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The 2CV wasn't the first innovative Citroën - that would be the front-wheel-drive Traction-Avant that went before it and cost them so much money that they needed the cheap-as-chips Deux Chevaux to follow it - but it solidified their place in the motoring world as The Crazy French Ones. Since then they've given us such glorious and ground-breaking oddities as the DS and SM, not to mention out-there designs like the XM, C6 (well, it was crazier than all its mostly-German rivals), DS5, Survolt and GTbyCITROEN concept cars and many more. Basically, Citroën is at its best when it's being weird, and after a brief stint of relative normality they're back to ignoring convention with this, the C4 Cactus.
OK, so it's not quite accurate to suggest that it's like nothing you've ever seen before. It's a small-ish hatchback-based crossover, for one thing, which is very much on-trend (and a bodystyle I typically hate), but Citroën have gone at this crowded marketplace in a pleasingly different way, by finding creative methods to make it as lightweight and cheap to buy and run as they reasonably can. Unfortunately that doesn't mean it'll cost as little as the £5995 Dacia Sandero, but then the base-model Sandero is equipped like something cheap from the 1980s, whereas the Cactus is packing such accoutrements as a fully-digital instrument display, 7" touchscreen dashboard for infotainment and standard air conditioning. But these things are either normal or becoming normal. No, it's the unconventional stuff that I'm interested in...
Let's start with the exterior. The round, grille-less nose has skinny LED headlights floating over larger fog and indicator lights, not unlike a Rolls-Royce Phantom or, at a stretch, a Nissan Juke. But check out those chocolate-brown panels on each corner and along the doors. Those are called "Airbumps." The ovular bumps are full of air and are there so that a low-speed impact doesn't dent or scratch the car in those areas. They're available in brown, grey, black or "Dune," which is probably light brown. Typically funky for Citroën, the overall exterior design looks rugged without being aggressive, and yet somehow gender-neutral. The apparently-floating rear pillar is actually a paint trick, though.
Inside, you'll find two front seats so wide they effectively make a bench (a nod to the 2CV), but little else other than a top-mounted glovebox to increase knee room and the aforementioned screens and a single row of buttons. Even the gear stick has been replaced with three buttons below the air vents. I'm not sure what that T-shaped thing between the front seat cushions is, though. A handbrake, maybe? If you like changing your own gears then there are paddles behind the wheel, or of course you can make them find somewhere to fit a proper gear stick and a clutch pedal, which they can do. Look up and - if you've paid extra - you'll see the sky through a heat-insulating glass roof. The C4 Cactus provides the same amount of rear passenger space as the conventional C4 hatchback, despite being slightly shorter. Bootspace doesn't suffer though, at 358L.
Speaking of comparisons to the C4 hatch (roughly Focus-sized, for any American readers), the Cactus is 20cm shorter, 6cm narrower and 1cm lower (despite looking tall like a crossover), but the big difference on paper is that, at a featherweight 965kg, it's a staggering 200kg or so lighter. This is partly because underneath it's a stretched C3 rather than a squashed C4, but mostly down to clever and minimalist engineering. Because it's designed for a top speed of "just" 190km/h (118mph), it doesn't need as strong, heavy components for stuff like the suspension and brakes. Even the cooling system has been pared back a bit. But don't worry, it's not going to be as fragile as France's often-unfair reputation for unreliable cars might make you think.
having driven 100 miles in a DS3, I'm OK with that.
Overall, this is by far the coolest and least-offensive small crossover on the market. Only the Dacia Duster and Škoda Yeti get thumbs up from me in this segment (not that I've driven them or even sat in a Yeti), but this surpasses them both for being a left-field Citroën, which adds about 50 cool points on its own. Add in the fact that it's considerably lighter than even a Lotus Exige, oddly funky-looking, plenty spacious, very cheap to run and costs from £12,995 in the UK and it's a pretty tempting proposition from The Crazy French Ones if you ask me. It may not look like it, and it may not protect a basket of eggs on the roof quite as adeptly, and it may not be the cheapest car on sale, but in many ways, this minimalist, cleverly-engineered car for Le People is a modern day Deux Chevaux.