By Andy Enright
Trying to second-guess the behaviour of British car buyers can be an unrewarding endeavour. Citroen's first generation C3 was a supermini with little in the way of desirability other than some economical engines and a modest asking price, yet it proved a hit. The second generation model is a far more attractive proposition yet has proved a tougher sell for the French. This lack of buzz does mean that used bargains are around if you're prepared to do the spadework.
The Citroen C3 forged its reputation as a resolutely unsporty supermini with inoffensive styling, and which offered strong value for money. Never really a market leader in any area, it sold largely on the basis that it was about the cheapest supermini you could buy without an irredeemably bargain basement badge on its nose. Perhaps this quality of British buyer behaviour was overlooked when Citroen launched the second generation car in 2009.
It was better in every conceivable regard, being a good deal more handsome, offering manifestly better fit and finish and improving the old car's safety and security quite markedly. As a consequence of its improved features and quality, pricing crept up, with entry level versions knocking on the door of £11,000. Then a strange thing happened that completely swept the carpet from beneath the C3. The scrappage scheme was introduced and this changed the way customers perceived cheap cars in general and Korean cheap cars in particular. The stigma attached to a Kia or a Hyundai was removed and this, coupled with the increasing sophistication of these marques, meant many defected. Why buy a Citroen C3 1.4 diesel when an equivalent Hyundai i20 was £2,000 cheaper? Citroen's sporty DS3 also served to divert attention from the C3. The forgotten car in the Citroen line up is, strangely, also one of its best.
What You Get
Many of Citroen's most critically acclaimed efforts of recent times have been MPVs. The French manufacturer understands this area of the market and it's not a shock that elements of these successful people carrier designs have found their way into the C3 supermini. The domed roof line is carried over from the original C3 but efforts have been made to elongate the look of the car and the latest model is a far sleeker and sharper prospect. There's a large glass area for visibility and light in the cabin and the seating position is more upright than in many superminis, simplifying entries and exits.
Unusually for a supermini, the C3 is barely any bigger than the car it replaced. At 3940mm long, it's not one of the larger models in this sector and keeping the exterior dimensions tight helped the designers to pull the neat trick of keeping the outgoing C3's weight. Inside, there's little sign that the car's had its growth stunted. It boasts one of the biggest boots of any supermini, at 300 litres, and there's room for four adults. Six-footers will struggle for headroom in the back but legroom behind the front seats is good for a supermini.
It's clear that Citroen went out of its way to make the C3 cabin environment feel special. There's a vast range of different textures and finishes around the interior and some engaging design features. The centre console controls are neat and easy to operate, the steering wheel is well shaped and the design of the instruments demonstrates some flair. There are quite a few small storage areas dotted around and although the door-pockets are a little truncated, the glovebox is surprisingly large.
What to Look For
The C3 hasn't experienced any significant reported problems to date. The only blot on its reliability record has been a recall of some 72 cars built in late 2010 due to crankshafts being incorrectly machined. As long as the service records have been properly adhered to it's down to time and miles in order to establish whether the C3 lives up to Citroen's claim that it has ironed out many of the niggling issues that plagued the old C3.
(approx based on a 2010 Citroen C3 1,4 VTR+) Citroen spares are by no means the cheapest. A replacement alternator will be around £170 while a new headlamp bulb is £13. Tyres are £140 a corner and a 20,000 mile service will weigh in at around £200.
On the Road
It's in urban areas where the C3 gives the best account itself. At low speeds, the suspension masks the assorted humps, cracks and potholes with supple aplomb and the engines remain unobtrusive. Citroen's efforts to reduce noise levels in the car with more insulating material in the engine bay and improved joints around the doors have paid off, too. The light steering and 10.2m turning circle will help owners out of many a tight spot, as will a good field of vision around the car. Only the Citroen trademark clunky gearbox and over-sharp brakes let the side down.
On the open road, it's more of a mixed bag. The car feels stable and comfortable at motorway cruising speeds where engine refinement continues to hold up well but the wind rustles around the A-pillars, breaching the peace. Through corners, the C3's soft set-up contributes to more body lean than is the case with the best handling superminis. It's not too bad, though, and the car changes direction sweetly, so it's perfectly possible to have some fun driving it.
On the engine front, the diesels make the most sense. The smooth VTi petrol units are competent but even the 1.6 feels quite lethargic at low revs. You need to work it harder to access the meat of its 120bhp power output and even then, performance is hardly explosive while the engine note gets harsh. The diesels have more shove low down and are generally quite progressive in their power delivery, settling down to a muted drone at motorway speeds.
The Citroen C3 is one of those new cars that is a victim of circumstance, the company driving it upmarket just as the Government's scrappage scheme, revitalised interest in cheap cars. As such, it'll probably never recover from the bad start if suffered and looks set to remain a slow new seller. All of which means that it's a very interesting used buy. A lack of momentum from new tends to spell bargains when shopping used and the C3 looks strong value second time round. Opt for the 1.4-litre diesel engine and you'll have a workable number of cars to choose from, but patience, a willingness to travel and chutzpah when negotiating are the keys to landing a genuine deal. Here's a supermini recommendation you might want to keep under your hat.