PRACTICAL family motoring certainly need not be boring if you look at the current state of the compact MPV market. When we sat down to discuss this segment during our Top 12 voting process late last year, there were a number of new vehicles that stood a strong chance. And looking at the leaders of the pack, it became clear that many of them had managed to find ways of injecting some interest into what could easily have been a staid, middle-of-the-road package. The most impressive thing is that most of them have done this (adding some spice) without sacrificing on practicality and good packaging at all!
Now Citroën has introduced its all-new C4 Picasso in South Africa, a vehicle that should, by the mere fact of it being a Citroën, be an “interesting” alternative. After all, this French marque has recently rediscovered the quirk-factor that was synonymous with the Citroën name in the past. And as you’ll see in this road test, the new Picasso certainly has quirkiness in spades. The question is this, however; does it add or detract from the overall package?
It certainly works from the exterior styling point of view, where the dip in the side window line, for example, immediately adds some interest.
In Europe, two variants of the Picasso are offered, a five-seat version and a stretched sevenseater. In South Africa, only the former is available (initially anyway), but this doesn’t mean it is lacking in space. Riding as it does on a wheelbase measuring 2 728 mm, the Picasso’s interior is certainly commodious. We measured a minimum boot space (rear seats pushed back), of 400 dm3, rising to 520 dm3 with the seats moved forward. There are some clever touches to be found in the boot… Number one is the removable torch that doubles as the boot light when the tailgate is lifted, and then there is also the Modubox, a collapsible shopping trolley with wheels.
Fold the rear seats down, and maximum utility space is an impressive 1 320 dm3. The three individual rear seats fold very easily, by the way – you simply pull a looped elastic belt, and the chair collapses forward on top of itself, leaving an almost flat floor.
Legroom for rear seat passengers is good, whether the seats are moved backwards or forwards. And headroom, as you may imagine, is certainly not a problem.
Those seated in the back also get their own ventilation outlets (in the B-pillars), with fan speed control knobs. Furthermore, there are fold-up tables mounted on the front seatbacks, and sliding sunblinds for the rear side windows. Those seated in front will not complain about a lack of space, either. In fact, in terms of seating comfort, there is really no reason to complain at all. Both front seats offer height adjustment, and the seats themselves are superbly supportive and comfy. The possibility of the driver finding a comfortable position is further boosted by the fitment of a steering column adjustable for both height and reach.
But now things get a little, er, “Citroënesque”… Fronting the driver beneath a huge windscreen is a facia that appears to stretch all the way to the horizon, flanked by large front quarter-lights. Citroën also decided to go a step further by enlarging the front windscreen and making it cut into the front part of the roof. So to help the driver avoid feeling too exposed, the sunvisors can be slid a significant way backwards or forwards. Unfortunately, use those sunvisors for what they are supposedly designed for (blocking out the sun), and you’ll also end up blocking the rear view mirror!
Then there’s the facia. As is the case with a large number of MPVs, the instrumentation is located in the middle, and here at CAR we are simply not convinced that this is a good thing. In the Citroën’s case, the instrumentation is also digital – in black on orange – which one of our testers (wearing prescription anti-glare sunglasses) could hardly read.
Another quirk is the placement of the main air-conditioning controls to the right of the steering wheel, just above the driver’s right knee. The front passenger gets a smaller control panel above his/her left knee. Of course, this is something that one needs to grow accustomed to, but the general feeling was that the positioning certainly does not represent an improvement over where one would normally find these controls. This design has, however, opened up space on the central hangdown section, allowing Citroën to place the gearlever higher up than usual, theoretically improving ergonomics. Sadly, our tallest driver said that it was positioned too far forward… As did the shortest.
The steering wheel is identical to the one used in the C4 hatch, boasting a fixed hub upon which Citroën has mounted a number of “remote” controls for the audio system and standard cruise control. It is a really novel design that most of us quite like, but again one has to question whether it is another case of Citroën just being different for different’s sake. At best, it also takes some getting used to. All that said, the Picasso is not an uncomfortable car to drive as a result of the layout of its controls: it is just that it takes longer to acclimatise to this than most other vehicles.
One thing that CAR’s testers were unequivocally in favour of was the 1,6-litre turbodiesel engine under the bonnet. Delivering 80 kW at 4 000 r/min and 240 N.m of torque at 1 750 (with an extra 20 N.m on overboost), this common-rail direct injection powerplant is not the most powerful engine in its class. Nevertheless, it combines well with the five-speed manual transmission, and we especially appreciated the smooth power delivery and relative lack of lag. It is also very economical, sipping diesel at the rate 7,08 litres/100 km.
Our testing yielded no surprises – the 177 km/h top speed is of academic interest with a vehicle such as this, and so is the 13,74 seconds 0-100 km/h time. It is a nicely flexible engine, though, contributing to a very pleasant driving experience during normal use. Make use of the light-shifting transmission, and you’ll also have enough oomph to execute overtaking manoeuvres.
Unlike some modern rivals that try to inject some sportiness into their dynamics (most notably the Mazda5), Citroën has opted for a very relaxed setup for the C4 Picasso. It may not be underpinned by Citroën’s famous Hydractive suspension, but the settings of the all-steel underpinnings are certainly biased towards comfort. The result is a typically French cosseting ride quality, with excellent bump absorption and great cruising comfort. This should make an excellent longdistance holiday car. One negative of the driving experience is steering that is perhaps slightly too sensitive and lacking in feel. We also noticed that the Picasso appears to be very sensitive to cross winds. And finally, the CAR team was unanimous in its dislike of the electronic park brake. Pulling away, one can feel the vehicle lifting on its haunches as it initially meets resistance from the park brake, before it releases automatically. The actual switch to manually activate or release is located rather far away from the driver, in front of the main instrument display.
At R255 000, the C4 Picasso 1,6 HDi is more expensive than its most obvious five seat rivals. You could even buy a seven seat Renault Grand Scénic for less. And while it does bring some fresh ideas to the design game, we can’t really say that the Picasso has advanced the art of the compact MPV. At the same time, it’s also not a bad family vehicle. The C4 Picasso actually offers an interesting package to those in the market for a family hold-all with some flair, because with its spacious and versatile interior, punchy yet economical engine, and good ride quality, it is actually rather good at the things that most MPV buyers would rate as important. The only negative, really, concerns the facia ergonomics, but if this doesn’t turn you off on the first test drive, you’ll probably end up enjoying the different approach.