PASSION. It's defined as "any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate."
Well, Citroen's new C4 Cactus must be the metallic four-wheeled form of passion, as I can think of no other car attracting such an outpouring of polarised opinions. During my near month-long tenure with two Cactus (Cacti?) variants, co-workers, family, friends and strangers bestowed joy, love, confusion and vitriolic hatred on the small SUV. Good. That's means it's a proper Citroen.
The car maker has been at the forefront of quirky design and innovation for decades, tramping its own path on what a car should look like, how it functions and behaves. Historically there have been winners - see the 2CV, DS and CX as prime examples - but in recent years, more conservative buyers and products not really hitting the mark have seen Citroen fall from favour.
But with the small SUV class snowballing, Citroen has hit this red hot segment (popular with the young, families and style-conscious empty nesters alike) with its standout Cactus, coated in distinctive Airbumps, of striking shape and design, and available in a host of vibrant colours: it holds two French fingers up to the proliferation of "safe" car designs.
Two models are available, the cheaper at $26,990 a three-cylinder petrol with manual gearbox, or for $29,990 there's a four-cylinder diesel with semi-automatic gearbox. You're stuck with that format too. No full automatic version is available, nor can you option the two available cars with an alternate cog swapper. We Aussies love an auto gearbox more than most, so the funky Cactus is already at a disadvantage to its more mainstream "option what you like" rivals.
I'd imagine Cactus shoppers are in it to be different though, or are so smitten by the styling they'll consider no other model. I like these people. They're the kind who look forward to see and being seen in their choice of striking car, and will set up enthusiast owners' clubs in the future. You can't really say that of Toyota Camry drivers.
My Cactus test began with the pricier diesel model with semi-auto gearbox. This version offers 68kW and 230Nm, meaning progress is hardly swift with 100kmh reached in 11.4 seconds. But you won't be buying one for performance. The headline figure here is a fuel economy figure of just 3.6L/100km, and unlike some hybrid cars that quote even thriftier figures from lab tests which can't be repeated on the road, my 800km Cactus diesel test returned a quite excellent 4.4L/100km. I don't think I've ever returned a vehicle with such a low number.
The frugal figures are helped by the Cactus' low kerb weight (1020kg petrol and 1055kg diesel), aided by the semi-automatic gearbox as opposed to a heavier full auto. It comes at a cost however. The semi-auto does away with a clutch pedal and it will self-shift, but the diesel Cactus only really changes gear in a smooth way if you lift off the throttle momentarily (as you would in a manual) and up-shift using the steering wheel paddles.
Left to its own devices the Cactus kills revs for a very long time between gear shifts, then lurches uncomfortably as it finds the next gear. It's at its worst when trying to get a quick getaway or between first and second gears, but you do learn to adjust your driving style to suit. It certainly rewards gentle throttle input, which can only help your fuel usage.
The rest of the drive is far more agreeable. There's ample torque from the turbo diesel when it's up to speed, and it cruises blissfully for a small SUV on the highway. The drive itself isn't thrilling, but enjoyment comes from taking it to town, parking it outside your preferred hipster coffee bar and watching as people get the smartphones out, peer in for a closer look, and even risk a cheeky squeeze of the body's Airbumps.
Ah, the Airbumps. These are the moulded panels of plastic air bubbles seen along the Cactus' bumpers and flanks, which are available in a range of colours to contrast with the metal body panels. Primarily there to prevent car parks dings, they unashamedly add the unconventional but smart idea that defines true Citroenness.
They also give ammunition to the haters. I struggled to leave my work car park for 15 minutes one night, as armchair experts vented their opinions on the Cactus' design. Stupid, ugly, brilliant, beautiful; I heard it all. But above all, people were fascinated. They wanted to prod it, feel it, climb in it, know all about it; and that's such a rare thing these days.
It's certainly not all style-focused either. As standard you get a seven-inch touchscreen, sat nav, digital radio, rear view camera, "Magic Wash" wiper system which is incredibly good, cruise control, auto climate control and 17-inch alloy wheels.
It's also wonderfully comfortable with its couch-like front seat. No auto 'box shifter means there are buttons at the dash base instead - Drive, Reverse and Neutral - which is excellent at saving space, unlike the giant aircraft-style handbrake which seems best suited to oversized French farmer hands as opposed to dainty Parisienne fashionista paws.
Cabin space is decent for a small SUV, with acceptable room for two adults in the back, but seats are firm. The Cactus works best as a small family hauler, with wide opening rear doors and some of the deepest storage bins you'll ever find, while 356-litres boot space is good for the segment. It's a tad plasticky in places, but cool touches like door handle pull straps, giant dash-top bin and a simple retro digital speedo readout are compensation.
The cabin's the same in the petrol Cactus, albeit you lose the front couch seating as the gear stick and conventional handbrake need their place. Not a fan of manuals? Promised you'd never buy one? If you want a Cactus it's really worth the effort to try.
The 1.2-litre turbo three-cylinder petrol engine is a gem, it makes a lovely little note and its zippy, revvy nature suits the town and city life where the Cactus is in its element. More powerful than the diesel, its 81kW and 205 Nm helps the SUV hit 100kmh in 9.3 seconds, while the five speed manual is a doddle to use: the throw is on the long side, but both clutch and gear shift are light and easy.
I returned a still excellent 5.4L/100km on my test, and developed a far happier relationship with the petrol variant. For a start it's $3000 cheaper than the diesel, and if you aren't terrified of a clutch pedal there's more joy to be had with the manual petrol Cactus - this drivetrain simply suits the fun and playful Cactus nature better.
It's a car that's supposed to be about enjoyment: just look at the uniqueness of the thing. The small SUV class is full of quality content, but there's nothing else in there to trump the Cactus for sheer visual impact. Some will love it, some will hate it, but that just makes it so wonderfully Citroen.
What matters most
What we liked: Looks like nothing else out there, fun and swift enough three-cylinder petrol with manual gearbox, very comfortable and quite family friendly, superb fuel economy, warranty.
What we'd like to see: Ditch the semi-automatic for a proper auto, heater/fan controls are a pain through the touchscreen, diesel model's massive handbrake is tough to use.
Warranty and servicing: 6-year unlimited kilometre warranty and servicing program.
Model: Citroen C4 Cactus.
Details: Five-door front-wheel-drive small SUV.
Engines: 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol generating 81kW @ 5500rpm and 205Nm @ 1500rpm; 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel with 68kW @4000rpm and 230Nm @ 1750rpm.
Transmissions: Five speed manual (petrol car); six-speed semi-automatic (diesel car).
Consumption: 4.7-litres/100km (petrol); 3.6-litres/100km (diesel).
Performance 0-100kmh: 9.3 seconds (petrol); 11.4 seconds (diesel).
Bottom line plus on-roads: $26,990 (petrol); $29,990 (diesel).
Driving experience 14/20
Features and equipment 15/20
Functionality and comfort 15/20
Value for money 16/20
Style and design 18/20