JOHANNESBURG – Interestingly, according to Peugeot Citroën South Africa MD, Xavier Gobille, the brand's research into the potential response to Citroën’s reintroduction to the South African market showed few motorists were aware it had ever left the country back in 2016. Many dealerships retained the chevron logo alongside Peugeot’s lion and service backup continued uninterrupted. Alongside an impressive five-year/100 000 km warranty and service plan across the range, plus impressive new products, the French carmaker will surely bank on that relative ignorance to draw buyers into showrooms and plop their bums on seats to experience the new three-model local offering.

At the South African launch, we got to drive the trio of Citroëns, including the small-hatch C3 and midsize-SUV C5 Aircross (more info on the range here). However, the one I found most intriguing is this, the C3 Aircross. It competes in a growing global and local segment, one that's recently been shaken up by the introduction of the Volkswagen T-Cross, which has already proven a massive hit and sneaking into Naamsa’s top-10 sales list. Ford’s EcoSport does brisk business, too, as does the Hyundai Creta. Renault’s readying to launch a replacement for its well-received Captur and Haval keeps the established players honest with the H2. It’s a tough segment to enter.

Small car, big personality...

Thankfully, the C3 Aircross has a few aces up its sleeve, chief among them its design. Measuring a compact 4,15 metres bow to stern, the Aircross packs a lot of visual punch in such a small footprint. There are skid plates fore and aft, striking 16-inch wheels, "Spicy Orange" accents – which are standard on the three body colours and may prove more divisive than Citroën thinks – Airbumps and a dual-light arrangement on the nose that sees the LED daytime running lights sitting atop the headlamps. It looks great on the road and is a welcome contrast to the T-Cross’ relative conservatism.

The riot of colours and finishes continues inside, where there are more orange accents, soft-touch surfacing on the doors and dashboard, and stylish inserts on the seats. Despite the bold textures, the cabin’s design is surprisingly simple. Taking care of most features is a seven-inch touchscreen that’s crisply rendered but not without some latency. It’s simple to use, though, and offers smartphone mirroring on this Shine model.

Extensive adjustability on the steering column means it’s easy to set the squared-off, softly cushioned chair for a comfortable driving position no matter your height, and there’s generous legroom in the rear should the bench be slid backwards by 150 mm in a 60:40 split. That shrinks the boot volume from a claimed 520 litres to 410.

Perceived quality is impressive, too, and certainly on par with its rivals. Specification levels are generous even on this top-spec Shine variant (the entry-level Feel model is R20 000 cheaper) and include electrically folding side mirrors, auto lights and wipers, tyre-pressure sensors, rear PDC, keyless entry and start, climate control and sat-nav. 

...and a big heart

Both Aircross models feature the familiar 1,2-litre PureTech Turbo engine boasting 81 kW and 205 N.m, figures nicely in line with those of the 1,0-litre units offered in the T-Cross and EcoSport. There’s no option of a manual transmission, which again might deter some buyers, but the six-speed automatic transmission pairs well with the engine and rarely makes it labour outside its optimal rev range. The three-cylinder thrum is more noticeable here than on some rivals, but it’s an appealing sound and less raucous than an equivalent four-cylinder.

Citroën makes a big spiel about how comfortable its vehicles are but it’s a credible marketing claim; we took the Aircross on some poorly maintained dirt roads north of Johannesburg and it displayed impressive compliance. The steering is satisfyingly geared and weighted, but body lean is more pronounced than expected. Still, on a small crossover, I’d happily take a comfortable ride over iron-fisted control. Especially noticeable is tyre roar but wind noise is well supressed and there’s little suspension thudding.

Can Gobille and his team turn Citroën (and Peugeot’s) fortunes around? On paper and in reality, certainly, the three-prong Citroën range is impressive, offering plenty of substance to complement their stylishness. The big question, of course, is whether the company can convince brand-loyal South Africans – ignorant or not about Citroën’s recent fortunes – to buy its cars in bigger numbers. We’ll soon find out…



FAST FACTS

Model: Citroën C3 Aircross 1,2 PureTech 81 kW Turbo Shine AT
Price: R359 900
Engine: 1,2-litre, three-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 81 kW @ 5 500 r/min
Torque: 205 N.m @ 1 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,7 seconds
Top speed: 184 km/h
Fuel consumption: 6,5 L/100 km
CO2: 146 g/km
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Service plan: 5 years/100 000 km