Citroën’s attempt to return some flair to its C-segment contender.
Of all automotive marques, Citroën used to be the most difficult to pigeonhole. While its competitors happily (or resignedly) occupied their clearly defined or evolved positions(1) in the automotive hierarchy, Citroën somehow managed to design, build and sell simple, utilitarian vehicles like the 2CV alongside technical marvels like the SM without causing confusion or consternation amongst their widely divergent customers. Sadly, the company’s iconoclastic and sometimes chaotic approach to product planning eventually saw it threatened with bankruptcy, and it fell into the hands of Peugeot, its staunchly conservative French rival.
Following the 1974 takeover, Citroënistes were quick to express concerns that the accountants who ran Peugeot (both the company and its cars) would neuter Citroën and rob it of its individuality and charm in a quest to achieve the financial stability that had long evaded the marque. However, the first(2) proper fruit of the union, the 1978 Citroën Visa, assuaged many of those concerns. While based on the platform of the Peugeot 104, it was a quirky and interesting enough car to pass as a genuine product of the Quai de Javel and sold well.
Time passed and the long-running Citroën GS finally ran out of road in 1986. There followed a four-year hiatus during which time Citroën had no C-segment hatch to offer, until the launch of the ZX in 1991. This was a disappointingly conventional looking car, but it was rescued from mediocrity by being unusually well built (for a Citroën) and sharing the underpinnings of the Peugeot 306, which gave it a class-leading combination of handling and ride.
The ZX’s successor, however, was a dud. PSA had, for some reason, decreed that Citroën should be positioned as a value offering alongside its (marginally) more prestigious Peugeot stablemate. The 1997 Xsara was a product of this policy and was widely derided by the UK automotive press for its stylistic blandness. It was the automotive equivalent of woodchip wallpaper: functional but entirely lacking in charisma or appeal. It still sold well enough on the back of heavy discounting and cheap finance deals, but it did lasting damage to Citroën’s reputation.
When the time came to replace the Xsara, Citroën decided to inject some desperately needed style into the mix. The 2004 C4 was offered in two distinct versions, a five-door hatchback with a distinctive beetle-backed arched roofline and corresponding side DLO, and a three-door coupé with a sharply truncated Kamm-style tail and a unique(3) L-shaped tailgate with split rear glass, the vertical element of which was bookended by high-set tail lights. While the coupé was probably the more striking design, both models shared an unusual extreme cab-forward stance(4) that required the shut-line at the leading edge of the front door to be scribed around the trailing edge of the front wheel arch.
The in-house design team behind the C4 was led by Jean-Pierre Ploué(5) and included Bertrand Rapate and Donato Coco, an Italian designer who would go on to work for Ferrari. There were plenty of pleasing details to take in. On the five-door, there was a subtle waistline crease that began with a concentric arc following the curve of the front wheel arch and ended in a sharp uptick beneath the rear quarter window. The angle of this uptick was neatly repeated in the wing to bumper panel gap and upper edge of the rear light cluster.
On the coupé, the uptick at the trailing edge of the long rear side window was mirrored by the leading edge of the tail light cluster, creating a distinctive swept back C-pillar. The extreme forward positioning of the tailgate hinges allowed the opening to be deeper and more practical than would otherwise be the case, and the second (roof) glass, although it did little for rear visibility, allowed more light into the rear cabin.
Both models shared a bold and confident front end, with a minimalist slot grille formed by two chrome bars incorporating the double chevron logo at its centre, bookended by large upswept geometric headlamps. Thick practical side rubbing strips were neatly integrated into the bottom edges of the doors. The five-door and coupé were not only distinctive looking but also had impressive Cd figures of 0.29 and 0.28 respectively.
Inside, there was a welcome return to Citroën individuality with a fixed hub in the centre of the steering wheel containing the controls for the audio, telephone, sat nav and cruise control (with other secondary controls on conventional stalks). The dashboard was interestingly minimalist, with instruments split between a wide high-set central LCD screen and a smaller display in front of the driver.
There were four fuel-injected petrol engines available, ranging from a 90bhp (67kW) 1.4-litre to a 180bhp (134kW) 2.0-litre. Three HDi turbodiesel engines ranged from a 92bhp (69kW) 1.6-litre to a 136bhp (101kW) 2.0-litre. Transmission was via a five or six-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox. Suspension was the industry norm for the C-segment, McPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear.
Autocar magazine published its first road test of the new C4 in October 2004. In his introduction, the reviewer, Steve Cropley, pondered “how on earth has Citroën managed to produce this mostly excellent, individualistic car in one generational leap from the humdrum, unpromising and totally forgettable Xsara”. Cropley went on to state that the C4 “not only brings a fresh look and a new philosophy to the trench warfare of the Focus-Golf class, but also easily exceeds its Peugeot family equivalent, the 307”.
Cropley was also impressed by the range of technology and safety features on offer, including swivelling headlights, a speed-limiter, tyre pressure warning system, six airbags, laminated glass in the side windows and a radar-activated lane departure alert that vibrated the corresponding side of the driver’s seat cushion, which was rated as “eerily effective”. There was even a perfume dispenser integrated into the ventilation system. The cabin felt spacious, with good headroom and better rear seat knee room than the 307, if less generous than the class-leading Golf or Focus.
The C4’s ride was described as “supple and quiet, and its designers’ emphasis on comfort is obvious” while the steering was “perhaps rather too light when the car is being driven hard”. The C4 was “agile and holds the road well, its neutral stance moving into understeer as cornering speeds rise” although it was “not as agile or sporty as the current Ford Focus or even the latest VW Golf”. Overall, the car was rated as “an impressive start” and an indication that Citroën had “rediscovered its roots with [the] radical C4”.
In truth, Cropley might have been rather overawed by the degree of the C4’s improvement over its dismal predecessor, to the extent that he overlooked some of its shortcomings, such as the underpowered 1.4-litre petrol engine, the narrow front footwells that were awkward for drivers with large feet, or the variable quality of interior plastics. These were only minor negatives, however, and the first was easily avoided. The C4 was a strong seller and total European sales over seven years were 859,659 units(6). The C4 was also sold in saloon form in China and certain South American markets.
The 2004 Citroën C4 was by no means a mould-breaking car, but at least it attempted to bring a modicum of Citroën style and individuality back to the highly conservative C-segment(7). Unfortunately, its replacement, the 2010 model of the same name, reverted to an even more extreme dullness, on this occasion to avoid stealing the limelight from its new DS4 stablemate, a car with superficial glamour but little substance. Both it and the second-generation C4 would be deservedly poor sellers.
(1) At least until the 1990s, when Toyota moved confidently upmarket with Lexus and Mercedes-Benz invaded Volkswagen’s traditional territory, prompting a counter-attack from Wolfsburg.
(2) Ignoring the stop-gap 1976 Citroën LN, a Peugeot 104 coupé with a 2CV engine and makeshift new nose.
(3) Certain Honda models, for example the Accord Aerodeck, did feature something similar back in the 1980s.
(4) This was inherited from the Peugeot 307, with which the C4 shared its platform.
(5) Ploué designed the original 1992 Renault Twingo when he worked for Renault under the leadership of Patrick Le Quément.
(6) Sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(7) Renault attempted to do likewise with the 2002 Megane II, an even more individualistic and polarising design than the C4.