There’s something Citroën got right with wacky plastic body cladding on the C4 Cactus that the likes of Pontiac didn’t: it wasn’t just a styling cue. No, these plastic “airbumps” are right where people are most likely to ding your doors, and made of plastic specifically designed not to even care. That’s brilliant.
[Full disclosure: When I went to the Nürburgring to cover a WEC race, Citroën Deutschland let me, a random American, run around in their newest wacky family car for a week, despite the fact that this one in particular is delicious diesel manual unobtanium that we can’t even buy. Enjoy!]
It also means that you can park this little whack-proof contraption nearly anywhere you can cram it without feeling bad about leaving it there. I’m a big fan of parking at the edges of parking lots, far away from everyone and everything, but you can’t really do that in the Citroën’s natural habitat: Not America.
This was the car I had while I was at the 6 Hours of Nürburgring, which made it the perfect test for Citroën’s unwhackable contraption. Anywhere I wanted to go — the hotel, the circuit itself, the Nordschleife, anywhere that might even sort of look like it has food — was all full past capacity. The lots over there aren’t exactly built for the Ferd F-Teenthousand, either.
Better yet, the roads around the Nürburgring…oh dear. Yeah. I’m going to need a moment. Excuse me, please.
I— I didn’t want to leave. Everyone raves about the Autobahns, but the ones between the airport in Düsseldorf and Nürburg were mostly full of misery and woe. There really aren’t that many completely derestricted spots, and the A-roads are where all the awful traffic congregates.
No, you want the B-roads. Germany is the same as anywhere else: the twisty roads are the best. If anything, the little Cactus was held back by its howling Prius-grade eco tires. Otherwise, it ate up the curves shockingly well.
The little C4 Cactus isn’t a car built for hoon duty. The throttle pedal feels like it’s in the Grand Canyon in comparison to the brake and clutch, and the shifter throws feel like you’re having to put the knob back into Belgium to grab second gear, just as it does with any other plain, regular car that just happened to come with a manual.
There’s also the world’s most inconvenient armrest in the way of those long shifter throws, too. Instead of using it as an armrest, I left it flipped up the entire time, as if it was a nice wall between me and the backseat.
No, the Cactus is a lifted city car built to look wacky and cool, which it pulls off incredibly well. Look at it. Look at it and weep over the fact that we don’t get it in the United States of America.
But darn it if it wasn’t competent. You could feel the height and hear the tires squeal around the bends, but it handled stupidly well. I even got the little front-wheel-drive quirky-box a teeny bit sideways as we were leaving the gravel spectator parking lot outside Brünnchen*. That’s as brave as I wanted to be at YouTube corner, though. Haha.
For comparison’s sake, let me talk about my rental car for a while. I had one of PSA’s more comfort-oriented products — a Peugeot 2008 — as a rental when I went to go pick up the Cactus. I think the target market for that car must be comfort enthusiast Michael Ballaban, because it felt like I was driving porridge. Everything was soft, floaty and vague in a way that didn’t interest me at all. It felt floppy and awful at “let’s floor it because we can” speeds on the Autobahn. Nope nope nope nope nope.
The 2008 was clearly meant to feel squishy and comfortable in city traffic, which it did fabulously well. The seats were plush and comfy, but I also felt as if I needed to be spoon-fed information on the clutch’s bite point in a way that’s now expressly banned from Formula One. I’d much rather be driven in that Peugeot than drive it myself. The Peugeot taxis I took when I got stuck in Paris were all perfectly lovely to ride in! I’d just rather drive something else.
This Cactus was just stupidly fun to drive in spite of everything it seemed to be. Pedals and controls, while still light, were more communicative. The interior was less comfortable than the Pug rental, but it did have a nice butt-roaster for the driver’s seat.
Overall, the Cactus looks like a pure design exercise, with its emphasis on “airbump” cladding, creative interior packaging and one incredibly lovely panoramic sunroof, but it felt stable at higher speeds. I didn’t feel like I was going to wobble off the road when I was going along with the flow of braver traffic on the Autobahn. It didn’t feel unpredictable when I was chasing a pair of locals down the hairpins of the area B-roads. It was just hilarious fun.
I felt as if the little Cactus could go pretty much anywhere. It’s like the multipurpose runabout the plastic-cladded Aztek tried to be, but just couldn’t pull off. It’s just silly and great. Why don’t we have Citroëns again?!
If there’s one weak point of the Cactus, though, it’s the emphasis on style über alles.
Many of its design cues work really well. The airbumps on the outside are in all the places where cars tend to get whacked into — right at the outermost points of the Cactus’ shell. Máté took a hammer to his Cactus loaner’s airbumps, and they didn’t even care. The plastic doesn’t feel like it’s from a bad late 2000s bodykit, but rather, it’s strategically placed to make the car invincible to other people in tiny lots.
Citroën also mounted the airbags up front in the roof instead of the dash, for example, which gives you this great, cavernous, breadbox-style glovebox that opens up where your airbag would usually be. There may only be one sensibly sized cupholder up front, but there are additional bins and compartments all over in case your passenger has a bottled drink or something.
What’s so awful, then? Citroën designed the interior to minimize the need for buttons. The center screen is shared between the most important functions of the car: the radio, navigation and aircon. Need to see where your next turn is while ensuring that the aircon isn’t turning your beads of sweat into icicles? Too bad.
It’s a neat, clean design inside that’s quite pleasant to look at, but it’s just not very usable.
Look, buttons have been around for decades because they just work. I’m a big fan of buttons large enough to fist-bump for a reason, only part of which is because I’m a grouchy old fart at heart. You can learn where a button or knob is for the aircon by simple muscle memory.
Having to look at a touchscreen to fiddle with the aircon while you’re driving is incredibly distracting in the worst way possible. That’s always when I need to mess with the car’s aircon: when I’m done cooling down from the humid day outside and need to back it off off to blow air of a reasonable temperature at a lower speed. Germany’s preference for traffic circles over stop signs and lights gave me precious few opportunities to come to a safe stop before tinkering with the center screen.
The sleek digital gauges directly in front of the driver were just a bit too simplified for my liking, too. I had no tachometer! A car this deceptively amusing to drive should at least have the only gauge that really matters.
There’s quite a bit of hard plastic trim inside. Some people who whine about inconsequential things in inexpensive cars will find this unpleasant for reasons I can’t understand. Dude, I drive a Lancer. You can tell exactly how much I care about how interior materials feel against my bare buttocks by what’s sitting in my carport at home. (Read: nada. Also, who puts their butt on a door card to test out a car?!)
That being said, I thought the Cactus’ plastic trim was well finished and fit with the rugged theme of the car. Softer pieces were used for the top of the dash that would feel cool and smooth on your buttocks for sure**, but the harder black plastic bits didn’t feel out of place at all. This is a utilitarian runabout playing the part of a wacky French concept car, after all.
One other place had an odd style-over-substance choice: the trunk. The hatch doesn’t open the entire back—you have to lift your bags up and over a lip where the license plate sits into the trunk. It’s not like you’re out of space anywhere inside, though. It’s a small car, but it feels cavernous. (I blame/credit the incredible panoramic sunroof.)
None of this really took away from the wacky do-anything, go-anywhere character of the Cactus, though. Don’t expect a ton of power from its diesel BlueHDi engine—it hasn’t got a lot. Wringing out every last bit of go that you can with its five-speed transmission and making the OEM tires scream for dear life is part of its charm, though. It’s not meant to be a fast car. It’s meant to cram into everywhere.
Granted, it’s a little harder to stuff into places because it is tall. I feel like the regular C4 would be a bit easier to park, but whatever. You’ll want to park that regular C4 in the outer reaches of nowhere, but you don’t have to care so much with the Cactus’ plastic armor.
Park it anywhere. Go anywhere. Hoon it, because why not? It’s a Cactus, and it’s pretty great.
*Apparently this is frowned upon, which I found out afterwards. They’ve just re-done that gravel lot because of idiots like me. Public Service Announcement: don’t show off in the gravel lot at Brünnchen. If you’re not on your way out like we were, they have a tendency to kick people out for drifts, donuts and silliness.
**Untested claim. Who puts their butt on a dashboard to test out a car?!
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