I was worried that something would be terribly wrong with the Citroën Cactus crossover, but it rocks and gives you so much cool stuff for so little money that we must all salute the French for having the balls to make it.
[Full disclosure: Citroën Hungary were so nice that they gave me a Cactus for a week despite the fact that Jalopnik is a U.S. site and they have zero chance of selling a single car in America. High five to them!]
Although they didn’t exactly end up under new ownership like Volvo or Jaguar, Peugeot-Citroën also had to press the restart button pretty hard after nearly going bankrupt before getting a much needed cash infusion from Dongfeng, a Chinese industrial concern.
Citroën decided to get through the tough times by launching a brand new premium brand under the DS umbrella, mostly with the Chinese market in mind. Luckily, the DS cars are doing pretty well already in China, and with a new SUV just about to hit the showrooms, that success may also lead to a relaunch in America one day. (You’re right to be skeptical of that last one.)
In the meantime, since all larger cars will be branded DS, future Citroëns will focus on being the funkiest compacts money can buy. That’s good. If there’s any car company that deserves to be funky, it’s Citroën.
The first in that line is the C4 Cactus, which I’ll simply call the Cactus from now on, because it has nothing to do with a regular C4. It’s built on a different platform, comes with different styling and even features energy-absorbing Airbump panels all around, so you can hit your brand new car with a hammer all day long in case you have nothing better to do.
Can you order a Rolls-Royce with Airbumps? I didn’t think so.
The Cactus is also very light. While there really is a version of it that’s just over 2,100 pounds, my test car with the 1.6 diesel had a curb weight of 2,700, probably not counting the optional glass roof.
That’s still pretty impressive, and is down not just to the new platform, but also to a bunch of weight-saving measures that involve zero carbon fiber to keep the costs down. The panoramic roof doesn’t have a sliding shade. Instead, the glass is layered with a protective UV reflective material. It works. The rear windows are only tinted pop-outs. I think that’s fine too. At least children get no chance to fall out.
On the negative side, the rear seats don’t fold separately. The Cactus has a large enough trunk, but the tailgate doesn’t go all the way down to the bumper, so you’ll also have to lift your stuff in.
And then there’s the styling. Citroën told me the Cactus turned out to be highly polarizing, people either love its design or would prefer to drive around with a paper bag over their heads than be seen in one.
Those people are fools. There’s no question that the Cactus looks amazing. It’s a spaceship that came down to Earth to show us how we don’t have to drive something boring just because we can’t afford a premium ride.
What you have to remember is that this car has a lower base price in Europe than a Volkswagen Polo. You know, the Golf that’s smaller than an actual Golf. The Cactus is not only more exciting in every way, but also bigger inside than a Golf without feeling larger on the road. It’s taller than your regular compact, but remains just as agile in the city as any of its competitors thanks to its wheelbase, short overhangs and relatively fast steering.
It’s pretty much like having your favorite sneaker on wheels.
Like all good sneakers, the Cactus is also available in a bunch of colors from this relatively conservative grey all the way to a wild fluorescent yellow. As for the Airbumps, you can choose between four colors, although the combinations are pretty much pre-set by Citroën and depend hugely on the trim level.
Theoretically though, once you got bored with your original specification, the Airbump inserts can be changed for a fresh look.
Inside the cabin, Citroën kept everything to a minimum, including color in my tester. Luckily, the sunroof let in enough light to make me forget about the all black setup. Visibility is great from the driver’s seat, which I also found comfortable enough for a long drive. There’s also good sound isolation keeping the diesel’s noise out, and the standard hi-fi takes care of the rest perfectly.
You just grab that surprisingly thin steering wheel (which by the way has better switches than most German cars), put the five-speed into gear and the Cactus is ready to go just about anywhere. I averaged above 50 miles per gallon, so there won’t be a problem with range either.
That’s the most remarkable thing about this family car. I know it doesn’t sound like a big achievement, but driving the Cactus feels natural from the first second. Everything is set up just the way it should be.
In most new cars I drive, there’s always something I have to get used to. Maybe it’s the driving position. Sometimes, it’s the gearbox or the clutch. The brakes can bite harder than I like, or the steering feels wrong, something is always off a bit.
Not here. The 99 horsepower turbodiesel gave me 137 foot pounds from 1750 rpm, and that engine moves the Cactus sufficiently, if not briskly. I certainly wouldn’t call it underpowered. It’s fast enough in normal traffic and on the highway as well, even with the cruise control set just slightly above the limit if you’re in a rush.
You just have to keep downshifting to get on the boost, and while the five-speed manual might not be the most surgically accurate ‘box I’ve ever tried, it could be operated with half a finger. The clutch setup makes it almost impossible to stall the engine, the start-stop system is flawless and doesn’t try to take over the steering wheel once the power comes back.
The steering also provides a lot more feedback and accuracy than expected. The power steering is not as dominant as in an Audi TT, and it also lacks the dead feeling in the center position. That’s something I wish I could say about the new Civic Type R.
The touchscreen in the middle is a very basic but highly functional unit with just seven menu points and giant animated buttons that are very easy to read. The Cactus also have two USB ports as well as an AUX in and Bluetooth, but that’s nothing new these days.
My favorite detail in the cabin was the glovebox, which really is a large storage compartment with a lid that opens upwards.
In order to make that possible, the passenger airbag had to be moved into the roof — the very idea of which would probably give your NHTSA a fatal heart attack — but I guess Citroën also felt that a compensation was due for the lack of rear seat folding options. Either way, if you like to have a huge glovebox, the Cactus got you covered. There also numerous other storage compartments, but I’m afraid the cupholder is only large enough for a double espresso.
Welcome to Europe.
I’m aware that French cars sucked pretty hard for a long time and reliability was a huge issue even when there was a lot to like about the ownership experience otherwise, but the Citroën Cactus is the first child of a new era at PSA’s smaller brand, and this funky little thing felt rock solid on the road as far as I could tell.
It still takes some bravery to choose the Cactus over similarly priced family cars, and although the base car feels like a steal at $13,342, the diesel starts at $18,293 due to the high manufacturing costs of Euro 6 diesel engines. That’s a whole different ballgame, but still isn’t much for what Citroën is offering here. A chance to be different, a bit bolder, a conversation starter.
The latter is a given, because everywhere I drove, people were looking at the car only to start discussing it immediately. Kids, couples, other drivers standing next to me. The Cactus got all the looks, and that feels priceless driving a compact family car.
Photo credit: Máté Petrány/Jalopnik
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