Citroen C3 Aircross driven: can it be king of the small SUV crowd?

Andrew English
Sunny disposition: the C3 Aircross looks jaunty and fun

It isn’t often we draw back the veil on a press launch and in normal circumstances Citroen’s ‘Camping-in-Corsica’ theme for its C3 Aircross launch wouldn’t be pertinent. But force majeure in the form of airport delays and torrential rain gave it strange relevance far beyond the spoiled vision of sun-drenched glamping glamour dreamed up for the launch of this supermini-based SUV.

So right now I’m writing in a flapping campaign tent lashed with rain and Mediterranean Sea spray; think Rod Steiger as Napoleon in the 1970 movie Waterloo. A war-like image, but make no bones here, within months the B-segment SUV market is going to be a battleground, with new rivals from Hyundai, Kia, Seat, eventually Skoda and Volkswagen, updates from Ford and others, and a sister to the C3 Aircross in the form of Vauxhall’s Crossland X.    

Strictly speaking, the Aircross is a replacement for the much-loved C3 Picasso multi-purpose vehicle (MPV). It was dreamed up three years ago and is much like its SUV crossover rivals in being a popular supermini hatchback with a high riding/driving position, more space and not much - if any - of the off-road ability implied by the styling.

Citroen’s effort is different in two ways; its appearance and its space. While you'd struggle to find the Aircross handsome exactly, with its jaunty bulges, contrasting colours and unapologetic roof rails, it’s almost toy-like in its appeal. If it could wear a pair of bright dungarees, it would.

“Every Citroen will have a little bit of Cactus in it,” decreed Linda Jackson, the company’s chief executive, after the clever if only marginally successful C4 Cactus MPV. And so it is with Aircross, where practicality reigns supreme, with the things you touch and see well designed and pleasing to the eye, while the in-between bits are a cipher of hard plastics, eau-de-nil fabrics and scratchy carpet.

A range of bright contrast panels and trim is available. Practicality reigns supreme

While the Aircross lacks the luggage motifs of the Cactus, it has more features which are better designed: the door handles, the air vents and the instrument binnacle. Not all of it is great or well finished, though; the steering wheel has sharp moulding edges around the airbag, the door-trim fabrics will wear quickly and there’s an overall impression of cheques written in longevity that won't be honoured.

Oh, and the PSA parts-bin central touchscreen is hard to use, while turning down the heating should not be a two-button operation.

très étrange citroen concept cars

The seats are comfortable, particularly at the rear where on top models the optional (from £350) adjustable bench slides fore and aft and the seat back angles can be adjusted. Luggage space ranges from good at 410 litres to excellent (520 litres), although rear-seat space has to be compromised to achieve the latter.

An optional (£950) double sunroof provides an airy feel, and thanks to the height of the existing roof doesn’t eat into the head room. The boot has a false floor, but that feels lightweight and ill suited to the dogs-and-wellies rigours of family life.

Three basic trim options are augmented with a choice of eight body colours, three roof colours and four colour packs for the cabin. Standard equipment includes lane-departure warning, cruise control and speed-limit recognition, but no radar- and camera-based emergency braking, while you'll have to fork out for the top Flair trim to qualify to pay an extra £600 for the parking assistance pack, which includes blind-spot monitoring.

Four colour packs for the interior are offered, although the superb sliding rear seats are only available on high-spec versions

There are basically two engines, a petrol and a diesel, but with a variety of power outputs and gearboxes. So the 1,199cc three-cylinder petrol comes with 81bhp with a five-speed manual, adding a turbo gets you 108bhp in five-speed manual and six-speed automatic, or with 128bhp as a six-speed manual.

The 1,560cc four-cylinder diesel delivers 98bhp with a five-speed manual, or 118bhp with a six-speed manual. All models are front-wheel drive. The most popular UK model is likely to be the 108bhp petrol in manual form, but the launch only provided a manual diesel and an automatic petrol, so we’ve concentrated on the latter.

The turbocharged three-cylinder engine is eager and responsive, but slightly muted by the automatic gearbox, which is occasionally slow to kick down and has rather widely spaced gear ratios. Few of these small-capacity petrol engines match their published fuel consumption when driven briskly, and so it proves with the C3 Aircross.

The 1.6 diesel will be a more expensive route to economy, but it's a good engine with excellent low-down performance and delivers genuine 60mpg-plus economy while not ruining the handling with its extra weight.

A full-length sunroof is also available

After the anodyne ride and handling of the regular C3 hatchback, the Aircross's dynamics come as a pleasant surprise. The dampers have been well chosen and steering progression addressed. On standard road tyres, both cars turn in reasonably, although without much feedback through the over-assisted steering.

The C3's tendency to yaw uncomfortably through corners has been partially cured, and not by the simple expedient of much thicker anti-roll bars, because it rides reasonably across the car, so passengers’ heads aren’t tossed from side to side. Lift off when committed to a corner and it’ll point in harder, but the electronic stability program is quick to quash that sort of antic.

There’s still a slightly gritty quality to the ride, especially on the all-weather 16-inch Hankook tyres that come with the £400 optional Grip Control with Hill Descent Assist package. This is an advanced anti-scrabble traction control that’ll get you off a snowy car park without embarrassment, which is all you really want out of these little SUVs.

It grips well and goes where it’s pointed, although it's not fun in the manner of, say, a Seat Ibiza or Ford Fiesta, but that’s not why folk buy these cars. On the plus side it's fun to look at and reasonably priced, but it's built light and while the bodyshell is spacious, it feels flimsy and floppy.

With all the aforementioned rivals arriving in this sector over the coming months, being cheap and cheerful isn't really going to be good enough.

THE FACTS

Citroen C3 Aircross

TESTED 1,199cc, three-cylinder turbo petrol, six-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE range from £13,995 to £19,720 (as tested £18,985)/November

POWER/TORQUE 108bhp @ 5,500rpm/151lb ft @ 1,500rpm

TOP SPEED 114mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 11.8sec

FUEL ECONOMY 50.4mpg/40.9mpg (EU Combined/Urban), on test 34.8mpg

CO2 EMISSIONS 126g/km

VED £160 first year, then £140

VERDICT Cheap and funky to look at, with PSA's reasonable drivelines, but the driving experience, while better than the standard C3 hatchback, doesn't match up to that of some very competent rivals arriving in the next few months.

TELEGRAPH RATING Three stars out of five

THE RIVALS

Kia Stonic, from £16,295

Nicely put together rival, with a conservative but well designed and comfortable interior, although the styling is instantly forgettable. The three-cylinder petrol engine is a good choice, but doesn't meet economy claims.

Ford EcoSport, from £15,643

Heavily revised in 2015 (with a further revision due soon), Ford’s smallest SUV hasn't sold well. Despite the massive improvements, it doesn't cut the mustard on this rapidly expanding market.

Nissan Juke, from £14,880

Nissan's inspired small SUV broke cover in 2010 and virtually created the market into which rival manufacturers are now rushing. With Renault-Nissan Alliance drivelines, the Juke has similar driving character to the Captur, but it's more fun and it rides (a bit) better.

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