I’ve always been a fan of unconventional cars, and this Citroen C4 Cactus ticks the spots in all the right spaces. First there’s the styling. It’s polarising sure, with the smooth, almost featureless nose, matched by the Tonka toy look of the rest of the car. But what’s most notable about the car are the panels down the side. These are Citroen’s ‘Airbump’ system, and in both theory and practice they work very well. The idea is to protect the paintwork (and the car) by covering the sides in rubber panels with little bumps in them to provide some cushioning in the event that someone smacks their car door into the side of the Cactus, or a rampant supermarket trolley makes a beeline for the side of the car.
The Airbumps are the defining features of the car, but they tend to make you overlook the rest of the design. Look at the roof rails – they are more like aerodynamic upside down ice skates. The stripes behind the rear doors make the car look less blocky, and the big unpainted wheel arches are there for similar reasons for the Airbumps on the side. At the front and rear corners there are also a couple of more Airbumps, again to protect the car in urban areas.
On the inside the radical ideas continue. It starts with the hand brake, which is positioned where a gearlever would normally live. It’s a huge handle that swings up and down and has a
massive handle at the end. The gear change itself is on the lower centre console, and is simply three buttons – D for drive, N for neutral, and R for reverse. It’s a reminder that most automatic transmissions are controlled electronically these days, and that a lever on the centre console is more of an affectation than an essential part of the transmission. It is also possibly a nod to American cars of the fifties, which tended to have ‘futuristic’ buttons for their transmissions. If you want you can also change gear via paddles behind the steering wheel.
The $37,990 eHDi tested here is powered by a 1.6 litre diesel engine developing 68kW and 230Nm of torque for a claimed combined fuel consumption of only 3.6 L/100km, which is pretty impressive, but you do pay a price for that figure.
Because there’s a glaring problem with the car. While there is a petrol Cactus available with a five- speed manual, the diesel has only a single clutch six-speed automated gear change.
Essentially, this is a standard manual gearbox with electronically activated arms that operate the clutch and gearbox selector arm. Great in practice, but in real life there are a few practical problems.
The very first automated road going gear change was the Ferrari F1 gearbox, fitted to the 360 in 1999. Even when you had paid a massive premium for the gearbox the reliability and durability was not all that great, and when the same technology filtered down into the Alfa Romeo 156 it wasn’t much better. The Ferrari could get away with fast gear changes that tended to wear out the clutch quickly, but in the (much) more affordable Alfa the clutch had to last as long as possible, which meant that the gearbox took a notably long time to actually change gear and the pause in power delivery meant that the car tended to lurch forwards and backwards with each gear change unless you managed to time a lift of the accelerator pedal exactly right.
And it’s so in the diesel Cactus. The gear change takes a long time, and you have to lift off the throttle to ensure a smooth gear change. The trick is working out when the gearbox will decide to change gear. Use the paddles and you can make smoother progress, but there’s still the old single clutch gearbox problem of burning the clutch when reversing slowly up hills.
You can make satisfactory progress in the diesel Cactus, but for many people this will be a deal breaker, which is rather annoying, because the car itself is a design statement, not perhaps in the mould of the Citroen DS, but one that definitively makes a statement, and stands out around all the boring car designs we see today.