Cac­tus turns down the odd­ness

A few key changes have made the Cac­tus less of a shock to the sys­tem, says David Lin­klater.

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT - Septem­ber 17, 2017

Car­mak­ers can’t re­ally cre­ate idio­syn­cratic, throw-the-rule­book-away mod­els like the Citroen 2CV any more. Not when there are plat­forms and com­po­nents to be shared and risk-averse post-GFC prod­uct strate­gies.

How­ever, the afore­men­tioned French brand got as close as it could with the C4 Cac­tus in 2014. It was based on a con­ven­tional front-drive plat­form, but clothed in a boxy shape with wacky de­tail­ing, in­clud­ing mas­sive plas­tic pro­tec­tors called ‘‘Air­bumps’’.

It was pretty odd in­side as well, with min­i­mal­ist styling, two screens in­stead of an in­stru­ment panel and a glove­box that looked like an old-school suit­case with straps over the top.

There wasn’t even a gear­lever: you sim­ply se­lected Drive, Re­verse or Park via a clus­ter of enor­mous but­tons. Be­cause it was an au­to­mated-man­ual that you re­ally did have to drive like... a man­ual, the big­gest chal­lenge was the lack of shift pad­dles, be­cause you had to trust the gear­box to make the right ra­tio se­lec­tion. And ev­ery­body knows you can’t trust a French gear­box.

Ex­cuse this lit­tle retro-trip, but it’s rel­e­vant be­cause the re­vised 2017-model Cac­tus car­ries some key changes that al­ter the char­ac­ter of the car. Whether it’s for bet­ter or worse will de­pend on just how weird you like your weird Citroens to be.

From the out­side it’s still the Cac­tus we all know and are per­plexed by. But un­der the bon­net, the old diesel is out for Kiwi buy­ers and in comes Peu­geotCitroen Group’s multi-award­win­ning 1.2-litre PureTech three­cylin­der turbo (cat­e­gory-win­ner in En­gine of the Year for three years run­ning), cou­pled to a con­ven­tional six-speed au­to­matic gear­box.

Given that the Cac­tus now costs $2000 less than be­fore and has a vastly more mod­ern and user­friendly pow­er­train, it’s a much more tempt­ing propo­si­tion. If you’re think­ing that it has the same en­gine/trans­mis­sion as the new C3, you’re right. Both cars are based on the same plat­form and be­cause the Cac­tus is ac­tu­ally smaller than you think – just 4157mm long, com­pared with 3996mm for the C3 – they’re ac­tu­ally very close re­la­tions.

But the move to the new en­gine and (es­pe­cially) gear­box means the Cac­tus has lost a lit­tle of its quirk­i­ness in­side. The push­but­ton gear-se­lec­tion and com­edy air­craft-style park­ing-brake have gone in favour of a con­ven­tional gear lever/hand­brake com­bi­na­tion. The bench front seat has also been binned, to make room for the ex­tra hard­ware. Although the pas­sen­ger-airbag is still in the roof, which is pretty weird.

Now’s the right time to de­clare that I rather en­joyed the chal­lenge of pi­lot­ing the old Cac­tus; it was an in­tense but re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I should prob­a­bly also de­clare that I used to own a 2CV. Per­haps I’ve said too much.

For those with­out per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders who want the Cac­tus’ high style with­out the puz­zling pow­er­train, the new en­gine and gear­box are a joy. The three-pot brings an ap­peal­ingly thrummy sound that suits the quirky style of the car, it revs with en­thu­si­asm and you can safely drive it French­style – with the throt­tle buried into the car­pet – and know the car’s lov­ing it.

Cac­tus is not sup­posed to be a great driver’s car but it rides well and it’s very light, with a kerb weight of just 1125kg. So it’s nim­ble when it needs to be.

The cabin is still a blend of min­i­mal­ist style with splashes of cyn­i­cism. A large dig­i­tal screen re­places a con­ven­tional in­stru­ment panel, while another han­dles in­for­ma­tion, en­ter­tain­ment and cli­mate func­tions. The lat­ter is ac­tu­ally the same one you’ll find in any num­ber of Peu­geot-Citroen ve­hi­cles, but it does take on an other-wordly qual­ity in this cabin en­vi­ron­ment.

Un­for­tu­nately the touch-screen is pretty slug­gish to re­spond to com­mands, hav­ing ev­ery­thing in­clud­ing the air-con set­tings in sub-menus gets ir­ri­tat­ing af­ter a while and the Blue­tooth isn’t bril­liant. More to the point, it lacks the An­droid/Ap­ple phone pro­jec­tion fa­cil­ity of­fered by the oth­er­wise-sim­i­lar sys­tem in the cheaper C3. Cac­tus is sup­posed to be sug­ges­tive of a stripped-out, util­i­tar­ian char­ac­ter, but it’s hard to see the sense in rear win­dows that don’t re­ally open (they’re hinged at the front and sim­ply pop a few cen­time­tres side­ways). Your rear-seat pas­sen­gers might say giv­ing up 55mm of wheel­base in the C3 could be con­sid­ered ac­cept­able op­por­tu­nity cost for win­dows that open prop­erly.

How­ever, Citroen has fi­nally given Cac­tus a 60/40-split rear seat – vastly more use­ful than the old model’s sin­gle-piece back­rest, al­low­ing you to make much bet­ter use of the mod­est 358-litre boot.

But the Cac­tus is about vis­ual char­ac­ter first and fore­most, and fa­mil­iar­ity hasn’t dulled that. Es­pe­cially with the level of per­son­al­i­sa­tion of­fered: our sear­ing yel­low and con­trast black test car is ac­tu­ally pretty tame by Cac­tus-cat­a­logue stan­dards. There’s a choice of eight ex­te­rior paint colours, four for the Air­bumps (in­clud­ing ‘‘Choco­late’’!), three dif­fer­ent in­te­rior trims (pur­ple is on the menu) and two styles of wheel, mak­ing for 184 pos­si­ble Cac­tus colour-pack­ages. Many of them hideous... but isn’t that the idea?

Look at the Cac­tus with a ra­tio­nal eye and there’s a lot to be dis­ap­pointed by. But oth­er­wise, a lot to love.

DAVID LIN­KLATER/STUFF

Lat­est Cac­tus is slightly cheaper, smoother to drive - but still an ex­tro­vert.

Dual screens still dom­i­nate min­i­mal­ist cabin, but we miss the pseudo-bench seat and push­but­ton gears of old model.

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