Citroën C4 Cactus: Future Classic or Modern Tat?
Since its debut in 2014, the Cactus has earned cult status and is now considered a future modern day classic. But is this reputation warranted?
How does that old proverb go? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? The adage has been used for centuries to describe all manner of things, from priceless works of art to townhouses, advanced machinery to simple decorations. In most instances, it’s justified. Whilst Edvard Munch’s 1940’s ‘masterpiece’ “Angry Dog” doesn’t necessarily tick any boxes for me, for some it may well be the most exquisite piece ever sketched by his fine Norwegian hand.
During one of my lockdown lunch hours a few weeks ago, I saw a list published online that read, “Top 10 affordable Future Classics”. The list was fairly inoffensive, all the usual suspects were there; BMW E36 M3, the first generation Audi TT (I’ll get to that one next), the third generation Ford Focus RS, all very exciting and worthy contenders on a list of that nature. However, one car jumped out at me as a slightly more unconventional and puzzling inclusion.
The car in question was the Citroën C4 Cactus. This bizarre entry into Citroën's eclectic catalogue burst onto the scene in 2014, joining the now crowded Crosshatch market and was a surprising success, selling well across mainland Europe and the United Kingdom. With prices starting at around £15,000, it was cheap utilitarian transport for the masses. The Cactus was innovative too, sporting 'Airbumps' on its doors that were designed to absorb slight knocks and scrapes in close quarters supermarket carparks. To top things off, it was designed to be as sturdy in a crash as a reinforced concrete block, the whole package was everything Citroën has stood for with it's cars. Affordable, comfortable and safe, no wonder it sold well, they're still a common sight on UK roads now.
However, as you can probably tell, despite its popularity, I've never fully understood this car. My Grandparents bought one on release in mid-2014 and since then it's been passed down to my brother who now has the pleasure of having this as his daily driver. So having experienced the Cactus from the passenger and drivers seat, I feel I'm well qualified to answer the following. How on earth is this car so popular? And how is it now a future classic?
It's not a pretty sight
Lets get one thing straight, the Cactus is an ugly car. It's about as aesthetically pleasing as a Baboon's behind and comes across as having been designed by someone who drew things up on an etch-a-sketch in a room with no light. The front of the car would be passable if not for the monstrous headlights. The designers gave the Cactus these whopping great lights that seem slightly too big for the car they're attached to. Then to highlight this fact, they gave it great big bags under its eyes, almost to illustrate the sleepless nights you'll be having knowing this is the face to greet you on the drive in the morning.
The ensemble is polished off with a set of quizzical eyebrows perched curiously on the bonnet lining, these are your daylights, and they don't improve the styling one iota. In this case, one or the other would have sufficed, but both at once contribute to make the front of the car a truly abhorrent sight, a real Frankenstein's Monster of design.
Photo - https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/602075043903930550/
The rear is much better, there's relatively little overhang at the back of the car so it looks slightly sportier than many of its competitors, and Citroën didn't decide to overcomplicate things on the styling side, the design is very basic and inobtrusive which is good considering the appalling mess at the front.
Then we get to the sides and the innovative airbumps. I never 'got' them when the car was released in 2014, and I don't 'get' them now 7 years later. Citroën are no strangers to innovation, they were the first car manufacturer to fit 'Hydropneumatic suspension' and 'modern disc brakes' to production cars. Sadly, Airbumps are not one to add to this illustrious list. In fact they were so innovative and trend setting that Citroën decided to pretty much remove them from their 2018 retooling. When my grandparents bought the car in 2014, they assured me the bumps would be unnoticeable. They lied...
They stick out like a sore thumb, the example I have is a shade of gunmetal grey, so the bumps (in all their charcoal coloured glory) are doing their best to remain hidden, but the result just looks like you're trying to cover up an axe wound with a plaster, there's not a bandage big enough to cover up that sort of mess. They haven't aged well at all and it's very clear to see why this feature never really caught on, not only with Citroën, but other manufacturers as well.
It's no surprise that 30% of all Cactus sales in the United Kingdom are black cars with black Airbumps, thus underlying the clear consumer contempt for this particular party piece. But, credit where its due, they at least tried to be innovative! More than can be said for some of the Cactus' competitors.
It's safe to say, the classic car buyers of the future won't be getting this one for the styling. I struggle to think of a bonafide classic that is styled like this to be honest, but maybe that's all part of the appeal for some. For me however, it's a big fat 'no' on this particular point.
A much nicer place to be
So, we've established in terms of external features, the Cactus is a bit of an ugly duckling. Fortunately, things on the inside are a marked improvement, and not just because on the inside you don't have to look at the beast you're driving!
The Cactus came in three trim levels when new, Touch, Feel and Flair. The 'Touch' came with as many creature comforts as a basic prison cell, so you were effectively buying one and a half tons of basic car. This option is practically useless as it didn't even have Air Conditioning as standard! Avoid this one at all costs. Get the middle of the range 'Feel' if you absolutely must, and if you can afford the top end 'Flair' model then do so.
The cabin is both spacious and an all-round pleasant place to be. The Cactus is endowed with both Sat Nav and Digital Radio as well as a touch screen dash display. This example also had the reversing camera and parking sensors installed, which is useful. The tech doesn't end there, as the Cactus also has digital dials and speedometers as standard. None of this manual needle malarkey you get on a similar Nissan or Ford!
It should be noted however, this tech isn't necessarily user friendly, the Sat Nav for instance is more confusing than a Matrix film, but you get used to its functionality eventually. Same can be said of the optional extra 'Air Conditioning', this is navigated via a button on the same touch screen rather than a simple dial, which is thoroughly irritating to find and use whilst travelling.
Not only is there acres of space to move around in the front, but you get ample room in the back. I come from a family of giants and the Cactus has absolutely no trouble in lugging four Adults over 6ft about. My one complaint is that I would say the front seats are mounted a bit too high and upright without too much support, which can lead to a bit of an achy back without some adjustments, and rear headroom is at a bit of a premium if you are of a slightly taller build.
There's also more cubby holes and storage compartments in this thing than in some peoples homes. You get a generously sized glovebox (due to the strange design of having the passenger airbag in the roof rather than dashboard) and four large door buckets, as well as cupholders and several trays where you can leave your keys during a long journey, and scramble round in confusion come journeys end when they've mysteriously slipped out mid trip.
The interior is possibly the best feature of the car, partly because when you're in it you're not looking at the terrible styling outside, but mainly because it's a genuinely nice area to sit in. The tech is all fairly manageable and there's more space than a flat country plain, you even get a sunshine, panoramic roof fitted which makes things seem a million times bigger (and better).
This said though, I'm struggling to understand where the main hook is. While it's nice and everything, there are better interiors out there. There's a lot of cheap plastic knocking about, almost akin to Tupperware, particularly the glove compartment. That said it's nice to have a touch screen display, most cars of this price sold before 2015 don't have that. Despite this, the prosaic nature of the Cactus' interior isn't going to set any pulses racing, and certainly not any future classic car buyers.
Easy to live with but there's a few pet peeves
Citroën have always produced easy cars to live with on a day to day basis. There's no messing about with their products, the old C4 was a superb daily runner and so is the current and old C3, both of which I have experience of (can you tell which brand my family is loyal to yet?)
The Cactus is no exception. A car of this size typically is four wheel driven, however in this case the Cactus settles for the standard front wheel drive configuration, which means you get the added bonus of a boot the size of Pangea. You could fit several large animals in the back without a hitch and, in keeping with the superb usability of the Cactus, the rear seats fold down easier than a Childs Fisher Price Toy, meaning you get EVEN more space in the back. However, the seats fold down as one in a bench sort of formation, so if you are folding them down, the car effectively becomes a two seater which detracts from the flexibility a car like this should offer.
Photo - Citroen Australia
There are more drawbacks. You get electric windows, but only in the front, and then in the rear you don't even get the old fashioned winders. You get the idiotically designed clips on the windows which open outwards to give you a small letterbox style gap in the window, which allows enough air to enter the cabin to make it feel like an asthmatic dormouse is coughing on you. Thankfully, the air conditioning is superb, but I should highlight that this feature is not available on the entry level 'Touch' car, so if you're buying one used, avoid that entry model at all costs!
The ride quality is fairly serviceable as well, the Cactus glides over bumps and potholes without a care in the world. The suspension is a tad firm and there's only the one setting, but when you're mounted as high as this, it doesn't tend to be too noticeable. As mentioned, Citroën pioneered hydraulic suspension and it shows on this example, and it's marvelous to see that 60 years later that same DNA is present on it's models. Some things never change eh?
Whilst this is a positive note for the Cactus, no prospective classic car buyers are looking for this sort of thing with their purchase. A modern day alternative can be found that does things much more effectively. So it begs the question, if you aren't buying it for the styling or the interior design or the practicality, then what are you getting it for? Where's the appeal?
Woefully underpowered and sluggish
Now we neatly Segway into my biggest issue with this car. Performance.
The Cactus came with two engine options, a 1.2 L 3 Cylinder Petrol or a 1.6 L HDi 16V Diesel. This one is the 1.6 L Diesel, and its absolute garbage. The thing has no poke or torque whatsoever, and in a car that weighs almost as much as a small moon, it is completely necessary to make it move forwards at any speed above 20 mph. This is especially noticeable at standing starts, as you'll be revving it to hell and back to build up any momentum whatsoever, and by that time you'll have been passed by all manner of school buses, pushbikes and milkfloats, as any form of acceleration takes the better part of a year to reach mere crawling speed.
The cardinal sin of all this is that this particular car was fitted with an automatic gearbox. It truly is a diabolically awful system, in the gap between gear changes you could have a cup of tea, read the paper and finish the crossword and the damn thing still wouldn't have changed up to third. Then it gets in a right muddle on the down changes as well, entering a low speed corner from fourth sets the gearbox into a midlife crisis. Changing down into third, before deciding that it wants to be second mid corner. Then on exit, the thing will rev uncontrollably till the valves pop out and dance on its monstrously designed bonnet before finding the right gear for the situation. It honestly is a shambolic design!
This is then coupled with brakes that are far too sensitive, they feel like they're bolted to the back of your skull and so they take a lot of getting used to, by which time you'll have emergency stopped at least seven times. It's a really unhealthy cocktail and one which I wouldn't want to try twice!
Photo Credit - Birway
I tell myself that in a manual it would be better, but even then I'm still left unconvinced due to the sheer lack of power in this 1.5 tonne behemoth, and this is the 1.6L so god knows what happens with the 1.2! Scant recompense for this appalling deficit is the fuel economy, the car is more than capable of achieving 50mpg, Citroën claimed the diesel would be able to do 90mpg but I'm yet to see even close to that figure in 7 years of ownership. Nonetheless, the gap between fill ups makes it a competent daily runner, even if you'll never be going anywhere fast whilst driving it.
The power disadvantage coupled with the ride quality does make this car very manageable at low speeds. Running around town at a cruise, the Cactus feels right at home, albeit it feels a bit big and cumbersome while doing it. Cruising round town is a trait embodied by the Citycar or smaller based Hatchbacks and that hasn't changed here, as the Cactus just feels too clumsy to be significantly better at this than its rivals, but it's serviceable nonetheless.
The drive outside of town however is boring and unengaging, fairly comfortable yes, but not fun in any way shape or form. The steering isn't sharp at all, it just feels vague and coupled with the dire automatic transmission on this model and hypersensitive brakes, the whole experience is a bit of a chore on any country road with twist, turns and corners. In a manual, things might be better but it's safe to say the performance that the 1.6L Auto offers is FAR from classic car material.
Not the classic it's billed to be
Its a shame that the performance of this car, coupled with the aforementioned styling, undoes a lot of the good that the interior and practicality did. It does a few things well but the majority is poor to borderline abysmal.
I find it hard to fathom how this is considered a future classic. It's not rare. It's not fun. And it's not very good. It has a few design quirks and the airbumps are a novelty that your average crosshatch doesn't have, but that can't save the downright dreariness that this car exudes. With a thoroughly dull driving experience and some questionable design choices, its very difficult to see how this thing has garnered the cult following it has.
You can get a used model with hyperinflated mileage nowadays for around about £4,000, and if you want one with under 100,000 miles you'll be paying around £5,000. Most of these are the middle of the range Flair model, which is the one you want if you absolutely must have this car. But, you don't. Because for the same price, you can get a used Ford Fiesta ST-2 which is a million times more fun to drive, just as practical (if not more-so), better to look at and all round a much finer example of a desirable future classic.
Citroën designed this car to be an alternative to the offerings from Ford and Volkswagen, even having the cheek of saying the Cactus was designed to 'add more flair'. But this is only going to work if the product does things better if not on par with those offerings, and it just doesn't. It doesn't even compete with it's crosshatch competitors, the Nissan Juke (while equally gopping to look at) is by far and away a better car than this dreary piece of tat.
I suppose it all goes back to the initial proverb, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. I'm sure many will see the Cactus as a quirky little thing, an example of doing something different. But most of these people probably already own one, and I can only guess the composer of the future classic car list did too. Because whilst it tries to do something different, it doesn't necessarily do it very well. Much like Munch's 'Angry Dog', it was a new approach for him at the time, but I much prefer his earlier Expressionism works, and that's what the Cactus is like, the ugly new working, whilst the Ford Fiesta is the much more desirable 'Scream'.