A glance at the voting sheets for CAR’s annual Top 12 Best Buys over the past few years will highlight just how large and competitive the compact SUV segment has become. With manufacturers well aware that, more so than ever, buyers are seeking as much vehicle as possible for their money, the appeal of a rugged yet not unwieldy, versatile but still classy, crossover vehicle has never been greater. Of course, the allure of a slightly raised driving position, particularly among the fairer sex, has also played a role in the growing popularity of the compact SUV market.

Realising the importance of a presence in this segment, PSA Peugeot Citroën (currently the second-largest European automotive group) approached its long-standing alliance partner, Mitsubishi Motors (see The GS platform on page 26), with a mutually beneficial offer. With a proven track record in all-wheel-drive technologies, Mitsubishi was advanced in the development of its established GS platform (which underpins the current ASX range) and, by sharing this technology with PSA, the Japanese company guaranteed increased production volumes. In return, both Citroën and Peugeot made important savings on development costs and gained a proven platform on which to build their individual models, the C4 Aircross and 4008.

And, from the outside at least, there’s little chance of mistaking Citroën’s first soft roader for its Peugeot cousin – and indeed their ASX relative. Each French manufacturer has successfully added enough external flair, including the latest grille, bonnet (particularly on the 4008) and bumper treatments (including stacked LED daytime running lights on the C4) to ensure that neither car looks out of place in its showroom.

It’s a pity that almost all the PSA development budget went towards ensuring that the vehicles look distinctly different only on the outside. Trim levels aside, the only distinction between the cabins of the C4 Aircross, the 4008 and the ASX is which badge appears on the steering wheel. And, while this is not necessarily a negative in terms of functionality and ultimate build quality, all who drove the French pairing commented on how un-French (read conservative) the cabins are.

An interesting decision by the local importers has seen Citroën South Africa offering the C4 Aircross with three distinct specification levels (including different size alloy wheels and drive-trains), while a choice between leather and cloth upholstery, and a panoramic sunroof or not, are the only distinguishing features of the two 4008s.

Being based on the same platform, both French vehicles share the same moderate 256 dm3 worth of luggage space as the Japanese car, and all three models offer a 60:40 split rear back- rest, which frees up a good amount of utility space. Rear legroom is good, although headroom can get a bit cramped for taller passengers.

While both models boast the same Mitsubishi-sourced 4B11 naturally aspirated 2,0-litre petrol engine, in the C4 Aircross it can be mated with either a five-speed manual trans- mission or CVT option. The 4008 is offered exclusively with the latter. And it has to be said the positive, solid action of the C4’s manual ‘box proves the more pleasant companion for the 110 kW/197 N.m engine. In traffic and at cruising speeds, we can see the benefits of the CVT transmission, but somehow the overly strained monotone of revs that greets any form of hard acceleration in this application taints much of its appeal.
It’s also worth noting that the manual C4 Aircross managed to sprint from standstill to 100 km/h a full two seconds faster (9,68 versus 11,71). The Peugeot also proved less fuel-efficient (8,9 litres/100km versus 9,8) over our established fuel route.

On testing the ASX (December 2011), we noted a relatively choppy ride quality and, with the C4 Aircross riding on similar-sized rubber (16-inch on Attraction and Seduction specifications), as well as the same suspension mechanics, it was unlikely that the Citroën would fare much better. It’s not an unpleasant ride by any means, but there are more accomplished rivals.

A less accomplished rival, however, is the 4008. Fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels (wrapped in 225/55 R18 rubber), the 4008 may look the sportier of the two French models but the trade-off is a suitably firm ride.

While the C4 Aircross and ASX are offered with a choice of either two-wheel or all-wheel-drive setups, the 4008 is sold exclusively with the latter layout. This Mitsubishi-sourced system allows the driver to select between full-time two-wheel drive, an automatic four-wheel-drive configuration (that apportions up to 40 per cent of torque to the rear via an electronically controlled transfer clutch), or an all-wheel-drive “lock” mode that adopts an even more rear-wheel-biased torque spread (up to 50 per cent) than in auto mode. This transfer system is available on the move and certainly gives these GS-platform-built cousins the edge over many of their rivals when it comes to venturing slightly off-the-beaten track.

Both the C4 Aircross and the 4008 are equipped with a comprehensive list of standard safety features. Only the top-of-the-range (Exclusive) Citroën model gains ESP traction control (standard on both Peugeot specifications), but both cars are fitted with ABS brakes (with EBD and BA), a total of seven airbags and Isofix anchorage points.

Test Summary
While Peugeot South Africa has made the decision to differentiate its 4008 from the C4 Aircross (and ASX) through a comprehensive standard-specification list that includes a panoramic sunroof, all-wheel drive, ESP and the (perceived) more advanced transmission option, it is the wider choice offered by Citroën that is likely to win favour in our market. The part-time all-wheel-drive system may be a nice-to-have, but we wonder whether most South African compact SUV owners aren’t more than content with simply raised ground clearance. We prefer the manual transmission over the CVT ‘box for most applications and the difference in ride quality alone between the 16-inch wheels fit- ted to the lower-specification Citroën compared with the standard 18-inch items on the Peugeot would be enough to swing our vote.