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