When it comes to the less expensive end of motoring, there are plenty of cheap and cheerful offerings. The best small cars deliver even more than that, with class-leading machines like the Toyota Corolla Altis, Honda Jazz and Volkswagen Golf 1.0 delivering the sort of experience most anybody can easily get behind.
Of course, that’s assuming you are ‘most people’. There’s a smaller subset of buyers for whom ubiquity is the ultimate sin, whose cars are supposed to represent more than just getting from point A to B.
If that sounds like you, and you’re not interested in a Volkswagen Beetle or a Mini of any sort, then this your car: The Citroen C4 Cactus.
First launched in 2015, the small hatch runs on the same platform as the Peugeot 208/Citroen C3, but looks utterly different, which is perhaps the exact point. We previously described it as looking like it rolled straight out of a concept design studio, and that hasn’t changed.
If there was a competition measuring uniqueness-to-dollars, the Cactus would undoubtedly take the grand prix. It’s still the sort of car that you’ll walk back to only to find people staring at it with a confused look resembling the HMV dog.
Visually, it’s probably the automotive equivalent of durian: Those who don’t like it get a headache, but those who love it will be like pigs rolling around in mud. Or perhaps orangutans eating durian would be a better metaphor. You can’t even say the car looks ugly, because it’s too bizarre to be ugly.
Citroen did nothing with the design this time around, perhaps understandably so, given the Cactus already hit the ball out of the park with its bold appearance.
Happily, it does get major changes where it counts the most: The drivetrain.
It’s still powered by a 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine, but the unit is now the same turbocharged ‘Puretech’ model found in the Peugeot 208. It’s a huge improvement over the non-turbo engine of before – going from 80hp and just 118N to a generous 110hp and 205Nm of torque.
Another major step forward is that the old single-clutch, robotised manual five-speed gearbox (aka ETG) is now replaced by a six-speed conventional automatic unit.
It’s a very good thing, given how many CarBuyer staffers, both present and historical, think that the ETG is the automotive equivalent of malaria, in that it should have been eradicated years ago. PSA (Citroen and Peugeot’s group owner) was one of the last holdouts of this herky-jerky and hard to live with gearbox tech, and now that it’s finally changing its tune its products will do better across the board.
Granted the new automatic isn’t perfect – you’ll know exactly when it downshifts – but regular folk with have a much easier time with it, as you no longer need to ‘drive around’ problems like the ETG, you simply step to go and lift off to slow down.
A revitalised drivetrain means the car gains 75kg, but is still featherweight at 1,050kg, so it’s positively perky now, shaving a huge 4.3 seconds off its 0-100km/h time.
The turbo triple sounds rorty and gives real shove to the Cactus at all speeds, so at least now you no longer feel like you have to drive around other cars, there’s enough spike to rabbit forward into that empty gap in traffic, for instance.
With the car’s lack of mass retained, it behaves like a classical small French hatch (yes just ignore the appearance) in that it has good ride quality, is fun and nippy in the handling department, and doesn’t gobble fuel like an American.
The downside to this is that it’s not refined: Less weight also means less insulation so road noise is apparent, and when the road gets rough the suspension’s lack of sophistication is also noticeable. That’s all fair, given the price tag, and similarly inexpensive vehicles will behave the same way.
And there’s no doubting the Cactus has practical capabilities too. While the rear windows don’t roll down (another weight/cost saving measure, no doubt), you can fit five adults in the car, can make good use of the full-sized 350-litre boot, although sadly there’s nowhere to stow your phone conveniently up front.
While it may not be the quietest car inside, Citroen’s design flair takes the hard edge off that with good material choice and presentation, and a full-featured infotainment system.
If you didn’t like the Cactus before, the new one isn’t going to change your mind. But Citroen has shorn the prickly shortcomings of the previous model’s drivetrain while keeping the good stuff intact.
Citroen C4 Cactus PureTech 110
Engine 1,199cc, inline 3, turbocharged
Power 110bhp at 5500rpm
Torque 205Nm at 1500rpm
Gearbox 6-speed automatic
Top Speed 188km/h
0-100km/h 10.7 seconds
Fuel efficiency 4.8L/100km
Price $99,999 with COE
Agent Cycle & Carriage France
Verdict: More than cheap and cheerful, the Citroen C4 Cactus is for those who want a car with personality, but without a huge price tag, while preserving a decent amount of practicality.