Styled util­ity ve­hi­cle

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents - ASH WESTERMAN

NOT FAR from where I’m writ­ing this, on Paris’s fa­mous Champs-el­y­sees av­enue, a queue of about 40 peo­ple wait pa­tiently. Not to see a live per­for­mance, not to meet a celebrity, not even for a spe­cial meal. No, they are stand­ing around for their turn to en­ter a shop. I’m told the shop is full of very stylish, very ex­pen­sive goods – clothes, shoes, bags, ac­ces­sories – and this is what makes it worth queu­ing up for. But the fact re­mains, if you have a press­ing need for any of this stuff, there are literally hun­dreds of stores along this re­tail strip that can pro­vide it, with no queu­ing re­quired.

It’s a snapshot of the lure of that ab­struse thing called ‘style’. Cer­tain peo­ple care deeply about it, they know it when they see it, and they are pre­pared to pay a premium for it.

Citroen likes these peo­ple. It’s that mind­set, when ap­plied to an au­to­mo­tive pur­chase, that will help sell cars like the new C3 Aircross. Be­cause if you’re go­ing to en­ter a non-prag­matic seg­ment like that of the com­pact SUV, it re­ally helps to do it with a de­gree of panache.

For­tu­nately the C3 Aircross has more than just de­sign flair in its favour. It’s roomy in­side for a car of such a com­pact foot­print, mean­ing a six-foot pas­sen­ger can sit be­hind a six-foot driver, and three adults can cosy up across the back for short hops. The rear seats slide fore-and-aft to cre­ate ex­tra lug­gage space if you only have kids in the back, and the rear back­rests are rake ad­justable.

And like the reg­u­lar C3 hatch with which it shares pow­er­trains and in­te­rior ar­chi­tec­ture, the cabin is a cheer­ful, agree­able place to spend time. The front seats may lack un­der-thigh and side sup­port, but they are oth­er­wise a bit larger and more gen­er­ously padded than the class norm. The 7.0-inch touch­screen has all the ex­pected func­tion­al­ity and con­nec­tiv­ity, even if some own­ers will miss ded­i­cated cli­mate con­trol knobs, and the Grip Con­trol sys­tem with multi modes to op­ti­mise trac­tion on dif­fer­ent sur­faces is a gim­mick.

What will at­tract at­ten­tion is an in­te­rior that stands apart from the com­pe­ti­tion for de­sign flair, with just enough high-qual­ity ma­te­ri­als to de­liver a premium im­pres­sion.

We drove both the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel four and the 1.2-litre turbo-petrol triple at the launch, and side with Citroen Aus­tralia’s de­ci­sion to only take the lat­ter, mated to a six-speed au­to­matic, as per the C3 hatch which will ar­rive here well ahead of the Aircross. This lit­tle three-pot re­ally is a zesty jig­ger – it’s an En­gine of the Year win­ner in its cat­e­gory three years run­ning – and makes the Aircross will­ing and happy to cop a bit of a spank­ing. My co-driver pointed out its sound­track is a bit like half an atmo 911 climb­ing on cam; try hard and you can sort of hear it.

The steer­ing is not as feather light as that in the C3 hatch, which bet­ter suits the Aircross. It’s slack­free in its re­sponse, but devoid of road feel. Body con­trol is about what you ex­pect in this class, as is the ride – it tries hard to stay com­posed, but sharp edges make it terse, and even fairly re­strained speed on a rough sec­tion of dirt brought some butt-puck­er­ing crash-through.

The only other con­cern lies with the trans­mis­sion cal­i­bra­tion, which is prone to the odd un­pleas­ant thunk as it searches fran­ti­cally for a lower ra­tio dur­ing heavy brak­ing.

But will the type of buyer se­duced by the Aircross’s splash of in­di­vid­u­al­ity and prac­ti­cal­ity no­tice or care? I doubt it. Hey, the lug­gage bay holds 410 litres, which trans­lates to quite a few Louis Vuit­ton bags – if only this wretched queue would move along.

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