Citroen’s sin­gu­lar SUV, a late starter, comes with curves, a tiny turbo — and an auto trans­mis­sion

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN CAREY

T he rounded, non-ag­gres­sive shape of the new C3 Air­cross makes it a cute and cud­dly ur­ban SUV. And Citroen’s lat­est model, due in Aus­tralia in just over six months, doesn’t stand out sim­ply for its in­di­vid­ual looks.

On Cor­sica, France’s is­land in the Mediter­ranean that Citroen chose for the car’s in­ter­na­tional launch, brand ex­ecs talked up its most im­por­tant fea­tures. The C3 Air­cross comes equipped with a dozen driver aids, has great con­nec­tiv­ity and gives buy­ers 90 colour com­bi­na­tions, they boasted.

Citroen is be­gin­ning an in­ter­na­tional SUV of­fen­sive, they added, and aim­ing for global sales growth with a tar­get of 1.6 mil­lion ve­hi­cles an­nu­ally within three years.

The French brand was late to spot the SUV trend and its sales slumped as a re­sult. The C3 Air­cross, which re­places the C3 Pi­casso (a small peo­ple-mover that never sold here), is an at­tempt to rem­edy this.

Citroen de­vel­oped the ba­sic frame­work, or plat­form, for the C3 Air­cross in part­ner­ship signed with Opel in 2012. Shar­ing costs this way saves money.

Opel’s ver­sion, the Cross­land X, looks quite dif­fer­ent de­spite shar­ing much un­der-the-skin tech­nol­ogy and com­ing from the same fac­tory in Zaragoza in north­ern Spain.

A line-up free of SUVs isn’t the only rea­son Citroen sales barely regis­ter on the chart in Aus­tralia. The French brand’s mar­ket share is just 0.1 per cent and it has sold fewer than 500

cars in nine months this year. Aus­tralia prefers au­to­matic, France is mainly man­ual. In the past, Citroen has fo­cused on keep­ing cus­tomers at home happy rather than win­ning cus­tomers else­where.

As a con­se­quence, the likes of the quirky C4 Cac­tus cross­over ar­rives here with en­gine and trans­mis­sion com­bi­na­tions that seem cho­sen to re­pel cus­tomers. The only auto op­tion in the Cac­tus is a clunky and slow-shift­ing robo­tised six-speed that comes only with a diesel en­gine.

But, as the C3 Air­cross demon­strates, this era may be com­ing to an end.

As with the new C3 hatch­back, the C3 Air­cross uses the very ef­fi­cient 1.2-litre three­cylin­der turbo that’s the best en­gine pro­duced by PSA, owner of both Peu­geot and Citroen. And it comes only with a proper au­to­matic.

The C3 Air­cross isn’t a quick car, tak­ing well over 10 se­conds to get from rest to 100km/h, but the lit­tle turbo triple de­liv­ers real oomph once the car is mov­ing.

The six-speed auto, sadly, isn’t as good as the en­gine. It’s prone to jerky down­shifts when slow­ing and takes its sweet time kick­ing back a gear when the ac­cel­er­a­tor is pressed.

De­spite the high-rid­ing SUV look, the C3 Air­cross drives only the front wheels. There’s a dial in­side to choose trac­tion con­trol modes for dif­fer­ent types of ter­rain but this is ba­si­cally a hatch­back with 175mm ground clear­ance.

That’s the way it drives, too. It has firmer sus­pen­sion than the C3 hatch to con­tain the ten­den­cies of a higher ve­hi­cle to pitch and sway when cor­ner­ing, brak­ing and ac­cel­er­at­ing.

It’s ca­pa­ble enough on bends but the ride be­comes bumpy if the road is lumpy. The steer­ing is light and doesn’t pro­vide much sense of con­nec­tion with the road.

The in­te­rior of the C3 Air­cross is its best point, with plenty of soft curves to match the ex­te­rior. The in­stru­ment panel is mostly hard plas­tics but still man­ages to be chic.

Invit­ingly soft, the seats are not well shaped for sup­port when cor­ner­ing quickly. The am­bi­ence is loungy and re­laxed, yet the C3 Air­cross doesn’t ne­glect prac­ti­cal­ity. It’s a lit­tle longer than the C3 hatch, with more rear seat room and a larger cargo space. The rear seat back split-folds 60-40.

In Europe, buy­ers choose from eight body colours, three con­trast­ing roof colours, four ex­te­rior colour packs (mir­ror caps and roof rails), three wheel de­signs and five in­te­rior colour themes. This Mini-like level of cus­tomi­sa­tion will appeal to some po­ten­tial buy­ers but it’s tough for Citroen to de­liver such ex­ten­sive choices to far-flung mar­kets like here.

New Aus­tralian im­porter Inch­cape has time to work on this be­fore the C3 Air­cross’s launch next year. That dis­tant date also means ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Inch­cape and Citroen on pric­ing are not com­plete.

It’s sen­si­ble to ex­pect the C3 Air­cross to cost a lit­tle more than the C3. The C3 launches from $23,000 so a $25,000 start­ing price for the cute C3 Air­cross seems likely.

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