-progressive-hydraulic-cushion-suspension-system-121273_1
Facelifted C4 Cactus – Flatteringly Pictured (Source: Carwitter)

Sorry, yes it’s another article about the Citroën C4 Cactus. I recall there have been a fair few on DTW. Indeed, I wrote an article on the (then) new to the UK, C4 Cactus in September 2014. It was one of the first things I had published here – courtesy of the terrific trio who founded this splendid site.

Today, I dropped the C6 into a local dealer to have DPF additive – erm – added. I will admit that I had a minor thrill when I realised that my courtesy car for the day would be a new-shape Cactus. Hence, I thought I’d write a short review of what I found, whether I liked it any better, and any other thoughts and observations.

Thrill? Well, this car has the first UK application of the Citroën Advanced Comfort programme, which, in the main, manifests via Advanced Comfort Seats and Progressive Hydraulic Cushions (confusingly, the latter is not to do with the seats, but the suspension’s dampers).

It’s the former that you notice first. Step into the car, perch yourself onto the driver’s seat and feel yourself sink what feels like a couple of inches.  The seats really are squidgy and yet supportive. They are far softer than the seats in my C6, which look like they should be sofa-like, but are actually oddly and deceptively unforgiving. I’d say, the Advanced Comfort Seats help set a very early impression that you are about to drive something different and set this Citroën slightly apart from the crowd – which is just as it should be.

int-cam02-metropolitanred-v09-redimensionner
Nice job – love the colour scheme (Source: L’argus)

At this point, it’s worth giving mention to the general ambiance of the interior, as this also helps cement this impression of being in something that marches to a different beat. ‘My’ Cactus came with burgundy and light grey seat fabric and a dash topped with matching soft-feel plastic in burgundy with light grey detailing.

The dash retains the original car’s very original take on what a dash should look like, with the explorer’s trunk-effect design on the passenger side, asymmetric vents (there being only three, with no vent at the passenger door end of the dash), and simple (simplistic?) screen displays for infotainment (slightly off-centre) and ID (directly in front of the driver).

The latter only shows speed and fuel gauges and looks sparse – I know that simplicity was an integral part of the original car’s USP, but now that much of the Cactus has been plushed-up in order to compete more directly with the Golfs and Focii of this world, it looks a bit out of place. I’ll return to this thread a bit later.

2019-Citroen-C4-Cactus-Interior-Changes
Couldn’t find an image with the dash in Burgundy – but it’s still nice enough (Source: Autosuv 2019/2020)

Overall, in my opinion, the revamped interior is rather nice – warm and inviting, which help distract from the hard plastics on the door casings and lower down in the cabin.  I know my daughter would absolutely love it, for example, and it’s the first time I have had that thought about any car interior, so it must be quite far from the norm.

Fire the car up and the 1.2L turbocharged petrol triple bursts into life and settles down to its distant thrum. The clutch is imprecise and fluffy with a high biting point and the 5-speed gearbox is still long-winded, clonky and unsatisfying. These combine to make a smooth take-off from a standstill something of a learned art and one which I failed to master in the relatively few miles and minutes I had at my disposal.

I can’t think of another volume manufacturer which is as poor at consistency of feel and weighting of controls as PSA and Citroën in particular – Ford, VW, Toyota and Hyundai would never let their cars out so encumbered. Once on the move, the engine delivers a nice swell of torque and stays thrummy but quite smooth although getting quite rough at the top end.

The steering wheel is chunky and quartic (maybe the Allegro really was ahead of its time), but the bits to which it is attached make it feel a bit artificial and springy – direct and quite quick ratio’d nevertheless. It’s not an enthusiastic driver’s car, but it’s not meant to be.

This brings me to the suspension. It is with some delight that I can report that the ride is very good for a car of this size and class (depending on which class you think it is in). There is noticeable squat and dive in evidence under swift changes in momentum, but the Cactus really does cushion the ruts and holes in the road.

It’s not oleopneumatic in feel, but it is a very refreshing and pleasant change to almost everything else I have driven in the past 12 months. It’s not that quiet, though, and can’t disguise the very basic underlying set-up of struts and torsion beams.

Coupled with those seats and the cabin ambiance, Citroën’s attempt to make comfort cool is brave and effective. For that, I salute it and Citroën for striking out on its own path.

Turning to the exterior design, I have not changed my mind in thinking that the facelift doesn’t work very well. One can see what they were trying to achieve given that the standard C4 has now effectively been replaced by the Cactus – the overall aim is to take away the quirky bits and create something more conservative in line with the current C3. Put another way, this Cactus is more of the hairy/ fluffy type and less spiky.

Hence, the front fascia has been brought into line with other recent Citroëns and the new bits and pieces seem to add weight to the front of the car.  At the sides, the Cactus-defining Airbumps have shrunk and dropped to the base of the doors where they can have little real benefit in terms of protecting the panels.

The space thus created is filled with feature-lines pressed into the doors, but the visual weight has dropped to the bottom of the flanks and some of that carefully crafted rounded look has been lost with it. For me, the rear is the most ill-treated, with the lamps now extending onto the rear hatch, the Airbump imitating rear plastic panelling banished and the rear bumper losing some of the original’s pertness.

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Furthermore, the unusually styled roof-bars are a standard fitting no more, meaning the Cactus has even lost visual height. Overall, it’s a bit like seeing Gene Simmons without the face-paint – the Cactus has been robbed of its distinctive character. The car looks a bit sad, awkward, and even demeaned – like it was found guilty of being a bit half-hearted as a junior faux-SUV and so it has been stripped of its trappings in some kind of punishment.

With a starting price of around £18,500, the Cactus is now squarely pitched at the bottom end of the Golf class. The thing is that a lot of the penny-pinching which I described over four years ago is still there: the headlamps are pathetic; the controls for the door mirrors and headlamp level adjustment are not illuminated (and given they are tucked away to the right of the steering wheel (on RHD) it makes them a fumble to locate at night); the rear windows still only pop open; there are no grab handles; there’s no clutch foot-rest; etc.

The Cactus can’t shake off the impression that it’s a car from the class below being asked to punch above its weight. Much as I like aspects of it in isolation, overall, it suffers in comparison with pretty well everything with which it competes.

In addition, a walk around the Citroën showroom reveals that the revised Cactus also suffers at the hands of its siblings. The C3 Aircross is the real junior faux-SUV in the range now and is much more convincing in terms of fitting the brief dimensionally and stylistically. To add insult, Citroën has left the C3 Aircross bereft of Airbumps – although it does also lack the soft seats and trick dampers of the new Cactus.

It’s clear that the Aircross is the more instantly attractive and appealing model, and so it is proving with the C3 Aircross now being the marque’s second biggest seller in the UK (the letter-keys stick on my keyboard to report that, commercially speaking, Citroën was right to replace the C3 Picasso with the Aircross).

Cactus 2014
How its designer intended it – conceptually pure (Source: Sunday Times Driver)

I conclude that the revised C4 Cactus has found itself dumped in the market equivalent of nowhere land. No surprise, then, that the courtesy car fleet is made up entirely of facelifted Cactii as the dealer is forced to pre-register to hit its sales targets. In isolation, I liked the C4 Cactus and literally breathed a sigh of relief when I sampled those seats, experienced that suspension and took in the cabin’s ambiance. But the facelift takes away at least as much as it gives to the original car. On the one hand, the Citroën has reconnected an aspect of its DNA, on the other, the Cactus has lost its identity.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

16 thoughts on “Quick Test Drive – Cactus Revisited”

  1. Thanks for that. I like the seating´s form and the colour and trim options could lead one to think someone at PSA was reading DTW.
    Priceswise 18K is steep for this car. A base model Golf costs 14K and and I see a Zetec Focus is 19k. Is it possible the Cactus could be said to compete also with more expensive superminis, where the quality deficit might not be so apparent?

    1. I see where you are going with the ‘expensive supermini’ thing. First, that’s not where Citroën itself is positioning this car. Second, the overall interior quality is not good enough to compare with, say, an A1 or MINI. Third, there is the problem with the exterior design – I think one could have argued that the original Cactus stood a chance, and that car was priced much more keenly – I note that at launch in 2014 one could buy a Cactus, albeit with a lower powered engine) for under £13,000. Of course, no one is going to have to pay that much … I noted in the showroom that even the more popular C3 Aircross had sticker prices shouting the fact that the dealer had taken over £4k off the list price on two of the cars in stock (from £19k).

      My, aren’t cars expensive these days?

    2. Yes, that´s something I did not figure, as to how literally to take the price. Still, it explains where Citroen see the car.
      Cars are stupidly costly. Unless I went for a lease I would not be able to afford a new car apart from a C1-type vehicle. That´s life in Denmark for you. Many who do have bigger vehicles are up to their eyes in debt. Denmark has a huge private debt problem.

  2. Thanks for this review, SV. I haven’t had the opportunity for a test drive yet, as my last courtesy car was a C1 (making me enjoy one of the last warm autumn days with open folding roof).

    It’s nice to hear that the advanced comfort features actually work, and I also congratulate Citroën for their choice of interior ambiances (not only on the Cactus, but also in the rest of their line-up). Too bad that here it’s presented in an unconvincing and too compromised package. I understand the intention to de-SUV the car now the C3 Aircross is here and the actual C4 has to be replaced, but it shouldn’t make its supermini roots so obvious. Regarding the restyling, I’m totally with you. It takes away too much of the Cactus’s character without really succeeding in making the car look more substantial. The faux air vents in the rear bumper are just pathetic, and for me they would be a reason to choose a dark colour for this car.

  3. The Cactus is a refreshing car, and it’s not so ridiculous to see it as a descedent of the 2CV – it’s light, reasonably spacious and capable of travelling over rough roads without too much complaint.

    But they made some very odd decisions which have compromised its function. Most notably, as a family car, the lack of proper opening rear windows is just bizarre. Any parent will know how much kids like the option of opening their own window. I also wonder how well this new suspension works for rear seat passengers.

    So flawed, but I hope they don’t abandon the concept.

    1. Jacomo – I actually think that the face-lift demonstrates that they have already abandoned the ‘Cactus’ concept. If it was not so obvious as to where the revised car started its life/ gestation, I think they would have just called it a ‘C4’. I will be amazed if the car’s replacement makes any reference to any kind of succulent.

  4. No more succulents, S.V? That’s a pity. I quite like the idea of a Citröen Kalanchoe or a Citröen Echeveria. Seriously, it’s a shame that Citröen has watered down the Cactus concept. It was by no means perfect, but I think Citröen was really onto something with a friendly, unaggressive car that would appeal to drivers who find the automotive industry’s obsession with 0-100kph and Nurburgring lap times very off putting. The 2CV was the antithesis of such thinking, and was loved for it.

  5. While it does seem a pity that Citroen has elected to de-spike the Cactus, one can at least understand their dilemma. The C4 had to go. It was awful. The next gen C4 is some way off, owing to issues, one assumes, of money, of brand hierarchy and of platform development. The double chevron, of all people, ought to understand the repercussions of being unrepresented in the market – I refer you to the gap between the demise of the XM and the advent of the C6, by way of illustration.

    Better perhaps to have an ill-defined, marginal product on sale than no product at all and risk losing the market entirely. No huge cheerleader for Citroen’s current management am I, but I don’t really see what else they could have done under the circumstances. Mind you, I would perhaps have retained a spiker version for those customers who liked the original…

    1. You are probably right, it just seems a shame that it’s the Cactus and it’s concept that seems to have been the stooge for another car’s failings (the tepid, damp and dullllllllllll C4).

    2. …. and be priced so high as to have ideas above its station makes you wonder if Citroen management haven’t missed a trick in retaining a spiker one indeed. Rover 200 anyone?

  6. Some of the other proposals for the Airbumps were really out there:

    https://ibb.co/j4yqJV
    https://ibb.co/nO2HyV
    https://ibb.co/gja9Cq
    https://ibb.co/dBykkA
    https://ibb.co/i4Lbsq
    https://ibb.co/fE20JV
    https://ibb.co/mC3UCq
    https://ibb.co/iRKVJV

    For me, on top of the other potential reasons cited for its relative failure on the market, its apparent cheapness might be a big reason. Customers are now use to well put together vehicles, even for a cheap price and in my opinion the Cactus just doesn’t look well put together . Externally and internally. Regardless of its design merits.

    I think the final car might have been rescued from a project that would have been a lot more basic and rudimentary, in the same vein as the original Cactus Concept-car. I believe at the time, Citroën was thinking of splitting its range in two, just like Peugeot), with one of the Citroën range dubbed “Essentiel” and geared towards the low-cost end of the market. If you remember, the Citroen Elysee and Peugeot 301 were the first (and last) example of that strategy which explained the odd naming scheme, in particular for the Peugeot but the thinking at the time was that all Peugeots that were part of the “low cost” range were to end in 01 while the posh Peugeots would adopt the 08 ending. For Citroen it was rumoured that the cars in the cheap range would have the E suffix and the upper Citroens the C suffix (E3/C3 for ex.) God knows what happened to that strategy but to me the Cactus feels like a last-minute re-thinking of a completely different car: the oddly ‘classy’ dashboard with its brown leather , strap handle and neat details is jarring among the cheap plastic and rudimentary architecture for example.

    1. I’m sure that I am not the only person wondering if I could retro-fit the new seats and springy bits into a pre-facelift car….

    2. Hi Adrian,

      Interesting question. Apparently not according to Xavier Peugeot. Well at least without it being complicated but he would say that wouldn’t he ? From 27.38 in the video:

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