PARISIANS are among the best-dressed people in all of Europe, and arguably, the world. The citizens of the French capital – men and women alike – have a reputation for stepping out in chic attire no matter what season it is or what the weather’s like.
Their automobiles have developed a similar reputation and, since the birth of the horseless carriage, French manufacturers have been fashion forward. Instead of copying the competition, the likes of Renault and Citroën have inevitably taken a different route and offered customers more style-conscious and nonconformist choices.
The new C4 Cactus is a perfect example of this proud French tradition. When we first saw images of the quirky Cactus, it appeared to be a different take on the now familiar SUV-mimicking crossover genre. The Cactus looks a lot smaller in the metal than those images suggest, however. Its dimensions are surprisingly compact, making it more akin to a hatchback than an off-roader. The roofline is only 1 480 mm high (without the roof bars), making it almost 100 mm lower than a Nissan Juke, a car that already has a relatively low roofline.
So hatchback-sized it might be, but what clearly sets it apart from those conventional five-door competitors are some very unconventional design elements integral to its exterior and interior executions. Although the lower roofline is hatchback-esque, the plastic surrounds of the wheelarches as well as the wrap-around trim on the bumpers and sills are SUV-like cues.
Then there are those thermoplastic polyurethane “AirBump” protectors mounted on the doors that, according to Citroën, will help prevent those pesky parking-lot-incident door dings. In case you are worrying what this trim will look after absorbing all the parking lot scuffles, you can buy replacement “bumps”.
Sharkfin C-pillars and that element fast becoming a favourite of car designers – the floating roof – along with futuristic LED strips above the recessed headlamps complete what is one of the most eye-catching bodyshells currently on sale.
The Renault Captur is perhaps the boldest interpretation of Laurens van den Acker’s (Renault head of design) more sensual approach to design and, while it may not be quite as quirky as the Cactus, it certainly is as stylish. Quoted as saying that his aim is a perfect combination of German quality with Latin flavour, the Captur looks very much like the Renault Clio taken one step further.
Indeed, it’s based on the same platform as the fourth-generation Clio and Van den Acker and his team have managed to transform such a small car into a very appealing crossover. They have stretched the Clio platform, which frees up extra rear legroom and a bit more luggage capacity, and here in Dynamique spec, the standard bi-tone colour scheme and 17-inch alloys complement the smart black cladding and brightwork.
Our test unit, with its contrasting Sunset Orange and Diamond Black colour combination and chromed accents around the fog lamps and on the doors, drew many favourable comments from the team.
Inside the cabin
Climb in and the differences between the two cars are again very evident. In the Cactus, the seats are situated low and deep on the floor and it feels like you plop down into them. We found these cloth pews comfortable and supportive, and because the front seatbacks are wide all the way to your shoulders, quite roomy too. One quirk is that the rear windows don’t wind down; they only open a few centimetres outwards using latches.
Citroën has taken luggage design as the inspiration for the Cactus’ interior, which is accented by leather straps and clips on the front door grab handles, as well as the glovebox. And it’s not a run-of-the-mill dashboard either: all the functions of a normal centre console are housed in two screens – an approach not too dissimilar to that of BMW’s futuristic i3 EV. Screen one is visible through the steering wheel and its landscape orientation displays the speedometer, fuel gauge and all the car’s trip computer info.
To the left is the larger, 7-inch infotainment screen (standard across the range), which integrates the satellite navigation, trip computer, sound system and air-conditioning controls (the only row of conventional buttons can be found below this screen). Strangely, the Cactus has no rev counter – something that puzzled our testers.
The Captur is a different proposition. Being a crossover and counting among its direct competitors the Ford EcoSport, it has a higher ground clearance than the Cactus and you sit noticeably higher in the Renault. The cabin layout is also more conventional than the Cactus’: piano-black trim features on the steering wheel, door handle and gearlever surrounds, and liberally across the facia. The touchscreen infotainment system is used to operate functions such as satellite navigation, Bluetooth, USB and music system.
The seats are comfortable, although not as supportive as those in the Cactus, and there is more head- and shoulder-room on offer than in the Citroën. The rear seats in the Captur can also be moved forward to either allow the backrests to recline, or to provide a little extra boot space. This flexibility, increased rear room, and higher seating position will be an appealing factor for many buyers.
On the go
Whereas the entry-level Captur model utilises the Clio’s three-cylinder 898 cm3 turbopetrol engine, our test unit came equipped with the 1,2-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged motor. It offers enough poke for everyday driving, although it felt a mite sluggish under 3 000 r/min. This could be down to a simple throttle and engine mapping issue, but at times when you want to take a gap in the traffic, the Captur is slow to react and requires the driver to anticipate this delay and compensate accordingly. The gearbox is quite slow to react too and felt rather clunky – not a characteristic we u sually associate with double-clutch transmissions.
Through town and on the highways though, the Captur rode well. Thanks to its added ground clearance, it also has limited off-road ability should you wish to venture off the asphalt giving it an additional layer of practicality.
The Cactus, on the other hand, proves that a small engine can be fun to drive and it trumps the Captur in this department. Part of the reason is the five-speed manual gearbox that allows the driver to select gears at will. That said, this Cactus doesn’t possess the best ‘box out there – it has a sloppy shift action, but at least it doesn’t rob the engine of its performance in the same way the Captur’s auto does.
The other reason for the livelier performance is the Cactus’ mass – it’s a 161 kg lighter than its compatriot. And that goes a long way to making Citroën’s 1,2-litre, three-cylinder, turbocharged engine feel a lot livelier and quicker to rev than the same-sized unit in the Renault. These two facts also had an impact on our test strip where the Citroën reached the 100 km/h mark from standstill a full second quicker. Somewhat surprisingly, given the weight difference, the Captur delivered better braking performance than the Cactus. The latter also swerved fractionally under heavy braking.
In terms of ride quality, the Cactus feels more settled than the Captur, riding most bumps with aplomb thanks to a slightly softer suspension. On some occasions though, the Citroën’s rear suspension was caught out and you could feel a bit of a bounce transmitted through the cabin.
Test SummaryThe Captur offers a high level of practicality, a respectable specification, and an exterior design to match cars in more expensive segments. The engine-transmission combination is probably its main drawback, but the Renault does bring a new-found level of design flair to its segment. The Cactus, on the other hand, should be viewed as the more unconventional option of the two. Perhaps not as practical as the Captur, it’s still a very capable vehicle and offers a left-field design different from anything else on the market. Indeed, this is what Citroën does best – building cars that don’t conform to the mainstream. Essentially, both cars approach the same point – the light crossover segment – from different angles. One does its best to mimic an SUV and the other is a desirable remake of the run-of-the-mill hatchback. Both, however, “speak with a piquant French accent” and if that appeals to you, they’re a pair of accomplished vehicles that warrant consideration.
Road test score