Cac­tus feels planted

The mini SUV rides and rol­lls along well but it needs a de­cent auto to be a sharp prospect for Australia

The Advertiser - Motoring - - FIRST DRIVE -

CHAS­ING rally cars across north­ern Por­tu­gal is not the usual plan for a car launch.

When the car is the Citroen Cac­tus — still more than six months away from its Aus­tralian launch — and it’s an ex­clu­sive pre­view drive fol­low­ing the lat­est round of the World Rally Cham­pi­onship, we’re not com­plain­ing.

There are even eu­ca­lypts along­side the coun­try roads and a bush­fire burning high in the hills, just like home.

I can re­port that the Cac­tus has ex­cel­lent dust seal­ing and im­pres­sively sup­ple sus­pen­sion over an­cient cob­ble­stones yet cruises eas­ily at 120km/h. All this is in a car that’s smaller than it looks and has a boot that’s big­ger than it looks.

I like driv­ing the Cac­tus, even though a col­league com­plains about the driv­ing po­si­tion, and there are some sur­pris­ing de­sign touches in­clud­ing rear win­dows that pivot out in­stead of rolling down. Typ­i­cal Citroen.

If the French maker can get the Cac­tus’s price right for Australia and give us a proper au­to­matic, it could eas­ily be­come the brand’s best­seller down un­der. And per­haps even a car to be con­sid­ered in a headto-head against the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V.

That means some­thing in the $24,000 range or bet­ter, even though Mazda has rat­tled the mini SUV con­tenders with a start­ing price of $19,990 and there are plenty of tid­dlers with sub-$30,000 stick­ers all com­pet­ing in the hottest new show­room class.

There is also the ques­tion of the auto, and not just Citroen’s robo­tised man­ual, but more on that later.

The Cac­tus is more than just a boxy lit­tle SUV that looks is if some­one has glued a cou­ple of mat­tresses on the doors. The five-door sits on the me­chan­i­cal pack­age of Citroen’s C3, it comes with petrol and diesel en­gines, there is a five-seater cabin and the min­i­mal­ist dash will work for peo­ple who favour style over sub­stance.

It’s smaller than I ex­pect, which we con­firm by stop­ping along­side the sim­i­larly sized Re­nault Cap­tur. It’s prob­a­bly the Tonka-toy looks that make it seem a bit chunky but there is am­ple space in­side. It will work for surf­boards or a pram, although there is a high load­ing lip to the boot.

On the down­side, I’m sur­prised that it only gets four stars in EuroNCAP when five is ex­pected in Australia.

My pre­view car is fit­ted with a 1.6-litre turbo diesel and fivespeed gear­box, en­cour­ag­ing me to shift early and of­ten. There is de­cent torque — 254Nm — for climb­ing cob­bled hills in the city of Porto and the very long, very dusty as­cent to watch Chris Meeke rac­ing through a spe­cial stage in his DS3.

Most Aus­tralians will pre­fer a petrol en­gine but the diesel is good. If only the French pref­er­ence for man­u­als, cur­rently still more than 90 per cent, was off­set by some un­der­stand­ing of the rest of the world’s de­sire for proper au­tos, such as the mod­ern six-speed I’ve just driven in Citroen’s up­dated DS3 and DS5.

“We’re still in dis­cus­sions about driv­e­trains for Australia. We would like a petrol and a diesel, as well as a man­ual and an au­to­matic,” says Citroen spokesman Tyson Bowen.

Citroen peo­ple hate jour­nal­ists to say or write “quirky” when it comes to their cars but that’s the best de­scrip­tion for the C4 Cac­tus.

There are quirks to the body­work and cabin, for ex­am­ple trim that com­bines work­ing-class cloth with mod­ern plas­tics, a nifty leather strap to pull the doors shut, a pas­sen­ger airbag that fires down from the roof, a truly gi­ant glove­box and USB ports in the dash and con­sole. The spec­i­fi­ca­tion is good, too, with touch­screen sat­nav and re­vers­ing cam­era.

I re­ally like the plush sofa feel of the seats, the mag­ic­car­pet-ride com­pli­ance of the sus­pen­sion and the dis­cov­ery of fea­tures such as the pop-out back win­dows that free space in the doors for ex­tra stor­age.

There are lots of ways to per­son­alise the car, es­pe­cially with 92 colour com­bi­na­tions, and there are use­ful roof rails.

Even the turbo diesel is quiet and the head­lamps work well.

VER­DICT

My time at Rally Por­tu­gal ends. I’d be hap­pier if I knew there would be an auto Cac­tus but it’s been a good start for a car that ought to do well in Australia.

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