We took a Citroen C4 Picasso on a 186 mile trip. It does one thing better than an Opel Zafira. We’ll come to that later….
Editor’s note: To mark the recent announcement that Citroën are to discontinue the (now-named) Grand C4 Spacetourer this July, we mark its passing by revisiting this exhaustive DTW research report, first published on 22 September 2015.
There’s so much wrong with this car. Ahead of you are 2,158 words, almost none of them complimentary.
Launched in 2013, the C4 Picasso is a car that I am sure you have all seen on the school run. It has seven seats and an electrically powered tailgate. DTW took charge of a C4 Picasso with the express intention of seeing how it coped with three adults and two children. Normally I would structure a review like this along the lines of a general description, design, engineering, driving, comfort and conclusion. That general ordering assumes that all of those things are of equal value and you’d want to read them in that sequence. I will dispense with that and focus on the aspect that occupied most of my attention, the driver interfaces.
The driver interfaces
Yes, those driver interfaces. They can be placed into two categories; one, the primary mechanical controls for driving and two, the other controls for HVAC, navigation and the sound system. We can dispense with the former by saying the following: it is anonymous, with light steering and snatchy brakes. The gearshift mostly played by the rules but occasionally caught me out, so I jammed it into first in a panic. Getting away smoothly from standstill often caused a lurch. In fact, I must note that when I first tried to set off, I was foxed by the electric parking brake. I prodded and pulled the tab for quite some time before casting around for inspiration. I saw a little instruction on the upper display telling me to press the foot-brake pedal if I wanted to release the parking brake. If instructions are needed, the design has failed.
I needed to press the clutch pedal to get the engine to start. There was a prompt on the panel for this as well.
The secondary controls provide more interest. They reveal how out of touch Citroën is on matters of haptics, ergonomics and graphic design. And if you can’t manage those, you should not be in the business of designing car control systems.
Citroën has dispensed with the usual dials and typical means of presentation of speed and engine activity. Screen-based controls are cheaper and easier to engineer, I suppose. They have provided two screens, providing both the visual information and also the means to control the car’s ancillaries. One screen is set under a huge canopy on the top of the dashboard that makes you think the glove box lid is open. Another screen is at mid-level, which you use in an attempt to control the HVAC, radio and the satellite navigator genie.
Citroën’s designers opted to put the HVAC controls in a sub-menu on the main screen. That’s beyond wrong. Hence, you need to press a button by the side of the screen to get to the HVAC menu. The haptics of these buttons are reminiscent of a Sinclair ZX80 key-board, with pressure sensors under a flexible skin. Then you need to sort out which of four black-and-white columns you want; the outer pair for temperature, or the inner pair for fan speed. Some colour here might have helped. You have to really ‘read’ the columns to understand them. Take a look at the photo below to see what you think.
To change the fan speed and outlet channel (face, feet or window) can require more than ten button pushes. The first is to activate the HVAC menu, then you need as many as nine stabs to reduce the fan speed to zero or increase it from zero to the required level. I tried this on the motorway and, when I was done, I realised I had simply stopped actively concentrating on the driving for an indeterminate period of time.
This system is hazardous and, for this reason alone, I would be unable to recommend this car to anyone. It doesn’t matter that the demisting function is powerful and effective. Finding it means you risk either a) stopping suddenly to focus on the controls or, b) you crash while looking for the controls and operating them. With three rotary dials you can turn on maximum demist with three identical gestures: twist for demist, twist for maximum heat and twist for maximum air-flow. The button-and-screen option is an ergonomic mess.
After this, the rest of the car’s unsatisfactory characteristics are petty but numerous.
The speedometer is unreadable when strong sunlight falls on it. The screen becomes a grey blank. When you can read it, you have speed indicated in two ways. Both are wrong; ever changing digits and a re-creation of the then-cute 1970s Citroën ribbon dial, where the needle stays fixed and the numbers rotate past as the speed changes. I didn’t see the engine speed displayed. If I have to choose this option from a menu somewhere, then I feel the car is not telling me what I want to know.
Opel’s Insignia and one of Audi’s SUVs (the Q7?) also have an electrically operated tailgate. This feature is a vast waste of time. There is one instance where it is useful: you are approaching the car from a distance and want to open the boot, so you use the key fob’s plipper to start the process.
It takes a long time to open. Closing it cannot be effected by pressing the same button on the plipper. You instead need to press a button on the tailgate. I resorted to forcing it shut because I did not want to wait the ten seconds for the thing to close. In most circumstances, the electrical tailgate is slow and that will provide more units of annoyance than can counterbalance the units of fun derived from the automatic opening process.
The devil is in other details too. When you press the buttons that operate the roof lamps, the whole mounting in which they are set flexes, since it is not fastened to the metal of the roof but to the headliner, which is soft.
Architects have a pretentious word for how something is shaped to give it expression: articulation. An example of this is, when you design a door-way on the façade of a building, you shape it to draw attention to it. This could be a moulding, the use of a distinctive colour or an interruption of the patterns surrounding the door. The message is: I am a door, come over here and walk in this way. Turning to the dashboard of the C4 Picasso, the hole into which you must jab the ‘key’ is not articulated. Here is a photo:
That’s just a hole with a PVC sheet to keep dust out. It needs to have a bezel of a different colour to highlight it. Citroën’s designers did not give this important element of the dashboard expression, but instead spent a lot of time shaping this meaningless Zaha Hadid-style landscape, which is supposed to be read as two interlocking masses; the dark shapes of the cowl and the light shapes of the rest. You can’t see it in the photos and only dimly perceive it when faced with it in real life.
I could not get the cruise control to work the second time. Odd that. Every other car has a button labelled ‘cruise control on/off’. Not the C4 Picasso. I could see the button to pause the control and pause the speed limiter. I could find the button to increase the speed or decrease it. But, having accidentally operated the systems on day one, I failed to get it to work again the second day of the test.
The test car had seven seats. In the name of research, I unfolded the rear most two seats and concluded that no child would want to sit in them for more than ten minutes. The middle seats were easily rolled forward, but hard to fold flat. I think this kind of operation should be blindingly easy. And if it’s not, the engineers have failed.
Some good details that don’t hang together is my summary. Having spent so long talking about the HVAC, I don’t feel the aesthetics matter all that much. The topological relationship to the means of construction is impossible to comprehend, particularly with respect to the grey-coloured A-pillar to C-pillar component. I call this meaningless difference. This could have been a nicely styled car, but over-egging the omelette took place. It lacks restraint, which ruins the effect of the rather clever grille/lamp feature and the neat rear aspect, for example.
Looking on the bright side.
Big boot – yes. The driver’s seat offered good comfort. The rear passenger volunteered that the car was very comfortable too. The interior lamps had a nice tone to the them. I noticed the lack of a centre arm-rest, however. DTW might be the world’s least influential motoring site, but I can still ask for a centre arm-rest on all long-distance cars. Sitting with your arm hanging for four hours is not very pleasant. There is a reason armchairs have two armrests and skimping on them just because the car has moving seats is a dumb convention.
This staggered me. The C4 Picasso gets 34mpg. My 25 year-old petrol 2.0-litre four-pot gets 32mpg when driven the same way as I drove the Picasso. Sure, the Picasso can go quickly: I found myself doing 95mph without noticing. However, mostly I stuck to 70mph or less and drove like I was driving the Pope. 34mpg is very, very poor in these circumstances. We usually offer to put fuel consumption in perspective by estimating how many times you’d have to refuel if you drove from Calais to Cap Ferrat. This time I won’t bother.
This is a fairly damning review, no? I didn’t like this car, and its plush ride and rear-view camera were not enough to sway me. There was no CD player – did I mention that? The C4 Picasso is a four-cylinder nullity with a frustrating and nigh-on-dangerous HVAC control system that in no way outperforms three twirly dials. The costly and heavy electrically powered tailgate sums up this ill-conceived gadget-fest. It does nothing better and nearly everything worse.
The C4 is, it says in my notes: a badly performing digital interface encrusted by an over-styled car. The essence of the car’s mechanics is anonymity. What might have been a smooth, spacious cruiser is a constellation of annoyances. Locally, there is the evident expenditure of talent, but utterly wasted, allied as it all is to so many woeful mis-steps. This is quite the worst car I have driven in about six years.
But wait! I said there was one thing it did better than the Opel Zafira. That is that the air vent vanes on the dashboard are good, solid and smooth-acting. They were very nicely engineered and very solidly made. The Opel’s have a rubbery quality. There: the Citroën C4 Picasso has class-leading air vent vanes.