Is Citroën’s priciest model range a stretch too far for consumers who’re sceptical about the brand? We test the new C5 Aircross...

When you write about a subject so infused with emotion as cars, at any stage you’re bound to annoy a subset of petrolheads. CAR’s writers have been accused of bias for as long as the brand’s been in publishing (63 years). Interestingly, depending on the month, we’re told we’re in the pockets of Audi, BMW, Toyota, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen (one that comes up a lot), Hyundai, Kia… The list goes on and on.

An allegation we weren’t expecting was that we’re lenient on the PSA Group; that in the last few issues our reviews of the Citroën C3 Aircross and Peugeot 5008 have been so positive we’ve clearly shirked our duty to report fairly and accurately. Where we should have been harsher critics of the local subsidiary “abandoning” the chevron brand in 2016, or not marketing Peugeot well enough and so leading to dismal monthly sales figures, we’ve been praising the former’s return and waxing lyrical about the latter’s 3008 and 5008 ranges.

The truth is, the newest-generation Peugeots are excellent cars – the 3008 especially – and each Citroën we’ve driven or tested has distinguished itself as a quirky but worthy addition to its particular segment.

The C5 Aircross featured here represents the real litmus test, however. Nudging half a million rand, it’s likely to stretch cash-strapped and conservative consumers’ boundaries of how much they’re willing to spend on a Citroën until the brand’s once again established itself. Likewise, what will resale values be like six months or three years down the line? So, the big question: is the C5 Aircross accomplished enough to convince those buyers to strike a financing deal instead of visiting the Volkswagen, Toyota or Nissan dealer down the road? Time to find out.

Part of a two-model range (a consistent feature throughout Citroën’s stable), this Feel derivative is the entry-level model and is topped by the Shine variant. Its price places it right in the middle of a congested field of rivals bookended by naturally aspirated competitors offering inferior performance, and more premium turbocharged rivals from German and Japanese brands. Both C5 models use PSA’s familiar 1,6 THP turbopetrol engine coupled with a six-speed automatic transmission. The simplicity of the range extends to the number of paint colours on offer: just three, including this press unit’s Pearl White plus two shades of grey.

Like the C3 Aircross, if you’re not a fan of brightly coloured trim accents, the C5 Aircross might not be for you. Featuring licks of red on the roof rails, miniature Airbumps on the doors and insets on the front bumper, the C5 upscales the C3 and C3 Aircross’ whimsy. The CAR team agreed the C5 is a handsome vehicle, studded with delightful details such as the chevron badge sleekly incorporated into the upper grille and bonnet, a double duo of LED daytime-running lights sitting atop halogen headlamps (we would have liked to see LEDs as standard here, too) and 3D-effect taillamps that are always lit. The chrome work there has been tastefully applied and complement 18-inch alloys wrapped in Michelin Primacy rubber offering sensible 55-profile sidewalls and a substantial 235 tread width. The sole distinguishing feature between the Feel and Shine is a panoramic sunroof on the flagship.

Step aboard and the first element you notice is Citroën’s typically broad, squared-off front seats. Here trimmed in a lovely combination of roughly textured, light-grey cloth and smooth, dark-grey material – the Shine offers an even more arresting mix of leather and cloth – the seats are accommodating to those broad of beam but offer a touch too much under-thigh support.

Of course, the biggest difference between the C5 Aircross and the mechanically related 3008 is their driving positions. Where the Peugeot boasts the brand’s i-Cockpit design sporting a small steering sited low over which the lofty instrumentation’s viewed, the Citroën has the more conventional through-the-wheel setup. The steering wheel is a great size – although the rim is perhaps too chunky – and offers an unobstructed view of the 12,3-inch instrumentation screen (one which is customisable through four settings). The A-pillars are also set back just far enough so as not to hide other cars at junctions and traffic circles.

Centre stage is a crisp eight-inch touchscreen offering access to smartphone mirroring, dual-zone climate control and a plethora of vehicle settings. Like the identical one in the 3008, this system is not without its faults. Latency is only average and it’s annoying to have to enter a different screen to adjust the climate control before flipping back to the audio menu. Likewise, stream music from your phone, exit the car and return, and the audio system reverts to radio.

Thankfully, tactility is a big plus point – is there another mainstream manufacturer doing such interesting things with its cars’ interiors as PSA? From the quirky “strap” across the facia ahead of the front passenger, to the smart metal inlays on the doors and transmission tunnel, and faux-leather trim across the instrumentation cowl, this is a tactile environment which feels well built, although perhaps not quite as premium as the 3008’s. Practicality doesn’t suffer at the altar of style and the C5 Aircross offers a multitude of storage cubbies across the cabin, including a vast one between the front seats.

That approach to usability extends to the rear quarters, too, where the doors open nearly 90 degrees and there’s oodles of legroom should the bench be slid back a full 150 mm. Move it to its forward-most position and the luggage bay expands to 416 litres, which is very nearly class-leading. Headroom all-round is plentiful and those in the second row have supplementary air vents.

Spec-wise, the C5 Feel wants for little. Aside from the items already mentioned, auto lights and wipers (a hyperactive system that’s more irksome than it’s worth), cruise control, PDC and an auto-dim rear-view mirror are standard. Shine trim nets a forward-sighted video camera to record journeys (likely most useful for insurance claims in an accident), blind-spot monitoring, a reverse camera, wireless smartphone charging and keyless entry and start. Missing from the spec sheet for both is sat-nav and the aforementioned LED headlamps. The safety tally includes six airbags, ESP, and driver attention alert.

We’re familiar with the 1,6 THP engine, having run two Peugeot models in our long-term fleet equipped with this drivetrain. Despite the engine’s relative age, it continues to be an impressive powertrain. There’s sufficient performance for quick and safe overtaking manoeuvres even when the vehicle’s fully loaded and it’s nicely hushed. We noted some hesitancy in response on pull-away, a quirk that wasn’t present in our long-term 3008, and the occasional hunting between fifth and top gear at the national limit (easily fixed with a tweak of a paddle-shifter).

Braking performance was stellar, the C5 needing just 2,87 seconds on average to come to a halt from 100 km/h across 10 emergency stops. Everyday modulation of the sensitive brake pedal takes some concentration to ensure smoothness.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Aircross is its wonderfully supple ride. Sporting what Citroën calls Progressive Hydraulic Cushions, a system adding two additional hydraulic stops – one for rebound and the other for compression – the C5 handles abrasive road surfaces much like an old-school premium SUV. That means there’s more body lean, understeer and wallow than on its German rivals – a measured approach is definitely preferable here – but the Gallic car’s emphasis on comfort is a refreshing one. The steering could stand to receive some attention, however. There’s torque steer and it’s just a touch too vague to inspire confidence in spirited driving.



TEST SUMMARY

Read this positive test, then consider our relatively lowly score alongside and you might be a touch confused. There’s method to our madness, though. While the C5 Aircross is one of the market’s most satisfying midsize SUVs, we’ve little idea how it will fare come resale time despite the excellent five-year warranty and service plan, and therefore can’t yet unreservedly recommend it.

Those buyers who’re feeling adventurous before Citroën once again proves itself in our market, however, will own a vehicle that’s a pleasure to drive, easy to use, a joy to sit in and one which makes a strong statement of individuality. We definitely can’t say the same of all its more established rivals...