The C4 badge from Citroen has had a slightly strange history. Starting out on a fairly regular family hatchback it then found its way onto the aesthetically amazing and ergonomically awful C4 Cactus crossover before Citroen dropped the Cactus part of the name once more and remodelled the C4 as slightly confused halfway house between hatchback and crossover.
Now we’ve got an all-new C4 which Citroen is labelling clearly as a compact hatchback destined to challenge the likes of the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Seat Leon, Toyota Corolla and, of course, the VW Golf. Confusingly, though, it still has some of the high-riding physical presence of a crossover and has the black lower body cladding of many pseudo-SUVs.
Whatever it is, it is at least confident in its design. The last C4 was pleasant enough but a sorry dilution of the original Cactus’ brave design. This new one is far more bold and happy to flaunt its avant garde style. Some photos make it appear strangely proportioned but in the metal it’s well resolved and cohesive shape.
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The cladding and generous ground clearance definitely do have a crossover air, made more obvious by the high beltline, razor-thin running lights and deep headlamp units mounted high in the nose. The front end is a little busy but the car’s overall lines are clean and simple with a roofline that drops away without robbing it of interior space. Photos make the back end look too high and out of kilter with the front but in reality it works well and is an individual take in an often homogenous segment.
Citroen has a reputation for outlandish interiors but while the C4’s is suitably individual the overall feeling is one of calm and simplicity. Straight lines and sharp angles are the order of the day for everything from the 10-inch touchscreen down to the knurled gear selector sunk into the centre console. Even the steering wheel has a faintly Austin Allegro-ish Quartic feel and the dashboard is cut cleanly into upper and lower sections by a simple crease. While some shiny trim and solid feeling materials are welcome, the C4 interior’s single greatest feat is the return of physical heater controls. I can’t overstate how hateful the previous touchscreen-based arrangement was, so the inclusion of three simple dials just above the wireless charging tray is a victory for ergonomics and safety. If we did star ratings it would get an extra one just for that.
In pursuit of passenger comfort, the new C4 gets the advanced comfort seats first seen in the C5 SUV and they manage to be soft and supportive at the same time. The C4’s also pretty well-served for interior space so front and back passengers have room to sit back and relax.
And relax you will because the C4 has to be the best riding car in its class. Nothing else comes close to its smoothness and comfort over ropey road surfaces thanks to the progressive hydraulic suspension. But unlike Citroens of old, the C4 also has decent body control and reasonable handling, even if it is still more inclined to roll than a Focus or Corolla. The electric version, which is heavier but with a lower centre of gravity, feels perhaps a whisker more composed than the petrol but in any guise the C4 is the go-to car in the class for comfort and refinement.
On the subject of those different drivetrains, Citroen, like Peugeot and Vauxhall, hasn’t separated its new electric vehicles from their combustion engined stablemates. That means you can decide you want a C4 then choose whether it’s going to be petrol, diesel or electric.
Diesel choices are 109bhp or 128bhp versions of a 1.5-litre four-pot while petrol offerings are all based on a 1.2-litre three-cylinder engine with 99bhp, 128bhp or 153bhp. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard and the more powerful diesel and two most powerful petrols are available with an eight-speed automatic.
I drove the 128bhp manual version of the petrol and, as in other applications, the Puretech engine offers punchy performance with quick response and plenty of pull. There’s a bit of three-pot thrum evident from the engine under heavy throttle but take things a little calmer and it quickly fades away and offers a smooth, easy drive.
For an even quieter, smoother drive, there is the electric version - E-C4 - which feels ideally suited to the C4’s chilled out approach. A single 134bhp motor drives the front wheels, drawing electricity from a 50kWh battery pack and offering effortless driving experience. There’s plenty of pull from the motor and a pleasingly immediate response from the throttle. Less pleasing is the wildly inaccurate range estimate. The trip computer may get better at gauging your driving style over time but my time with it showed it to be out by as much as 50 per cent and I never saw close to the claimed 217 miles on a charge. On the bright side, 100kW charging capabilities mean you can top up quickly on the go, adding 80 per cent in as little as 30 minutes.
Prices for the new C4 start at £21,010 for the basic Sense spec. Even this benefits from LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, a 10-inch touchscreen and dual-zone climate control plus the standard safety pack. Immediately above this, Sense Plus adds live navigation services, a head-up display, reversing camera and passenger side tablet holder. Shine trim brings adaptive cruise control, more advanced driver aids, keyless entry, a heated steering wheel, tinted windows and high beam assist, while Shine Plus, starting at £26,590, adds heated seats, upgraded part-leather upholstery and highway drive assist. The E-C4 is available only in Sense Plus and above, with prices from £33,395 before the plug-in car grant.
The C4 has gone through various difficult iterations before now but this latest model feels like the first significant challenge it’s put up to the family hatchback mainstream. It may still struggle for attention against the all-conquering Focus but its looks give it a chance at standing out and for families interested in comfort and practicality, it’s a hands-down winner.
Citroen C4 Sense Plus
Price: £23.005 (£24,800 as tested); Engine: 1.2-litre, three-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 128bhp; Torque: 170lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: 130mph; 0-62mph: 8.9 seconds; Economy: 47.3-54.7mpg; CO2 emissions: 120-135g/km