Having spent a Friday braving the crowds at the Salon de l’Automobile, the Paris Auto Show, I had a whole weekend to fill with other things in what you could call a mini-break in Paris. I decided to spend one day in the city, relying on public transport to get me around, and one ranging further afield for which I would need a car. I don’t get the opportunity to sample cars from the French rental fleets that often, so was fairly hopeful that no matter what category I booked, I could get something I had not driven before elsewhere. Thinking that I would not venture that afar, I reserved a small car, but, as so often happens when I turned up, Hertz gave me something completely different, asking me if a Citroen C4 Grand Picasso would be OK. It is many years since I last drove any Citroen, as these tend not to feature on the rental fleets in other European countries, and as Citroen is perhaps still the quintessential French marque, it seemed utterly right to accept their offer without even asking if there was anything else available.
The first Citroën to use the Picasso name was the 1999 Xsara. That car was such a hit that it remained on sale until 2010, long after the regular Xsara had disappeared and a new generation of Citroëns had been launched, with Picasso becoming longhand for MPV in Citroën-speak in the meantime. It was only offered as a 5 seater but when a replacement model was developed, Citroen clearly took note of the fact that arch-rival and compatriot, Renault, who arguably invented and popularised the family-sized MPV sector with their Scenic, had found further success by adding the 7-seater Grand Scenic to their range, and so Citroen followed suit with their first seven-seat C4 Grand Picasso in 2006. A five-seat regular version arrived a few months later. Although sales of models in this sector have been declining in favour of Crossovers, the C4 Picasso models were still popular enough for Citroen to develop a successor to both variants. These appeared in 2013, with launches a few months apart and were significant beyond the fact that they introduced new and striking design features to a class that typically concentrates more on function than form. These were the first vehicles from Peugeot-Citroen to use their new EMP2 (Efficient Modular Platform) architecture which would go on to underpin a vast array of further models from both brands, all their C- and D-Segment vehicles and hence around 50 % of their total production. As well as weight-saving benefits, the new platform has allowed Citroen to offer the car with a 110mm longer wheelbase, in a car that is the same length as its predecessor, offering significantly more interior space, probably the most important attribute of all for cars of this type. I rather hoped with this test to find out what else the C4 Grand Picasso had to offer beyond roominess.
The test car featured what is the most popular engine available in the C4 Grand Picasso, the familiar 1.6 litre e-HDi diesel engine which sees service in a large number of Citroen and Peugeot models. It generates 118 bhp, which is adequate for a car of this and weight to make it go in the way you would need. It is not fast, but nor does the car feel under-engined, with respectable levels of acceleration available. More to the point, it is quite refined, with most of the tell-tale sounds of a car that takes it fuel from the black pump evident either on start up or when underway. The test car had the standard 6 speed manual gearbox. Gearchange quality is something that PSA have struggled to crack in recent times, and whilst this one was better than the sloppy units I’ve experienced in other models in the range, it was slightly clunky and notchy in operation. I covered 180 km during my time with the C4 Grand Picasso. It needed 9.3 litres to fill it up before returning it to Mr Hertz, which computes out to 54. 9 mpg. a creditable result. There is a Stop/Start system, and this proved as unintrusive as these systems can be, working smoothly an quickly when you pressed the clutch pedal.
You don’t really buy a car like this and expect sports car like driving pleasure, and indeed you don’t get any of that, but one of the design goals of the new platform was to offer something that would be a significant improvement on what went before. The engineering of this front wheel drive car is still much as before, utterly conventional in concept, with none of the unusual features that used to characterise Citroens of yesteryear. Being a Citroen, what you would be expecting is something that favours comfort over sport, and that is largely what you will experience. The steering is light, and there is not a lot of feel to it, which is probably what many drivers would want, as it makes the car easy to pilot whether on the move or when manoeuvering, but it does not have any surprise, with the assistance remaining consistent as you turn the wheel. The handling is much as you would expect, too. Grip is not lacking, but there is an amount of body roll and plenty of understeer if you tackle the bends with any level of enthusiasm. The up-side is a pliant and comfortable ride for a car which is came with 205/55 R17 tyres. All told, this is a comfortable car with a composure that would allow you to cruise along the Routes Nationales feeling at ease with the world and whilst it won’t appeal to the enthusiast who would favour the characteristics of a Ford S-Max, but it is far more appealing to drive than you might have expected. The brakes were well up to par, with no concerns from the footbrake. An electronic parking brake is fitted and this was as frustrating as these devices are with any manual gearboxed car. The windscreen on this car is massive, which does help to give the cabin a particularly airy feel. It is big partly because of its angle of inclination, so whilst the view straight ahead is good, that to the side on corners is no better or worse than on many other cars. The back of the car does seem quite a way behind you, but reversing the car proved to be straight-forward and the parking sensors and rear-view camera helped to show you exactly how much space there was. The provision of a second rear view mirror, with a different field of vision helped and there is also a blind spot monitor.
Citroen have made a significant effort with their most recent models to try to improve the perceived, and actual quality of their interiors, having endured many years of just criticisms for cheap plastics, and the propensity to squeak and rattle years after most other manufacturers had addressed such issues. Whilst the results evident in this car are still some way short of VW or Audi quality, things are a lot better than they were and merit no particular comment, good or bad. Everything fits together well and the dashboard and door casings comprise mostly soft touch plastics. A leather wheel wrapped wheel certainly helps to make the cabin look that bit higher in quality ambition, as do the satin chrome highlights around the air vents and other elements of the dash, which was a grey in colour as opposed to the more usual black you get on so many cars. The dash design itself is certainly distinctive, following the same concept as was to be seen in previous C4 Picasso models. This means that directly in front of the driver, there is nothing of note, as the instruments are in a cluster in the middle of the car, angled towards to the driver. What is new on this generation of the C4 Picasso is that they are now all digital, only illuminated with a blue colour when the ignition is powered on. There are two round digital dials, the left of which is a speedometer, which has a digital speed repeater in its centre. The second one, it turned out, though I did not find this out until after the rest, is customisable. For me it showed what was playing on the radio, but it can also serve as a rev counter among other things. Above this is a small horizontal bar chart style fuel gauge and the odometer functions are displayed in a line across the lower right of the cluster. Although it is a long way from you compared to a conventional layout, it was not that hard to adjust to looking in the dials’ direction. Beneath this unit are a slim pair of air vents and then there is the relatively small 7″ display screen for the infotainment system, which is lower down in the dash than you might thing ideal. This operates not just the audio unit, but also navigation and is also the place to go for the dual zone automated climate control. There are a few touch-pad buttons on either side of the unit, but mostly, you will have to use the touch screen itself, or the audio repeater buttons on the right of the steering wheel hub. The left side of the wheel is where you will go for the cruise control. There are a lot of buttons lining the sides of the steering wheel boss. Conventional column stalks are used for indicators, wipers and lights. There is a keyless starting, with a slot beneath the button for you to insert the rather sizeable “key”. The audio set-up is based on an 8 speaker JBL system and it produced a good quality sound.
The seats of this version of the C4 Grand Picasso are part leather-covered, which makes them look a bit more luxurious than you might expect in a family car. They are adjusted manually, with controls to do this in the usual places. The inside front corner of the seat contains three small switches which are used for the seat heater function, something I did not need to test out during my October drive of the car. The steering wheel is relatively small, though not Peugeot-sized small. It had sufficient adjustment to go as high as I would want, and clearly there are not instruments to obstruct no matter where you set it. Once everything was adjusted, I found the driving position, though perhaps higher than you would get in a conventional hatchback, was good and the seat itself proved comfortable. There are individual armrests attached to the side of each of the front seats, though I swivelled mine out of the way for the test duration.
Things are pretty good for those who sit in the second row of the car, too. There is plenty of space here, with the taller than average body meaning that there is ample headroom. and legroom is adequate even when the front seats are set well back. There are three separate seats here, each individually adjustable, as each is on sliders, and you can alter the backrest angle as well. Occupants here have drop down picnic tables attached to the back of the front seats and there are air vents with a climate control adjuster set in the door pillars for added comfort and oddment space is addressed with bins in the doors and pockets in the back of the front seats.
The third row is really aimed at children, as is the case with most cars of this size. Getting in requires a level of athleticism, as you might expect. The outer of the middle-row seats tip forward and you need to clamber through the space. There are two separate seat units here, making it clear that this space for two and not three. Headroom is not a problem, and there is less of a “knees in your chest” feeling than you get in many cars of this size, so given the constraint of the dimensions of the car, this is not a bad effort.
There is even some boot space when all three rows of seats are erect. It is not that long from front to back, but if you avail yourself of the height, you get quite a bit of luggage in there. Loading is easy, with a floor flush with the base of the tailgate. That tailgate is massive, which means it is heavy, but fortunately it is electrically assisted. Start folding seats down, and this is something you can do individually, of course, and you get progressively more space. In five-seater mode, there is a lot of room, and with the second row folded down as well, there is vast cavern and even the front passenger one can be folded for any particularly long items . The seats all fold down very easily and go flat into the floor, meaning that the resulting load bay is flat from tailgate to the front seats, though there are gaps. If you need even more cargo capacity, there are roof rails. Inside the cabin, there is a huge cubby in the lower centre of the dash behind the gearlever, a massive glovebox and there are door bins. Cupholders are under a lid in the centre console where once you might have expected to find a handbrake.
Whilst the engine options in the C4 Grand Picasso are the same across Europe, the available trims are specific to each market. Most of the cars will be sold with a diesel engine, and there are two different capacities and three outputs. As well as the 118 bhp version of the 1,6 litre e-HDi engine, there is an emissions-optimised 99 bhp AirDream version, too, which generates just 99 g/km C02. Sitting above these is the 2.0 HDi unit, with 150 bhp. Six speed manual and a six speed Aisin-sourced automatic – replacing, at the end of 2015, the much criticised automated manual ETG6 – transmission are available. If you want a petrol powered model, then the 130 bhp 1.2 Pure Tech and 165 1.6 THP turbo engines are now what is offered, the older 1.6 VTi model having ended its production run in 2015. Looking at the French market, there would appear to have been a lot of different named trims offered since the 2013 launch. These have included Confort, Business and Business +, the Intensive and the Exclusive which was the spec of the test car. This would appear to be the top of the range, though some of the features offered on top spec UK market models were not here. What it did include were 17″ alloys, front fog lights, an electrically assisted tailgate, dual zone automated climate control, part leather seats, navigation and the colour customisable instrument cluster, not all of which are available on lesser spec cars. Certain options are combined as part of packages, for instance the Park Assist Pack, which includes the park assist system, Blind Spot Monitoring System and parking sensors. Opt for the Lounge Pack and you’ll get a massage function for the front seats, extra-comfortable ‘Relax’ headrests and an electrical raising leg rest for the front passenger seat, enabling the passenger to recline as if in a dentist’s chair. Also available is the Citroen Multicity Connect system – an internet-connected app portal controlled via the 7″ touchpad with information on the nearest hotels, restaurants and fuel stations (with prices), as well as access to social media and internet browsing when not on the move. This is accessed by a plug-in USB dongle, for which you’ll have to pay Citroen a subscription fee. Options available,included in the top spec Exclusive +, and not fitted to the test car, include larger 18″ alloys, a massive panoramic sun roof, and the Park Assist package which includes self-parking as well as 3D style LED rear lights.
The C4 Grand Picasso is not a car for enthusiasts, and driving one will probably provide any final confirmation of that which you may need. But that is not its rasion d’etre. This is a product aimed at those who need practical family transport, probably for a growing family or for someone who needs on a regular basis to carry more than 3 children around. And seen with that as its objective, it scores pretty well. The design strikes well the fine line between interesting and quirky, the quality has improved massively over previous Citroen models, the car is spacious, with plenty of room for people and things and lots of practical touches, and yet it is not intimidatingly big, so it is not a liability on the road or when you want to park it. Indeed, behind the wheel, it is vice free, just not very exciting. There are not many direct 7 seater rivals left, but if this is the genre of car you need, it is definitely worthy of serious consideration.