This Citroen isn’t cactus.
The Citroen C4 Cactus is one of the most interesting cars we’ve seen in recent years. While some may argue that the French are famous for this, we contend that it’s one thing to come to motor shows with funky cars, but putting them into production is another thing entirely. When the car debuted as a concept in 2007, we thought it was just a funky concept. And when it went on sale in June 2014, we still thought it was just a concept.
Funky styling aside, the C4 Cactus incorporates lots of great ideas and innovations into a funky package that’s designed to stick out like a cactus in a carpark. Wide personalisation options means every Cactus can be made unique, and because it was designed with practicality in mind, it’s more commodious than you might immediately assume. And to top it off, both drivetrains are unbelievably frugal. So is the C4 Cactus as fun and loveable as it wants you to believe?
“If cars could walk the red carpet at the Met Gala, the Citroen C4 Cactus would hog the spotlight. Design is the best and the worst feature of the French-owned compact SUV. Like a couture fashion show that wows some and leaves other’s scratching their heads, the Cactus merges sophistication with eccentricities.” - WhichCar
The biggest exterior feature of the Cactus are its odd Braille-esque bumps along its body, and that’s what we’ll talk about first. Those weird things are called AirBumps, and are designed to protect your car from minor scrapes and dings the same way bubble wrap protects the gifts you ordered last Christmas. It might seem like an outlandish way to save a few bucks on resprays, but from an aesthetic point of view, it certainly does its job of distinguishing Citroen’s little SUV from the rest.
The quad-headlight arrangement (slim row of LEDs sit above integrated, sunken-in headlights) make the C4 Cactus look really funky, while the eccentric wheel designs work well with the AirBumps to make it a thoroughly modern affair. The rear is slightly boring (but only when compared to the rest of the car), but the way the different materials interact with each other make for an aesthetically pleasing effect. Citroen has managed to make functionality and utilitarianism look chic.
Engine & Drivetrain
“Predictably, the engine action starts with a three-cylinder turbo and there is also a 1.6-litre four-cylinder diesel. Citroen Australia predicts the diesel will garner about 85 per cent of Cactus sales because it’s the only engine matched to an automatic, in this case a self-shifting robotised manual.” - CarsGuide
Two engines, and two gearboxes. The C4 Cactus is available in our market with a small 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol, and a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel. The smaller, funky petrol is mated exclusively with a five-speed manual gearbox, while the torquey oil-burner is mated to a six-speed semi-automatic (or self-shifting manual) transmission. It’s a strange combination, the both of them, with neither really hitting Australia’s love of the automatic.
Regardless, Citroen Australia predicts the diesel and not-quite-auto combo to make up more than 80% of sales here. And with the C4 Cactus being the first car in the marque’s local history to garner a waiting list, maybe the omission of a proper automatic is less detrimental than it might initially seem.
“Inside, the Cactus takes inspiration from the upmarket DS range, and features a stylish layout that has a premium feel.” - AutoExpress
While it can be pondered as to why the C4 Cactus presents a little bit of a price premium over its immediate rivals, stepping into the interior will go a long way into reasoning where that money is being spent. The cabin of the Cactus definitely possess a ‘wow-factor,’ with its standard touchscreen and digital instrument cluster, funky dash-top storage, and armchair-like seats. It reminds you of cars from years gone by, when people spoke less about lateral support and more about the inviting sensation that seats are entirely capable of providing.
While everything looks good, there have been some sacrifices by way of practicality. Those comfy seats don’t feature pockets in the rear, and the huge door bins in the rear resulted in the omission of wind-down windows, doing with van-like pop-out units instead. The Cactus was designed and built intelligently: At this price point, cheap-feeling and unforgiving materials must be employed, but Citroen hit them low down, on panels that most won’t have to interact wth often. As a result, the bits and bobs you do have to touch and feel all exude a certain premiumness, which isn’t that common in the segment. It’s a great place to be.
Behind the Wheel
“There’s also competent handling to go with the strong engines. On the twisty stuff the nose pitches, there’s a lot of body roll and the Cactus relies on its Goodyears to keep it all together. Around town, its slow-speed ride and refinement is excellent. The steering is light and easy, but lacks communication when things get serious.” - Wheels
The C4 Cactus puts convenience and practicality above all else in the rest of its performance, and in the driver’s seat, it’s no different. Steering is light but accurate, and of special note is the refinement and comfort that the ride affords at town speeds. Even with the seemingly large alloy wheels, the Cactus never feels uncomfortable, with only the sharpest and biggest bumps upsetting it. Both engines maintain a muted tone, with the diesel always acting mature while the three-cylinder petrol offers a peppy, fizzy note (characteristic of an odd-cylindered power plant) under heavy acceleration which can induce giggles.
As much as we’d like to say that it’s all sunshine and rainbows with the C4 Cactus, it isn’t. The biggest letdown is the drivetrain combinations: Fizzy petrol with manual, and torquey diesel with semi-auto. Australia is an auto-driven market, and while the manual is serviceable, the semi-automatic can never seem to hit the mark (pun intended). Its shifts can lurch and jerk, and it’s something you have to learn to live with. Adapt to the funky car’s weird transmission though, and driving a Cactus will soon be a joy all on its own .
Safety & Technology
“The C4 Cactus currently scores a four-star EuroNCAP safety rating. It is not available with the latest electronic driver assistance aids offered in some competitors including autonomous emergency braking or blind-spot monitoring.” - Motoring
If you’re considering life with a Cactus (or any car, for that matter), it’s likely that safety must come into consideration. There are little innovations that set it apart from its competitors: The front passenger’s airbag deploys from the roof rather than the dash, and it throws in things like stability control, cruise control, and electronic speed limitation as standard, which seemingly puts it among the class best. However, there’s a reason why Cacti do not boast 5-star EuroNCAP ratings, and we’ll get into that below.
The biggest issue with the C4 Cactus is the omission of active safety systems. Notably, the exclusion of autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind-spot monitoring systems is glaring, especially when considering that at the price point the Cactus competes at. Most of its rivals offer some level of active safety systems; Citroen’s idea behind these omissions is to help shake off its perception as being unreliable, so less tech means there should be less to go wrong.
The C4 Cactus is not a car that you can easily overlook. It’s the kind of car that looks funky enough to always catch your eye, no matter how packed the carpark, and if you option the right colour combination, it’ll be sharp enough to poke an eye out. This is a car that has the pizzaz to always be a thorn in the side of its competitors, even though there are some areas where it falls short. Certainly a contender, we’ll tell you that.
Our pick of the bunch is the very car that Citroen Australia pipped to be the volume seller, which is the diesel. With prices sitting a hair under $30,000 (accurate at the time of writing), the Cactus offers practicality and refinement that comfortably bests its rivals, while the only day-to-day drawback will be having to accommodate for that ancient semi-automatic gearbox. But you will learn to live with it, and the Cactus will reward you when you do.
CarsGuide - 70/100 - “The value is not great but I can see people turning to the Cactus because they want something practical and different. Now, if only the Citroen people in Paris would accept the need for a proper automatic in Australia.”
CarAdvice - 70/100 - “The Citroen C4 Cactus is anything but prickly. There are some sticking points, sure, but it’s a really likeable car, one that will offer baby SUV buyers something a little different – that is, if they can put up with the lack of a proper automatic drivetrain.”
Motoring - 64/100 - “If you’re looking to break the regular small SUV mould, the C4 Cactus could be the car for you. It might feel more like a Toyota Rukus or Kia Soul than any of its other rivals, but for some buyers that’s bound to be a good thing.”
Wheels - 82/100 - “The Citroen C4 Cactus is unmatched in terms of sophisticated, elegant yet fun ethos inside and out, with great refinement, excellent engines and great packaging. Its dated underpinnings means that it falls short in its mechanical offering and as a result isn’t as convincing to drive or as an ownership proposition.”
TopGear - 80/100 - “Citroen goes back to its roots and gives us something completely different, cheap, cheerful and innovative.”
WhatCar? - 60/100 - “The Citroën C4 Cactus has its foibles, but it’s a fine choice if you want SUV styling in a good-value, compact package.”
CarBuyer - 94/100 - "The Citroen C4 Cactus is an individual, practical and highly affordable family car with some really well thought-out features.”
AutoExpress - 80/100 - “The Citroen C4 Cactus is a return to form for the French company - featuring quirky styling, great ride quality and a bargain price tag.”