CITROEN likes to think it has always pioneered ground-breaking automotive design. The problematic word is ‘always’, because while the dynamic
French brand has been responsible for iconic, innovative and inspiring designs, it has nevertheless traded loosely on its achievements for many years.
Sure, it made the 2CV, the Traction Avant and the original DS — recently voted by a panel of designers as the most beautiful car ever — but it has made many duds, too.
Though Citroën thinks ‘outside the box’,
it is constrained, like every other car manufacturer, by practicalities, such as public taste, necessity and, from a purist’s point of view, that most ugly word: profitability.
So, its more ambitious projects get watered down.
When they attempt the unusual, the net result is little more than skin deep; true innovation, on which Citroen built its reputation, is little in evidence.
Occasionally, though, Citroen’s heritage shines through, even if it seems their best ideas have been condemned to 15 minutes of fame as a concept at some show or other.
Indeed, many people thought that latter scenario was the fate of the Cactus, an extraordinary and fantastical eco-car concept we first saw at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show.
The Cactus was one of the stand-outs of that event and became one of the most talked about concept cars of my memory.
Originally conceived as a car made from recyclable materials and with a hybrid, diesel drivetrain, the Cactus was as wild and funky as anything anyone had come up with in years.
That it looked to be nearly production-ready made it even more intriguing.
But it has taken seven long years for the Cactus to go into production, but now that it is with us, it is fantastic to see that Citroën has — largely — stuck with the original plan and built a car which is hugely refreshing, original and unique.
Indeed, no car in a while has attracted the same level of public interest and comment as the Cactus. Although nominally considered a regular C-Segment contender — along with the Focus, Golf, et al — and built on the same platform as other Citroën contenders (C3 and DS3), the Cactus defies categorisation within normally acceptable boundaries.
Not only does it not look like anything else in the class, it doesn’t look in any way conventional.
The biggest talking point for many observers are the ‘Airbump’ door inserts, which prevent the usual bumps and scratches caused by contact with other cars in multi-storey car parks and day-to-day living.
These plastic inserts are a very simple idea, but they dramatically alter the visual landscape of the Cactus and have allowed the designers produce what is essentially a two-tone car, and one that buyers can order in a variety of relatively normal, or completely garish, colours. Add in a very rounded design, which is characterised by ‘eyebrow’ LED front lights, the wonderfully rakish roof rails, the 17” diamond-cut cross-alloy wheels, and other details, and you have an undeniably striking-looking car.
And then there is the interior, which, fittingly, is as outré as the exterior. There are no conventional dials for the speedo or rev. counter (in fact, there is no rev. counter). Rather, a digital readout gives you information on speed and fuel, indicators and lights — and not much else.
A large, centre-mounted, infotainment touchscreen gives you access to navigation, climate control, trip computer and radio/CD functions.
It is all very uncluttered and the Citroën people have taken the liberty of adding unexpected and light touches, such as the leather door straps, the squared-off steering wheel, and the unusual glove-box treatment.
Add these to two-tone upholstery and this interior is very different indeed.
On the down side, you have to lift objects a very long distance to get them over the boot sill and into the — admittedly very spacious — boot, and there is no adjustment for reach on the steering wheel, which makes it hard to get comfortable.
Also, while the Cactus is powered by the familiar, 1.6-litre, BlueHDi turbodiesel, with 100 bhp on offer ( which has a top speed of 190kph, a 0-100kph time of 10.7 seconds, a 3.3 l/100 km consumption rate and C02 emissions of just 89 g/km), it is also equipped with a very stodgy five-speed gearbox, which is rubbery and inaccurate.
Further quibbles would be that I am not sure the 17” alloys were the best fit for this car, as the handling was sloppy and the ride wallowed.
Smaller wheels might tighten things up considerably, but they won’t look as good.
These mean the car is not dynamically as sharp as it looks and, once again, Citroën has left itself open to the criticism that it values style over substance.
But such a hasty judgement might be to miss the point.
The Cactus is an undoubted triumph of design and is also super-economical to use and run, but it is not much cop at anything else.
But, wait. What does it cost?
Well, for the top-of-the-range Flair version, you will pay just €23,845 and, believe me, that’s cheap. And the entry-level model is €6,000 cheaper again.
So, for a reasonable price you are buying a deliciously good-looking and ridiculously well-specified car, which will serve the needs of most motorists.
It is an excellent value-for-money package.
More demanding motorists will have to look elsewhere for their kicks, but for those whom the rock band, The Kinks, many years ago described as ‘dedicated followers of fashion,’ this is the berries.
It might not be perfect, but Citroën — with the Cactus — has put itself front and centre of those manufacturers for whom outstanding design is a priority.
As it always was for Citroen.
The Cost: from €17,795 - €23,845 as tested.
The Engine: a familiar turbodiesel from the PSA parts bin which is ridiculously economical.
The Specification: not much to want for from the Flair model as tested, but I have to say it is rather mean of Citroën to charge 100 extra for the space saver spare tyre. Very mean.
The Overall Verdict: a might return to deign form from Citroën.
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