Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Citroen C3; Signs Of Life From France

The Olympics; that's my excuse for having not posted anything up here for over a fortnight, but Britains no-holds-barred national spendathon having concluded this weekend, I am finally able to peel myself away from the television for long enough to upload more drivel onto this website.

It hasn't helped, either, that where I work there's been a definite shortfall of interesting metal coming in for me to write about. We've had endless German Executive Saloons, but none of which were much different to anything that I've featured here before. So I very much relished the chance to get to grips with the Citroen C3 you see above; desperately hoping that it would have something interesting to say for itself, past Citroens I've spoken about have had at least a frisson of that strange other-worldliness that set them apart from their more conventional competition. But have market forces finally conspired to neuter this spirit? Has competence beaten character in the fight for sales?

Externally there are nods towards the days where Citroens were properly weird. It may be shorn of the Ford Anglia on drugs reverse-screen that linked the Citroen C4 with its Ami forebear of forty years previous, but the undulating waistline; bacon-rasher glass area and roofline arch a la 2CV make for a nicely bonkers overall impression. It's a shame, in a way, that the front door shutline hints at an A-Pillar that could have taken the same dogleg attitude as that on the current Picasso model, but turns out to be completely conventional.  I suppose any more strangeness could have led to too much spinach in the gateaux, a bizarre too far.

But floating in this sea of lunacy is an accomplished roster of very neat individual details. From head on the grille shape is slightly uncomfortably similar to the current shape Ford Ka, but look beyond the Finding Nemo expression and there are a pair of very sharply styled headlamps,  a credit-worthy absence of the DS3s stupid LOOK AT ME daytime running lights and an Art Deco meets Star Trek pattern to the actual grille itself. By the time you get to the rear, though, it's all over. There's hardly anything noteworthy about the rump aspect, but in this case being inoffensive is perhaps wise; Citroen could so easily have let their imaginations run away with them and created something insane to the point of ridicule but have instead ended up playing a safe hand. All the better to avoid scaring customers away.

This one is a nicely specified example. Head inside an an Omen-style 360 degree head swivel reveals that todays meat and veg is all present and correct on the Citroens plate; electric windows, climate control, remote central locking, cruise, traction, it's all there. Yet the familiar old Citroen sound system still lurks there at the foot of the centre stack, slightly anachronistically; with its DIN proportions and little buttons, compared with the avant-garde touches that prevail through the rest of the passenger void.

It's a nice place to be. OK, the colours are Deutsche-Dour rather than French-Frivolous but that's made up for by the number of places where you can almost sense the designer agonising over the best way to handle an air vent here, a grab handle there. None of it makes the slightest difference to the usability of the thing, but it's nice to be surrounded by all these ideas; worthwhile or otherwise.

The dials themselves, illuminated in white as soon as you turn the ignition, are lit further by light stolen through openings at the leading edge of the binnacle, much in the fashion of the concealed windows found in Arts and Crafts Fireplaces. Makes me wonder if the design team were a bunch of frustrated architects, desperate to incorporate a fenestrated bulkhead somewhere or other.

They've made an especially convincing job of it when experienced from the back seats. Slightly short on room they may be for a man of such bizarre proportions as I, deep-vein thrombosis comes on strongly in short order. But for those of more sensible stature all is pleasantly comfortable and airy, and the slightly raised rear bench height makes for an agreeably uninterrupted view of the inevitable traffic chaos ahead of you.

I actually wish my parents had had one of these when I was growing up. I can imagine myself, aged six, sitting in the centre rear seat and transfixed by the view through that windscreen. These enormous swathes of glass that extend beyond the rear view mirror and way back into the roof are becoming increasingly popular, but I have never seen such a feature as well implemented as on the C3. From that centre rear perch the view is expansive enough to take in an entire mountain range, a complete Red Arrows fly-by or an Olympic-style fireworks display. It's utterly brilliant, and the obvious fears of a Palm House at Kew Gardens type humidity experience seem to be quite capably dealt with by the graduated tint at the topmost extremity, which makes every cloudscape look like the Top Gear production team have made merry with the photographic filters.

Other key weirdnesses include the trademark removable perfume vial  which can now be adjusted from gentle whiff to frightful pong at your individual behest, and a strange towelling-like material on certain contact areas. Weird and likeable though, not weird and a bit crap, which is crucial.

Citroen today, more than ever before, are concentrating on making sure that their cars aren't a bit crap, and you can see this in plentiful evidence all around the interior. The electric windows and central locking have subtly rubberised switches and a robust-feeling rubber shield over the central locking keys on the remote fob, all of which probably costs three pence at the point of production, but lends the psychological feeling of quality. Aside from some inevitably mediocre plastics in areas out of direct eyeshot, it all feels notably removed from where Citroen were at 15 or so years ago.

All in all it feels like Citroen stopped designing it just in the nick of time, split seconds before fussiness set in. The C3, inside and out, holds just enough interest to be worthy of the Citroen name, but is close enough to convention to be acceptable to the mainstream. It's a good design balance to have arrived at. This, the Picasso version and the C6 are what the modern Citroens Should be. The DS3, its similarly sized but theoretically "premium" sister tries ever so slightly too hard, and the DS5 that seeks to challenge the Mondeo and 3-Series is one of the most over-styled confections to have ever issued from France, with the various grooves and swathes that thrash about like an eel orgy being electocuted.

I specifically didn't drive this car, in case (as was my suspicion) it was total crap. But I started it up and moved it around a bit, it makes all the expected PSA group diesel noises, the gearshift feels acceptably forgettable and the control weighting feels Mum-friendly. And that's enough, really, to more than justify the C3s place in the world.

If this had been a C5, for example, the issue of whether it drives or performs well would actually have some weight to it. When a Citroen is as comparatively charm-free as the C5, being bland on the road as well as bland in the flesh is a death-sentence. The C5 is so tantalisingly close to being a good car that it's absolutely crippled by being indifferent to drive without this being made up for by an excess of charisma; it's by repeatedly pulling this trick off that has made successions of Alfa Romeos so viable.  Not so this problem for the C3, because it has the "interesting" box so definitively ticked.  A mediocre drive will suffice, any better than that would be greedy.

What say you on the matter, o revered CAR magazine?

"...Big-car feel with cushy ride and smart cabin. But a Polo is better built and a Fiesta miles better to drive"

Well, yes; probably stunningly accurate, but also visciously irrelevant. Want a car built like a Polo? Well, buy one of those, then; or an Audi A1, and sit there in your thin-rimmed spectacles being efficient and having a miserably competent life. Want a car that drives like a Fiesta? Well, buy one of those, then, and be confident in the knowledge that you've bought what is probably the best all-round supermini ever sold. But it's still nowhere near as interesting as the Citroen.

The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Citroen have finally leapfrogged the reliability hurdle that has condemned so many nineties and naughties models to a premature grave. Used Citroens over the past decade have tended to be flakier than a Cadburys Flake versus Ginsters Pasty "Who Can Flake The Hardest?" competition, with myriad electrical gremlins and HDI diesel uh-ohs and repair costs have tended to exceed the material worth of the car. If things have changed, then I look forward to buying one of these in ten years time for five hundred quid.