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