In an era when you can find a 650-hp, near-200-mph (322 km/h) car on your friendly local Chevy dealer’s lot, it’s hard to imagine enjoying something with about one-sixth the horsepower and just over half the top speed. But the Citroën C4 Cactus is one of those rare cars greater than the sum of its parts.
Ford’s newly minted global ops boss Jim Farley agrees. Farley, one of the auto industry’s most savvy trend watchers, is intrigued by the little Citroën’s take on the small crossover concept. Unlike most crossovers, it doesn’t look like a tall wagon on steroids. The Cactus is a low-roof hatchback that rides high on chunky wheels and tires, with industrial-chic styling and large rubber bump pads on the bodywork. All-wheel drive isn’t even offered as an option.
Farley finds the Cactus interesting because he sees a potential road map to dialing up the fun factor in future small Ford hatchbacks. But what really makes the Cactus interesting is that it’s the first Citroën in many years with a hint of the proud sense of difference that once defined the innovative, iconoclastic French automaker.
Quick history lesson: Citroën’s Traction Avant, built between 1934 and 1957, was one of the first mass-produced cars with unibody construction, front-wheel drive, and four-wheel independent suspension. The Citroën DS, unveiled at the 1955 Paris show, featured a complex hydropneumatic suspension system. With its magic carpet ride and spaceship styling, the DS remains, when measured against contemporary rivals, the most advanced mainstream automobile ever launched.
Fortune doesn’t always favor the brave, however, and by the 1970s Citroën was broke—the victim of poor product planning decisions and a byzantine ownership structure that at various times included tire-maker Michelin and Italian automaker Fiat, as well as the French government.
Taken over by Peugeot in 1976, Citroën’s innovative spirit was inexorably crushed to the point where what was once the standard-bearer of French automotive technology became relegated to the role of an entry-level brand in some market segments. As Peugeot piled ’em high and sold ’em cheap, each new Citroën model developed on its watch became, sadly, a little more ordinary than the last.
The C4 Cactus, though, is different. Buried deep within it are faint traces of a Citroën that on the surface seems the complete antithesis of the moonshot DS, yet was no less clever and innovative—the 2CV. Let’s be clear: The Citroën Cactus doesn’t come close to the sheer brilliance of the 2CV, a car that is perhaps the most intellectually concise piece of product design in automotive history. But in the context of cars and crossovers that become bigger, heavier, and ever more complex with every generation, there is a spiritual connection between the two.
Designed before World War II but built between 1948 and 1990, the 2CV was created to be a light, tough, simple car French farmers could afford to buy and run. It cost half the price of a VW Beetle and had half the engine—an air-cooled flat twin—under its curved hood and driving the front wheels. Among the key design parameters was room for four adults and 110 pounds (50 kg) of produce and that it should be able to carry a basket of eggs across a plowed field without any of them breaking. So the 2CV had a tall, snaillike profile, a canvas roof that rolled right back to the trunk, high ground clearance, and a soft long-travel suspension.
By modern standards, the Cactus is light. It weighs between 2,530 and 2,730 pounds (1,148 and 1,238 kg), depending on the model. It’s simple, with a torsion bar rear axle, drum rear brakes, and rear windows that pop open rather than wind down into the doors. It also has good ground clearance and long-travel suspension, with a welcome hint of the plushness and disciplined roll control that once made French cars so comfortable and composed on rough roads.
And there’s cleverness in the mix, too. Under the hood of the top-spec Rip Curl PureTech model is a 1.2-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine that delivers 110 hp at just 5,500 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque from just 1,500 rpm, enabling the Cactus to run relatively tall gearing and thus, claims Citroën, return up to 60 mpg (3.9 L/100km) on the highway. The Rip Curl PureTech also comes with Citroën’s Grip Control, which offers five traction control settings, including ones for snow, mud, wet grass, and sand, all selected via a rotary controller on the center console. High-sidewall 205/50 Goodyear Vector 4Seasons tires on 17-inch alloy rims come as part of the Grip Control package.
Technology also keeps the interior simple. The instrument panel is a small digital screen that shows little more than speed and fuel level. Controls on the steering wheel handle audio, phone, and cruise settings. Almost everything else is controlled via a single touchscreen at the center of the dash that features large, easy-to-decipher graphics and is almost as intuitive to use as an iPhone. As the first production car to be fitted with TRW’s roof airbags, which eliminate the need for conventional front passenger airbags, the Cactus boasts a low dash with plenty of storage space.
With only 110 hp and tall gearing, the Cactus won’t take your breath away at the lights: Citroën claims a 0–60-mph time of about 9.1 seconds and a top speed of 117 mph (188 km/h). It’s certainly no hot hatch in the twisty bits; you don’t barrel into corners, wrench hard on the steering wheel, and modulate the understeer with your right foot, the inside rear wheel waggling in the air like Fido’s hind leg at a fire hydrant. No, this Citroën rewards slow hands and gentle inputs with decent mid-corner speed, and like the best French cars of the ’60s and ’70s, it will cover ground with surprising grace and pace.
The electric power steering is light, accurate, and tactile enough for you to sense those tall sidewalls flexing as cornering loads increase. The ratios in the five-speed transmission are nicely spaced to exploit the engine’s torque characteristics, and the languid, loping primary ride devolves into a gentle roll motion on corner entry. Once settled, the Cactus tracks faithfully through the turn, no matter how gnarly the road surface. And because it is relatively light with a relatively low center of gravity and the suspension’s roll rate is so well controlled, it doesn’t get too flip-floppy when asked to change direction in a hurry.
There are things that could be improved. Rear-seat legroom isn’t great. Colleagues who have driven the single-clutch automatic version report agonizingly slow shifts. And although it’s modestly priced—the fully loaded Rip Curl PureTech comes with climate-control air conditioning as well as cruise control, navigation, phone, and a decent audio system for less than $25,000 USD—Citroën doesn’t have a stellar reputation for build quality.
But for all that, the Citroën C4 Cactus is an oddly endearing car. It has quirks and character, and it’s a more accomplished and comfortable drive than it looks on paper. It’s not the greatest Citroën ever built—not by a long way—but like the best Citroëns, it is indeed a car greater than the sum of its parts.