Perfectly imperfect: life with a Citroën C4 Cactus

Anyone unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter will know that, back in June 2015, I took delivery of a new Citroën C4 Cactus. It was properly new, with only delivery miles on the clock and I even had the opportunity to spec the car myself. If you’re the proud owner of KW15 KKO, you can either blame me or thank me for the specification.

Sadly, it has now returned to Citroën HQ, with its time as a Diesel Car long-termer drawing to an end. I always promised myself I’d write a few words for PetrolBlog, because, on paper at least, it has all the necessary ingredients to be a PetrolBloggy kind of car. But after 14,000 miles and 10 months, did the Cactus stand the test of time?

Put it this way: having read a rather scathing long-term review on the hallowed pages of Car online, I feel like I should jump to the defence of a personal friend. Because, while the C4 Cactus is not beyond criticism, my experience suggests it’s far better than the report would have you believe.

I’ll start with the negatives, of which there are many. It’s a bit like a child’s school report – we’ll get the problems out of the way first, before ending on a string of positives. You know how these things go.

OK, here’s a list of Citroën C4 Cactus irritants:

  • The front armrest (standard on Flair/optional on Feel) offers little in the way of storage and gets in the way when manoeuvring around town.
  • The infotainment system is lethargic and slow to respond.
  • There’s no air vent on the passenger side of the car.
  • The steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach.
  • The rear seat doesn’t (or rather didn’t) split.
  • You can’t wind down the rear windows, merely ‘pop’ them open.
  • The single cupholder is far too small.
  • There are no cupholders in the back.
  • On my test car, the cruise control would ‘kangaroo’ when travelling downhill.
  • There’s no light for rear seat passengers.
  • At night, the infotainment screen is too bright and has to be dimmed to its lowest setting.
  • Tied in with the above, too many controls have been confined to the touchscreen, which makes minor adjustments a big deal.

After 14,000 miles, that’s all I could find. A case of love is blind? Quite possibly, because I’ll readily admit that I’m a big fan of the Cactus and what it stands for. But I’d be more than happy to recommend it to a friend, which must say something. Heck, I even made enquiries about buying it from Citroën.

Some have criticised the driving position and I’d agree, it isn’t perfect. I’m 6 foot whatever and it took me a while to get used to it, but I soon found a compromise that suited me. Oh sure, finding a compromise is hardly a glowing reference, but after 14,000 miles and a recent history of sciatica, it had the potential to be a big problem. It wasn’t.

Citroen C4 Cactus Pearlescent White

Others have criticised the ride quality, unfairly referencing the likes of the XM, Xantia and DS. Agreed, when comparing the Cactus with cars blessed with Hydropneumatic or Hydractive suspension, the Citroën with the prickly name finishes a distant second. But on the 15-inch steel wheels (fitted as part of the optional Airdream package), I found the ride quality to be rather good. Whether on long motorway trips or on potholed urban roads, the C4 Cactus was one of the smoothest cars I’ve driven in recent years.

OK, not as good as the Rolls-Royce Wraith, Volvo XC90 or indeed the Mercedes-Benz W123, but we’re hardly comparing pommes with pommes here.

I should confess that I wasn’t able to go properly French and spec the lowest grade Cactus imaginable. The headline price of £12,990 looks great, but in reality few will spend this little. As I was running the car for Diesel Car, the first option box ticked was the one marked BlueHDi 100, which resulted in an immediate jump to mid-spec Feel trim level and a price of £16,155. Right, so much for poverty-spec motoring.

I was also quite choosy about the colour of my Airbumps, which is something I never thought I’d write. I wanted, nay demanded Chocolate Airbumps, which resulted in the closure of many colour option doors, leaving a choice of either Arctic Silver or Pearlescent White. I chose white and the price rocketed to £17,765.

Next I went for the Habana Highlight Pack to match the chocolate-coloured accents on the outside. Christ, this is all sounding a bit Carol Smilie and Changing Rooms. With the price already over the £18,000 mark, I opted for a few more luxuries, taking the overall cost to over £19,000. Hardly the Parisian-spec crossover I had imagined.

Citroen C4 Cactus steel wheels

But here’s the thing: given the chance to spec my own Cactus again, I wouldn’t change a single thing. I was especially pleased with the 15-inch steelies, not least because I only ever saw one other car doing the whole ‘no alloys for me’ thing. The steel wheels certainly helped the economy and I’m convinced they improved the ride quality.

Yeah, about that economy. The official figure for the BlueHDi Airdream Pack is 91.1mpg, so my 57.4mpg over 14,000 miles is way short of the claimed figure. This is partly a symptom of its use, which was predominantly airport runs and family duties. When I did manage to do some hypermiling, I saw figures of 80mpg and above. With patience and a featherlight approach to the right pedal, you could easily achieve something in the high 60s or 70s.

What else can I tell you? Oh yes, I adored the interior. Citroën deserves a huge amount of credit for making the cabin feel so special. This was achieved by focusing on the touchpoints, most notably the strap-like interior door handles, the Allegro-style steering wheel and the wonderfully comfy armrest on the door. The Cactus never feels like a car at the budget end of the Citroën range and somehow manages to out-trump the current DS range of vehicles.

Citroen C4 Cactus interior

It could be improved. The cupholder should be increased in size. Citroën should also produce some trays or inserts to make more use of the luggage-style glovebox. We managed to get round the issue of no cupholders in the back, simply by putting some cardboard takeaway coffee holders in the rear door bins. That’s some useful consumer advice, right there.

As for the overall driving experience, the C4 Cactus isn’t what you’d call a drivers’ car, but then would you expect it to be? The gearbox is comically spongey and the steering is devoid of any feel. But cornering is a joyous experience, not least because the Cactus has a sack load of grip.

You just need to be aware that the Cactus can feel a little off the pace, most notably on hills and when overtaking. Occasionally there just isn’t a gear low enough, so you need to plan ahead. Unless you enjoy getting stuck behind caravans and trucks on crawler lanes. Trust me, it’s not fun.

Weirdly, and I appreciate this might sound strange, you can actually feel the car’s lightness when you drive it. You’ll find yourself creeping towards the car in front when crawling in slow moving traffic, simply because the Cactus is carrying less weight than most other cars. It’s the antithesis of the bloated crossover or SUV.

Look, I’ve written far more than I intended to write, so it’s probably time to draw a line under the Cactus. I’ll close by saying that ‘the funny looking Citroën with those bumps on the side’ swallowed everything we threw at it. Even a 2,000-mile trip to Austria didn’t trouble the Cactus, where it coped with altitude sickness and extreme temperatures in the high 30s. Not once did any member of the family complain about discomfort or long to be in something a little larger.

It even tackled the Klausen Pass with aplomb, much to the bemusement of fellow travellers on this legendary road. Somehow, we managed to emerge at the other end with all four wheel trims still in place.

Citroen C4 Cactus on the Klausen Pass

Eighteen months since its launch, the Citroën C4 Cactus still manages to turn heads. In my experience, the majority of onlookers like what they see, with only a small minority finding the overall look rather offensive. One thing is for certain: the C4 Cactus is the most eye-catching compact crossover you can buy.

I’ll miss the Cactus. It’s a rare example of a carmaker daring to be a little different, so as a result it stands out in the me-too world of the crossover. It also has charm and character in abundance, two things lacking in the majority of new cars. Some won’t ‘get’ it, but those who do will love it.

Au revoir, C4 Cactus. And thank you. Life isn’t quite the same without you about the place.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

9 comments

  1. April 27, 2016
    Alex

    Perfect, a wonderful review in what’s been a great series of Cactus love. Couldn’t agree more on the spec, because it looks incredible. Am sorely, sorely, tempted to swap my Altea for a Cactus off the back of this

    Reply
    • April 27, 2016
      Gavin Big-Surname

      There’s a whole lotta love for the Cactus.

      Try one and let me know what you think. I reckon a petrol-engined Cactus would be a lovely thing to run!

      Reply
    • December 24, 2016
      Colin Canderwell

      Ending PB, as indicated in the latest article, would be a good idea. It as been poor of late and one can see its well past its sell by date.

      Reply
  2. April 27, 2016
    Ant

    Nice report. Also a fan of the Cactus, you’ll be unsurprised to hear.

    Spent a lot of time in DS3s and 208s recently with a similar infotainment system so I feel like I’ve got used to that aspect now and it wouldn’t be a problem. The one that always comes to mind is temperature, but really I don’t spend long adjusting that – maybe once at the start of a journey, with a change later if I feel like it. Still not as good as physical knobs, but a physical control does seem a bit redundant if you barely ever use it.

    Out of interest, because this is a feature on the DS3, does the Cactus have a “night panel” mode, a la Saab? In the DS3 it switches off everything bar the speedometer (absolutely everything – the screen, the footwell lighting, the lot). It’s quite blissful at night and I suspect it’d be welcome in the Cactus.

    Reply
    • April 27, 2016
      Gavin Big-Surname

      Funny you should mention that…

      I referenced the Saab Night Panel in one of my updates. There isn’t a button as such, rather an option to turn off the central screen via the touchscreen itself. All that’s left is the speedometer, which, when dimmed, is great. As you say, it makes for a blissful driving experience.

      Some people have criticised the Cactus for the lack of driver info. I never found it a problem, although I would prefer to have a rev counter. Twingo doesn’t have one, but you can run a rev counter via your smartphone!

      Your point re a physical control for the temperature is similar to something said by a chap at DS. Guess I’m a bit of a Luddite!

      Reply
      • April 29, 2016
        Ant

        If the chap at DS is who I think it is, it might be the guy who actually came up with the idea for Peugeot’s i-Cockpit and the touchscreen display used across PSA in the first place. I do see the thinking behind it, but there’s still no method I prefer more than the sliders used in my MX-5, so perhaps I’m a Luddite too…

        Reply
  3. April 28, 2016
    Josh

    I was eagerly waiting for the much promised review of your life with a Cactus and it was a joy to read.
    The car itself (which I haven’t driven yet) is one of the few cars (if not the only one) that can make me smile in the automotive world where I found most of the products to be bloated, too grey and too german lately.
    Thanks for your work!

    Reply
  4. April 28, 2016
    Adrian

    stopped in my tracks… on a trip to France I saw them as they were launched and it was enough to make me turn the car mumble excuses to my wife and kids and drive back to the Citroen shop to see this new lime green cat us liveried padded car. Citroen lead the way in car design for mass produced family cars. Makes bmw and Audi look like dullards. Tres Bon ! inspirational unconventional and beautiful ( for a family wagon) . There I said it . well done gbs.

    Reply
  5. May 9, 2017
    Derrick Hobbs

    My wife choose the cactus so I checked the reviews​ thinking it wouldn’t​ be good reviews but it was,so we test drove the diesel and petrol turbo 110bhp and both were more than quick enough,I was negative with the Citroen but as soon as i had a test drive I wanted one,the more I noticed the look of the cactus the more I liked it.
    We brought a 100bhp diesel in white, after driving it for over a month and 2000 miles of distance and around town driving it’s very economical for the size of the car and very comfortable compared to our 2005 Astra.
    We don’t have any real complaints as we knew what we’re buying, I’m even happy with the pop out Windows as I’ve always found if there part down in the back you get that annoying air tone hum and if I had the car when our children were young pop outs would have been Ideal.
    The controls and touch screen are great and you soon get used to them,love the dab radio.
    Only very small moan would have liked two cup holders up front and four speakers as STANDARD​, other than that well done Citroen. 😀

    Reply

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