The new Citroën C3 Aircross aims to provide the manufacturer with a contender in the now hotly-contested small SUV market – but it also has a legacy to uphold.
For many years Citroën sold the C3 Picasso, an MPV that succeeded the equally distinctive Xsara Picasso and gained a lot of fans – 65,000 in the UK alone. But buyers don’t want MPVs anymore and the expansion of the latest C3 hatch, launched in January 2017, had to be an SUV.
The C3 Aircross is, of course, closely related to sister brand Peugeot’s 2008, but also to the Crossland X of new sister brand Vauxhall – they share their underpinnings and are all built together on the same production line in Zaragoza, Spain.
Not surprisingly, the Citroën stands out for style – today’s brand is all about distinctive cars. Styling signatures include the two-tier front light layout (now with the fog lights integrated into the main headlamp units), the ‘floating’ roof design with its black pillars and the 3D-effect rear lights intended to emphasise the car’s width.
Equally, the car emphasises its SUV credentials with black wheel arch edges, front and rear skid plates and roof rails, and its high stance – at 17.5cm the ground clearance is 5cm more than the C3 hatch.
Finally, there are up to 85 exterior colour combinations. These comprise eight body colours, three roof colour options and four ‘colour packs’ comprising headlamp surrounds, roof bars, door mirrors and a ‘venetian blind’ design on the rear quarter lights. This last, however, is a stick-on graphic on the glass and slightly low-rent to this reviewer’s eyes – as well as compromising rear three-quarter visibility.
Buying and owning the Citroën C3 Aircross
The C3 Aircross is offered with six powertrain combinations across four engines, and three trim levels, Touch, Feel and Flair. Petrol buyers have the choice of 82, 110 or 130hp engines with five or six-speed manual gearboxes, the 110 also offered with a six-speed auto.
For diesel fans the choice is between 100 or 120hp units, in manual form only. Initially, three-quarters of C3 Aircross sales are expected to be petrol-powered, but are expected to adjust to 60/40 as customers are told about the benefits of today’s cleaner diesels.
The entry-level Touch trim is only available with the 82hp petrol engine at a price of £13,995. Highlights of the equipment list include DAB radio and Bluetooth connectivity, manual air conditioning, cruise control and automatic lights.
Feel trim, costing from £15,100 with the 82hp engine, adds alloy wheels, an aluminium-effect finish on the skid plates, leather on the steering wheel and LED daytime running lights. There are two extra speakers on the audio, Android, Apple and Mirror smartphone connectivity, a seven-inch colour touchscreen and electric, heated door mirrors.
Another £1500 buys the top Flair trim, and rivals will point to the fact that you have to spend this amount of money to gain such basics as electric rear windows. The wheels expand to 17 inches, while the buyer has the choice of one of the four ‘style packs’ on the two-tone roof.
Navigation is included with Flair versions, while the air conditioning is automatic and dual zone. Other notables include keyless entry and start, automatic windscreen wipers and rear parking sensors.
Few of today’s small crossovers are available in four-wheel-drive form as customers want the looks not the capability, and the C3 Aircross is no different. But the car scores over its rivals by offering its clever GripControl traction system – a £400 option with all bar the 82hp engine and Touch trim.
GripControl keeps the car sure-footed off the tarmac, especially in muddy conditions – the latest version even includes Hill Descent Control. It is also a prime safety aid – an aspect of four-wheel-drive often forgotten – by improving grip on wet or icy roads.
The overall safety specification on all cars includes six airbags, lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition, hill-start assist and a speed limiter. Surprisingly neither of the upper trim levels adds further safety features except the connected emergency services on top Flair specification.
Autonomous emergency braking with a collision alert and blind-spot monitoring are both available for the Aircross, but only as options. We wait to see if this fact will affect the car’s Euro NCAP safety rating when it is tested.
Inside the Citroën C3 Aircross
Citroën insists that the C3 Aircross has to reflect the practicality of its MPV forebear as much as the current SUV popularity, and in terms of interior space it generally does. The long 2.6-metre wheelbase translates to rear passenger leg and headroom claimed to be best in class, as is the 410-litre boot space.
This can be further improved by a neat arrangement that allows the individual sections of the 60:40 rear seat to slide back and forth by up to 15cm, as well as folding flat, which boosts carry space to 1289 litres. However, the sliding function is only available on Flair models as standard. On Feel models it’s part of the £490 optional ‘Family Pack’ which also includes the auto braking and collision alert and another neat touch – a folding front passenger seat, allowing something as long as 2.4 metres to be accommodated.
One further note – our test cars at the launch event included panoramic sunroofs, a £950 option on all but Touch models. These produce a light and airy interior but also cut the headroom available on the non-adjustable front passenger seat – tall buyers beware…
We first saw the new breed of stylish Citroën interiors with the C4 Cactus, and the C3 Aircross follows the format – generally, it’s an attractive environment but also user-friendly and practical. However the ordinary quality of some of the plastics and cloth trim slightly dull the effect, and a definite wrong move is the aircraft-style handbrake lever. A case of form over function, it looks good but is irritatingly difficult to use.
Driving the Citroën C3 Aircross
At the launch event, The Car Expert was able to drive cars fitted with the 110 and 130hp petrol engines, which will take the majority of Citroën C3 Aircross sales. The efficiency and refinement of these three-cylinder turbo engines produce little surprise – they are effective units, especially the 110. Plus 50mpg combined cycle fuel economy combines with a CO2 emissions figure that is only 11g/km worse than the best diesel, and thanks to the stop-start function, a gramme better than the far-slower 82hp petrol.
Sadly the car’s on-the-road dynamics do not quite live up to the standards of the engines. Citroën makes much of ambitions to be the benchmark of the auto industry for comfort with its ‘Advanced Comfort Programme’ and the Aircross suspension, while slightly stiff, does smother the bumps and imperfections of the average road.
The steering, however, is fidgety, and absent of feel through the wheel, and through a series of bends the driver feels remote from the car. But the Aircross is not particularly worse than its rivals in this respect, unimpressive steering seeming to be a trait of the small SUV sector.
In a now crowded small SUV market any newcomer has to stand out, and in looks, the Citroën C3 Aircross certainly does that – it is one of the most stylish entrants to the market and leaves newcomers such as its Vauxhall sister model and the Kia Stonic in its wake.
The inside matches the exterior for style and adds a healthy dose of practicality, in most areas. However making the car truly versatile requires paying for top trims or options – as does too much of the safety specification.
The Aircross won’t impress quite as much for its driving prowess, but then one will struggle to find a small SUV that does. Overall the car offers enough against its rivals, along with some bespoke extras such as the off-road ability provided by GripControl, to make it a contender.