For much of their 90 year history, Citroen was known for innovation, and for producing some spectacular designs, which remain much loved years after they ceased production. You only have to think of the Traction Avant, the DS, the 2CV, the SM, and more recently the GS, the CX and even the XM to realise that this is a marque that is not afraid of doing something bold. In the early 1990s, though, it all seemed to go wrong, and as Citroen chased sales volume, the cars became less and less distinctive and the most notable attribute of any Citroen seemed to be the size of the discount that you could obtain without even having to push the dealer very hard. After a decade or so of producing utterly conventional and in many cases rather bland machines ranging from the Visa to the BX, the ZX, the Saxo, the Xsara and the first C5, though, someone decided that perhaps the time was right to try to rediscover some of what made the earlier Double Chevron cars so amiable and hence a new direction for Citroen emerged in the early twenty-first century. Heralded by a number of concept cars, the first sign that things were perhaps going to get better was the rather cute looking C3, which made its appearance in mid 2002. This car was aimed at capturing the sort of affection that had been engendered by the 2CV, Dyane and Ami in days gone by, and whilst it could never hope to be as eccentric as those icons, on looks alone, things augured well.
According to an old adage, if something looks right, it usually is right. Not quite always, though, as I have found out with some previous test cars. When the recently replaced Citroen C3 was launched in 2002, it certainly scored on the “looks right” front, with a distinctive style all of its own that was rather endearing. However, once the press got their hands on the car, it appeared that this was indeed a car that disproved the old saying, as they were less than impressed by a number of facets, castigating it for particularly poor finish, with cheap materials and a litany of squeaks and rattles in each and every car that they drove. The facelift that came in 2005 did improve matters more than somewhat, even if it also brought a larger and rather ungainly new grille to the car. However, to compound areas of potential disappointment, it has to be noted that the C3 shares much of its underpinnings with the decidedly mediocre Peugeot 207, a car which did not impress me much when I sampled one. Accordingly. I have to say that my expectations for this test of a C3, the first Citroen I have driven for more than a decade, were not what you would call high. It seemed that getting this car could even be a further blow to what looked like would be a disappointing return to Switzerland thanks to a weather forecast that suggested I was in for ceaseless rain for the entirety of two days no matter where I went, whereas had I stayed at home, I would have been bathed in glorious summer sunshine. Well, the weather really was awful, with no evidence of any sun at all, and a struggle to find anywhere where it was dry enough even to take the photos for this test report, so the question has to be: was the car any better?
Citroen launched a new C3 model in mid 2009, and as happens quite frequently these days, have not entirely ceased production of the outgoing car, so the model presented to me was registered in February 2010, and by the time I drove it, had covered 11,000km. The paperwork that I found in the glovebox confirmed that the test car had the 1.4i 8 valve engine and the only extras fitted were metallic paint and the rear headrests. A pretty standard model, then, in Swiss spec. This generation of the C3 was available with a range of petrol and diesel engines, ranging from a 1.1 petrol through the 1.4 in 8 and 16 valve forms to a 110bhp 1.6 16 valve, as well as with the 1.4 and 1.6 HDi diesel engines. Most of the cars came with a manual gearbox, though the Sensodrive semi-automatic system was also available and was fitted to a few vehicles.
These days, even a 1.4 petrol engine with 75 bhp in a car the size of the C3 is unlikely to be spectacularly rapid, and this is exactly what I found here. The engine is smooth enough, but it does need to be worked quite hard to generate anything better than modest acceleration. It is not quite as inflexible as many modern petrol power units, thanks to reasonably sensible gearing, but even so, I did find frequent need to change down a gear or two when baulked with traffic or facing a modest incline. Peugeot and Citroen cars have long been criticised for their sloppy gearchanges, and the C3 is yet another example of the genre. The lever does slot reasonably easily from gear to gear, but the travel is astonishing, with the top of the lever moving about 6″ from the 1/3/5 plane to the 2/4R gears. Not a ratio shift that you would hurry, for sure, and there’s no pleasure to be had in changing the gears, either.
The trip computer indicated an average fuel consumption of 6.5 l/100km, which equates to 43.5 mpg, but this was the reading since it was last reset, and judging by the amount of fuel I put in the C3 (and it went from reading full to 7/8 having driven precisely 5km, so it was definitely not full!), I reckon I exceeded 50 mpg, which is pretty good. Long gone are the good handling Peugeots of yore, so it is no surprise that the C3, based on the same chassis as the Peugeot, is not that sparkling to drive. However, it is not as bad as you might think, either. The steering is appropriately weighted, and the car handles neatly, with no fuss, no drama, but also no fun. For the prime target customers of this car, those who want a short distance urban car with a bit of space in it, it is absolutely fine. Those who want more excitement than this would be unlikely to have a C3 on their shopping list, let’s be honest. I found no issues with the brakes, which seemed perfectly OK, and there is a traditional pull-up handbrake lever between the seats. The C3 rides quite well, and noise levels are reasonably well suppressed, though the noise from the engine is far from pleasant, so you certainly would not want to hear any more of it than you do. One advantage of the large glass area is that all round visibility is pretty good, though I did find that because of the shape of the mirrors, which are tall rather than wide, there are blind spots to the side of you. Nevertheless, the C3 is easy to position, and to manoeuvre.
One look at the dashboard will remind you that this is not a luxury car. Under a cowled display, all you get is a large digital readout for the speedometer, with an arc of rev counter display above it, and a bar chart style graphic for fuel level to the left. That’s it for instruments. Column stalks from the PSA parts bin do the indicators and lights on the left of the column, and wipers on the right. The centre of the dash contains the stereo system and the air control controls. The stereo has to one of the nastiest I have come across for a very long time. The buttons on it are so ridiculously tiny that you can barely operate them, but as the stereo seemed barely able to find any stations, and the RDS bit certainly could not keep it tuned to anything, I gave up pretty quickly. The dash is all black, with just a mottled effect on part of it and and silver rims to the central air vents to provide any visual relief. The overall effect is one of pure utility, with no real effort at any style at all. Apart, that is, from the very odd semi-translucent red plastic top to the gear lever. Presumably designed to match the red of the seat trim, this was a decidedly unusual and rather peculiar piece of detailing. That said, there were no rattles or squeaks, and whilst the plastics used are very hard to the touch, everything fits reasonably well together. Equipment levels are moderate, to say the least. Air conditioning is standard, as is the particularly awful stereo/CD player, and a trip computer of sorts that tells you average fuel consumption and speed, but beyond that you will struggle to find anything much of note.
The most disappointing feature of the C3 has to be the seats. I struggled to get the driving position I wanted, as the backrests adjust via a lever that varies the angle in a series of pre-set angles rather than being continuously adjustable, so I ended up with the seat either slightly too upright or a bit too reclined. There did not seem to be quite enough support in the backrest either, but after sitting on the seat on and off for a day, I concluded that the cushion was even less comfortable, lacking sufficient support under my thighs. The seats just seemed a bit too shapeless and whilst they would doubtless be OK for short trips, could well be a deal breaker for anyone who plans to drive the C3 for longer distances.
Although the C3 is not the largest car in its class, it is certainly roomy. The tall styling helps, resulting in ample space for front and rear passengers, considering the relatively compact dimensions of the car, with particularly generous levels of headroom. The boot is notably deep, although the floor area is not that large. The rear seat backs are asymmetrically split and can be folded forwards, to enlarge the load area. As the rear seat cushion does not lift, the extra space is somewhat higher than the boot area, but even so, this does give a pretty commodious cargo area. Inside the cabin, there is a reasonable sized glove box, a moulded area in front of the gearlever, with space for a small cup, and there are some decently generous doorbins, as well as a small cubby hole under the dash mounted stereo system. Apart from the glovebox, there is nowhere else to hide valuables, though.
In some ways, the C3 was a better car than I expected. Granted my expectations had been set pretty low, as it has been less than well reviewed by the press for its entire model life. Only the uncomfortable seats were a real problem. Otherwise, whilst it is not really a class leader in any respect, it has to be noted that it is somewhat cheaper than most of its competitors. Is it better than the Fiesta or Polo? Absolutely not. But look at the price difference and for someone who just wants sensible supermini transport, you can see why the C3 could be worthy of consideration. Of course, Citroen were trying to do better than that, looking for a return to some of the panache and desirability of their cars in the 1950s and ’60s. This C3 did not really hit that particular mark. There is a new C3 out now, and it will be interesting to see how much closer that one is at hitting the target set for it.