Day one: The Cactus arrives at the office. ‘Is that the one with the bubble things on the outside?’ asks one of my colleagues. It is. The sides and parts of the bumpers are covered in rubbery plastic with air pockets inside. Citroen calls this ‘Airbump’. ‘So how quickly can you drive it into things?’ she adds. Erm, I think it’s meant to repel shopping trolleys and carelessly opened doors. A bigger problem for me would be resisting the urge to pop bits of your own doors like massive bubble wrap. Before I get in the car this evening I try it, but the rubbery plastic stuff seems quite thick. Wise move Citroen, wise move.
First impressions of the car itself, aside from its unpoppability: Nice quiet thrum from the three cylinder engine. Strangely long throw gear shift. Ride seems okay. I’d been led to believe it was sensational but it’s not. It’s okay.
Day two: I’m going to upgrade the ride to ‘quite good’. I can’t work out the suspension. If you brake with even moderate force, the car seems to pitch a bit like the springs are very soft or the shocks are knackered or it’s an American car from 1974. Yet it also seems like the suspension is fairly stiff and the car is skipping over bumps because there’s no weight to it. Obviously there’s some weight to it, but not loads. This spec is claimed to weigh 1020 kilos. For comparison, a bog-basic 1.2-litre Golf is 1205kg. The lightest Citroen C4 is 1280kg. The Cactus is a bit smaller than both, as it would be since it’s built on a stretched DS3 chassis, but not that much smaller. You can feel the lightnessititude in the way it zips about. On the downside, when you hit a bump in the middle of a corner you can feel it shifting off its line. In general though, lightness good.
Day three: Use the Cactus to pick up my mate Chris from the station. Chris likes cars. He seems to like the Cactus. At first you might assume it’s all a bit designer-wank for the sake of it. But there’s some real cleverness to it, and some genuinely unusual engineering. The quest for lightness is part of it, but also the way they wanted to give it a massive and useful glovebox so they moved the passenger airbag to the ceiling. We’ll have to take Citroen’s word that this works. I’m not about to deliberately drive it into a wall. I might pop my Airbumps. Chris reckons the Cactus feels a bit like a Renault 4. I was going to ask him more about what he thought of it, but we got distracted talking about Renault 4s.
Day four: I think Chris is right about the Renault 4 thing. For starters, this is not a sporty car. Which is good. Too many cars try to be sporty and frankly it’s all a load of bollocks. The Cactus doesn’t even have a rev counter. That’s how unsporty it is. And you drive along with the whirring little engine and the long throw gear change and the generally quite decent ride and after a while, if you’re in the right mood, it’s quite relaxing. Although, from memory, the Renault 4 had panel gaps so huge you could get into the car without opening any of the doors whereas the Cactus feels quite well made. There’s one exception to this. Under acceleration sometimes you hear what sounds like a heat shield making hollow vibration from under the car. It feels like an unfortunately side effect of lightness rather than shiteness.
Day five: I give my wife a lift in the Cactus. ‘This is the ugliest car I’ve ever seen,’ she says flatly. But… but… but.. the Airbumps and… ‘And why has this bit got blobs on it,’ she continues, jabbing at the top of the enormo-glovebox. It’s meant to look like an old travelling trunk. Look, the door pulls are like trunk handles. ‘Those are okay,’ she concludes. ‘The rest of it is just stupid.’ I thought the Cactus was quite cool. But maybe it’s only cool if you obsess about cars and find it interesting when someone does something different. Maybe normal people aren’t that fussed. They might just find the Cactus weird. Citroen itself appears prepared for this. The whole tone of their ads seems to be, We know this is strange and it isn’t for everyone. Which I suppose works for Marmite. And Dr Pepper. And the Liberal Democrats.
Day six: Poking around the Cactus there’s a bit of a mixed message. Some bits of it feel like they’ve been made to save weight but also money. The steering wheel doesn’t reach adjust, for example, and the electric windows don’t one-touch. Some of the dash plastics are a bit scratchy and nasty. Conversely, some of it feels very swish. Those suitcase handle door pulls for a start. And although the main dash is minimalist, it’s in the clever, upmarket manner that once made the iPod a success rather than the grim, bleak way that makes going to prison unappealing. Most functions are on the central touch screen but the few buttons left on the dash are of decent quality. Even so, sometimes it feels like a cheap car that’s been trimmed up. And sometimes it feels like a swishy car that’s been cost cut. It depends on which bit of the interior you’re touching at the time. You get the sense that they stopped short of making it all as nicely trimmed as the door handles or the dash buttons and selling it exclusively as a beautifully designed item for people who like nice stuff because they needed to make version to dirt cheap hire car spec.
Goodbye: I’m off to Scotland but the Cactus can’t come along. Bye bye unusual Citroen. It’s an inoffensively pleasant car to drive, it has a decent amount of space in it, you could imagine it serving very well as a family car. But there’s also real intelligence to some parts of its design that goes beyond superficial stuff. For that reason alone, I hope they sell a load of them and that encourages them to keep doing things like this. The C4 Cactus is different, and not just for the sake of it. That makes it interesting. And when it comes to hatchbacks, interesting is better than grey mush.
The car talked about here is a Citroen C4 Cactus PureTech 110 Flair. It has a 1.2-litre three cylinder turbocharged petrol engine making 109 horsepower. Citroen says it can go from 0-62 in 9.3 seconds and on to 117mph. This spec without options costs £17,190.