A yellow Cactus in an underground setting sets your correspondent off into futile reveries of austerity motoring.
Towards the latter part of the 1980s, I can recall taking the view that Citroën was missing an opportunity to (in)directly replace the 2CV by introducing a pared-back version of the Visa, powered by the 602cc flat twin and featuring perhaps a full length sunroof. It wouldn’t have been the same as the beloved tin snail of course, but might have extended the life of the concept beyond the point where collision and emissions regulations killed-off the Deuche or any chance of a more sympathetically developed successor.
Now in reality there was probably little real appetite, either within PSA or indeed amongst the buying public at the time to consider such a car, and certainly once the AX model became available, it pretty much mopped up what few French 2CV (and LNA) owners there were left. The AX was thoroughly competent and commendably lightweight, but was, if anything, even more screamingly conventional than the Visa – which at least had the advantage of looking somewhat Citroënesque, not to mention being surprisingly pleasant to drive.
To some extent the Visa-based C15 took on the latter-day deux chevaux mantle, being practical, basic, economical and long lived – production only ceasing in 2005. Citroën’s 1996 Berlingo also could be said to have imbibed a similar spirit, but was perhaps a little too polished and definitely too pricey to truly qualify. Honourable mention as well to Renault’s original Twingo, not to mention the tiny twin-cylinder Aixams and Ligiers, which despite being somewhat more urban-centric in conception, nevertheless developed a loyal following throughout rural France.
And so to the Cactus. It is believed that it was originally intended to be a more basic and simplified car than the version which entered the market in 2014. What necessitated PSA changing tack may have had something to do with PSA’s own highly publicised financial woes earlier this decade, and conceivably a mistaken belief that the post-Eurozone crash market for back-to-basics cars wouldn’t last – a matter Dacia disabused the market of rather comprehensively in the years that followed.
Certainly, the Cactus had within it the hallmarks of a decent back-to-nature Citroën, even if it, like all putative modern-day 2CVs, was utterly conventional beneath the skin. Nevertheless, shorn of some of the more needless fripperies, there would have been a lot to commend a lightweight, practical and roomy car with only the barest of essentials added.
Manual windows, a single three cylinder petrol engine (and one diesel option perhaps), a large (manually operated?) sunroof, a simplified dash and IP – (no touchscreen or needless electronics) and a cheerful, hard wearing cabin ambience. Within this environment, the fold-out rear passenger windows might have been recognised as prudent cost-cutting measures (the 2CV’s equivalents didn’t open at all), rather than the penny-pinching they were (in my view) over-criticised for.
It is of course unclear as to whether the Cactus would have fared better in this form, but I suspect that it might. As Dacia has illustrated, the market for a decent, well executed, basically specified car is a healthy and vibrant one if executed well and given that the Cactus would have enjoyed the additional benefit of its own unique style, it’s possible see how such a car might have found a sustainable corps of customers without requiring a great deal of regular updates.
What I suspect is that PSA management either realised somewhat belatedly that the Cactus’ business case could only be justified at a more expensive price-point, or that it was felt that this direction provided more profit per-unit, given the risks inherent in an unproven offering whose likely volumes could only really be guessed at. Either way, it paid a commercial price for Citroën’s indecision, entering the market as an ill-defined product – neither upmarket enough to justify the optimistic pricing nor austere enough to take on the Dacias of this world.
Contrast with the original 2CV – a car conceived to a clear, concise and rigorously adhered to mission and creative brief, but against that in retrospect, given its expensive mechanical specification, bespoke engine and platform, one has to wonder just how long it must have taken Citroën to have amortized the development costs.
At one time I might have been horrified by the notion of Citroën producing only basic downmarket vehicles – memories of large patrician saloons dying hard – but upon reflection, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to see the double chevron making honest, intelligent, sensible, well thought-out and inexpensive cars again (assuming they were permitted to do so of course) rather than the part-cooked confections they routinely offer now.