TO BE a car designer must be a curious thing. Training no doubt involves designs for dull and functional production-friendly models as well as the wild-and-wacky, fanciful concepts (25in wheels; no windscreen; floating seats, roof-mounted drones for surveying traffic; etc.). On the whole, the more creative the idea, the more satisfying it must be.
Then they graduate from design school and are hired by Vauxhall or Fiat or Renault (if they’re lucky) and set to work on a new sliding door for a panel van, which is possibly not what they had in mind while dreaming about being the next Pininfarina.
Even if they end up styling cars, it’s unlikely the sleek, ground-breaking draft of the latest supermini will make it to concept form, let alone production. It might grab attention on a stand at a motor show but it would likely be too wild and impractical for the masses.
Instead, production versions have been homogenised by accountants and engineers, who make the windows bigger, create more space inside, add safety, improve aerodynamics and make the car more… well, like other cars.
Citroëns tend to be a little different, though. The French car maker has always had a reputation for quirky design – it came up with the 2CV and the DS, after all – but its recent efforts also deserve special praise for veering as far away as possible from the uniform grey boxes that roll off the production lines of much of the competition.
Just look at the C4 Cactus, for example. It’s as if the design team managed to sneak a concept car into production while the chief exec was on holiday. The shape… what is it, an SUV, estate or a hatchback? Those Airbump panels on the side are weird. And the interior? It’s as if they haven’t been paying attention to what other cars look like at all. Citroën even manages to make people carriers look interesting these days.
And this is why it’s cool to be a Citroën owner again. Its new cars are so distinctive. So stylish. So French.
The new C3, which goes up against the likes of the VW Polo, Renault Clio and Ford Fiesta (which is the favourite for keen drivers), is no exception. The success of the C4 Cactus has given Citroën the confidence to trickle down its eccentric design themes to other models in the range, and the new C3 notably borrows its LED running lights that sit eyebrow-like above the main headlights, as well as the bubblewrap – sorry Airbump – on the door panels. The Airbumps are toned down for the C3 and can be removed (rather than added, importantly) when speccing the car, should they prove a little too adventurous for the buyer.
“The glovebox is too small even for the manual. You’d be lucky to get a pair of gloves in there”
It’s a bold and funky exterior, and the interior is just as refreshingly kooky. The abundant use of rectangles – in the door panels, and for the air vents and switchgear – is striking. Of course, for a car that starts at around £11,000, some of the plastics feel a bit cheap, but you don’t care because it looks great. It’s an interior that can cheer up a driver, even on the Monday morning commute to work. The red contrast-coloured plastic trim running across the width of the dashboard and the retro-style leather door grabs, in particular, lift your mood.
Other things make you happy, too. Citroën has engineered the most audibly satisfying tick-tock for its indicators, the gearchange is smooth, it comes with plenty of tech, including a decent touchscreen display and something of a unique selling point: a dash cam built into the windscreen, which can record accidents and save you some money on insurance. Space in rear and boot isn’t bad for a supermini, either.
It’s not all good news, though. The steering is too light and, while the ride is comfortable, the suspension is very soft and not as well damped as most rivals, leading to excessive body roll through corners. Worse, the beam suspension at the rear snaps down when driving over a sleeping policeman with a deeply unpleasant thunk.
And if you’re over 6ft tall, you’ll find the driver’s seat is too short and the top of it digs in below your shoulder blades, making long journeys a chore.
Also, the engine fitted to our Citroën C3 test car was the “PureTech 110” 1.2-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged unit, which pulls well and doesn’t pump out the dreaded toxins found in diesel, but be warned: we averaged only around 40 miles to the gallon during our week-long loan, rather than claimed 61.4mpg.
There are two other PureTech three-cylinder petrol engines, the 68 and 82, and two diesel options, the BlueHDi 75 and 100. The more powerful motors offer the best mix of power and efficiency but add cost, so the PureTech 82 might make most sense for most buyers.
There are other problems. Thanks to the engineers not moving the fuse box when converting to right-hand drive, the glovebox is too small even for the manual. You’d be lucky to get a pair of gloves in there, to be honest.
Storage is a bit of a problem all round, and the cupholders under the centre console are hard to manoeuvre drinks in and out of. You can forget storing your morning grande cappuccino in there.
Still, it’s hard to hold a grudge against the little C3. It’s just too good-looking and friendly not to forgive. If I were a car designer, I’d want to work for Citroën.