By Jonathan Crouch
Citroen's C4 Cactus hatch got a reboot in its much facelifted post-2018 improved form. It became a little less extrovert in this guise, but was still fashion-led and highly personalisable. These are attributes which ought to have played well for buyers seeking something a little different in the more conventional family hatch sector where Citroen repositioned this product. Sales though, were slow. The key changes here came as part of the company's 'Advanced Comfort' programme, which brought more supportive seats and a clever new suspension system. So, charisma and comfort take centre stage in a very individual little family car.
In a market full of family hatchbacks determined to become SUVs, it's rather refreshing to find a product with the opposite perspective. Citroen's C4 Cactus started out in 2014 as the brand's offering to buyers in search of a compact crossover. In 2018 though, it re-invented itself as a more conventional family hatchback, but one with a rather unique perspective on life.
If you're at all familiar with the way the Citroen model line-up has developed in recent times, the reason for this change of product emphasis becomes fairly clear. By the time of this evolved C4 Cactus model's introduction in early 2018, the brand had launched two compact SUVs, the C3 Aircross and the C5 Aircross, so no longer really needed this Cactus to appeal to the crossover crowd. What it did need was something that would represent the company in the mainstream Focus, Astra and Golf-dominated family hatch 'C'-sector. This territory ought to have been covered by Citroen's conventional C4 hatch model, but the rather dull second generation version of that car was phased out in late 2017 due to slow sales. To bridge the gap to the introduction of the next generation C4 hatch in late 2020, the brand decided to rely on this rejuvenated C4 Cactus to take on heavyweight volume rivals in this crucially important market segment.
To be able to do that, the cheerful, quirky demeanour that marked out the original Cactus model needed to mature a little. The huge side-mounted 'Airbump' panels that characterised that earlier design represented a fun touch for crossover buyers but risked looking merely silly on a product repositioned to appeal to more conventional folk. To please these people, this Citroen needed to offer a core attribute with a little more substance - and did. 'Comfort', the advertising around this car proclaimed, 'is the new cool'.
Perhaps. It's certainly a virtue that used to characterise this Gallic brand in the days of legendary models like the Traction Avant, the 2CV and the DS. In more recent times when Citroens became little more than re-badged Peugeots, that selling point was sacrificed, but the company decided to resurrect it in 2018 with its so-called 'Advanced Comfort' programme. In the C4 Cactus, this delivered super-supportive 'Advanced Comfort' seats and a clever new suspension system using what the marque called 'Progressive Hydraulic Cushions'. There was also a smarter, more spacious-feeling cabin, extensive personalisation opportunities, much improved safety provision and the option of an extra more powerful PureTech 130 petrol engine at the top of the range. Sales though were slow and this car was deleted from the range in 2020.
What You Get
Rarely has a car been so characterised by a single styling feature as was the original version of this model. At its launch in 2014, the so-called 'Airbump' panels, slavered over its sides like slabs of Dairy Milk chocolate, were all people wanted to talk about. The Airbumps didn't disappear entirely with this post-2018-era revised model, but they shrunk in size to a point where people no longer noticed them quite so much. There were more signs of maturity at the front, which in this facelifted guise gained the look of a proper car rather than an overgrown Tonka toy.
As before, there was a two-tier lighting signature, but with this updated model, the upper daytime running light strip flows into the kind of broad Citroen signature grille that features on other models in the company's range.
Inside, the changes made to create this improved model were less obvious - until you start to inspect the generously proportioned 'Advanced Comfort' seats, which are completely different to those installed on the original model. They feature broader bases and foam that's 15mm thicker for extra support, plus the extra quilted padding creates an inviting visual signature that doesn't disappoint once you squish yourself into place.
Otherwise, the minimalistic cabin with its designer flourishes remained much as before. So you get door handles inspired by leather luggage straps and what is probably our favourite feature, a huge, stylised lidded glovebox - Citroen likes to call it a 'Top Box'. The reason it's so big is that the dashboard doesn't have to swallow a passenger airbag, this feature instead moved up to the roof where it's mounted just under the headlining.
Otherwise, the atmosphere is simple and so free from button clutter that it borders on feeling rather sparse. That's because the operational functionality of the car is confined almost completely to a couple of digital LCD screens, the smaller of the two visible through a rather ugly but very Citroen-esque three-spoke steering wheel.
Switch your gaze to the middle of the fascia and you'll find buttons and switchgear notable by their absence, almost everything instead having been moved onto a 7-inch colour touchscreen.
What about when you use the wide-opening doors, take a seat in the rear and put the practical promises Citroen has made with this car to the test, principally those suggesting family hatch standards of space despite the supermini underpinnings? Well, in terms of legroom, this model delivers on those claims thanks to a platform that was stretched so as to provide a class-competitive wheelbase length. The designers also did their best to make this revised model feel a little more spacious than its predecessor, re-sculpting the door panels to increase elbow room and hollowing out the front seat backs to increase knee space. But there is a problem: Citroen didn't sort out proper wind-up windows for the rear doors, which means that this Cactus continued to be stuck with fiddly pop-out side glass panels.
And the boot? Well the plastic tailgate's super-light and when you raise it, you'll find the same 358-litre capacity that was on offer before. We were pleased to find two key practical changes here that were made with the revised version of this car. A proper 60:40 split makes an appearance for the rear seat back and equally welcome was the brand's decision to include a space-saver spare wheel beneath the cargo area base across the range.
What to Look For
We found plenty of satisfied C4 Cactus customers in our ownership survey but inevitably, there were a few issues reported. The auto gearbox wasn't generally liked. Otherwise, most of the problems tended to centre on electrical issues with things like the sat-nav and air-con. A few owners reported various suspension faults. One buyer complained of a creaky, squeaking clutch. Another found that the rear pop-out window latch came loose. One buyer found an annoying rattle from the fascia in the area of the glovebox. And another found that when it rained, there were white stained streaks all over the exterior black plastics. We also found a buyer who reckoned that his car stuttered when going up hills. All are things to look out for on your test drive.
As with other family hatches, check for child damage inside and alloy wheel scuffs outside. Examine for scuffs and flaking of paint on the bumpers. And of course you'll want a fully stamped up service record. If the model in question is a diesel, ask how it has been used. If only for local work, the 'DPF' 'Diesel Particulate Filter' may have got clogged up, as these need frequent highway journeys in order to self-clean. Other possible problems with the DPF-equipped cars come if the DPF has been shut off part way through its self-cleaning process. That results in contamination of the oil system with fuel, which leads to the oil level rising gradually over time.
(approx based on a 2018 C4 Cactus 1.2 110hp excl. VAT) A pair of front brake pads are between £14-£67 depending on brand. A pair of rear brake pads are between £11-£21. A pair of front brake discs start in the £46-£128 bracket. Rears start from around £115-£195. Oil filters cost around £5-£6, air filters cost around £20 and fuel filters cost around £9. A radiator sits in the £80-£142 bracket. A headlamp is around £212-£280; a tail light is around £168.
On the Road
Remember when Citroen cars represented an affordable benchmark for ride comfort? This improved C4 Cactus reminds us of that era thanks to its clever 'Progressive Hydraulic Cushions' suspension system which delivers a class-leading standard of ride over poorer surfaces. Hydraulic dampers cushion the top and bottom of wheel travel at the top and bottom of wheel travel and allow the fitment of softer springs and dampers, producing what Citroen describes as a 'magic carpet'-like feel. Thick quilted 'Advanced Comfort' front seats further embellish the feeling of Gallic luxury.
Even better, the whole thing was installed in a way that didn't leave this Cactus pitching about too much through the corners. Sure, there's a little more body roll than you'd get with most rivals; certainly enough to dissuade you from pushing on too hard through tighter bends unless you absolutely have to. But that's not too much of an issue; enthusiasts won't be buying this car anyway. Most customers will be choosing a petrol engine, probably the PureTech 110 unit, which is capable of 65.7mpg on the combined cycle and 100g/km of CO2 in manual form (both NEDC figures); there was also an auto option. Citroen additionally added a perkier 'PureTech 130' version of this 1.2-litre three cylinder petrol turbo unit to the range. As before, there was a 1.6-litre BlueHDi 100 diesel option for those wanting it - and for higher mileage drivers, a BlueHDi 120 variant with auto transmission.
The original C4 Cactus was the car that rejuvenated the Citroen brand and paved the way for the more distinctive C3 and C5 models that followed it. Did it lose a little of its 'joie de vivre' in this revised guise? Not really. It just became a little less eccentric.
Which leaves us with what? A car Citroen hopes that target buyers will see as simple, stylish and comfortably cool. A car that makes frugality a little more fun. Perhaps that's a concept we can all buy into.