Back in the late 1990s, when Ford’s Focus introduced the crisp and refreshing shape that subsequently redefined the European compact car sector, the softer lines of its Gallic rival looked decidedly old-hat by comparison.
There was nothing wrong with the way the Xsara performed, of course. Yet no amount of marketing incentives could ever really compensate for its lacklustre image at the kerbside.
More recent designs like the C3 and C2 show how things have changed at Citroen, but nothing better demonstrates how the French firm is re-inventing itself than the model that has just taken over the high-volume role of the Xsara.
In what has to be the auto-motive equivalent of chalk and cheese, the new C4 looks nothing like its predecessor – and is all the better for it. This car replaces blandness with originality and has all the style it needs to compete head-on with its peers.
As fresh as the Xsara was staid, the C4 has success written all over it, and in a break with Citroen tradition, the car uses different bodywork to appeal to buyers with different tastes. In three-door form, it looks overtly sporty, but with five doors, the shape appears more practical, even though interior space packaging is largely similar.
Given the fleet preference for cars with five doors, most customers are likely to opt for the latter version, particularly in turbodiesel form. A choice of 1.6 or 2.0-litre power is on offer, and while the smaller motor proves an adequate all-rounder in a car weighing less than 1,300kg, we opted for the bigger 138bhp unit.
In this guise, the car is available in VTR or Exclusive trim, each with a six-speed transmission geared to pull a remarkable 34mph per 1,000 revs in top, making the C4 one of the most fuel-efficient motorway expresses in the compact sector. Such high gearing demands respect however, and use of sixth ratio is best avoided below 50mph.
Apart from its breakthrough fixed-hub steering wheel, an arrangement that allows a bigger airbag to be deployed as well as providing a handy new location for minor switchgear, the range-topping Exclusive version is also something of a tour de force for convenience features, with a speed limiter included in the cruise control system, tyre pressure monitoring, laminated side windows for higher security and lower noise levels, xenon directional headlamps and automatic folding door mirrors all included as standard.
With niceties like dual-zone air conditioning and a scented air freshener backing up a smooth ride and composed handling, the C4 provides a particularly relaxing environment for the long-distance driver. Overall noise levels are low and a combination of abundant torque and light weight make it a spirited performer.
Distinctive 17-inch alloy wheels win second glances and neat touches including a central armrest CD autochanger, footwell and front door sill lighting and chrome interior detailing reinforce the upmarket stance.
Optional pearlescent paint, upgraded hi-fi with Bluetooth and leather trim, including heated front seats and power operation for the driver’s seat, added £1,955 to the price of our test car.
THREE RIVALS TO CONSIDER
THE C4 appears second only to the Golf here, but the manufacturer’s practice of including even new models in its promotional campaigns can muddy the cost comparison issue. As an example of this, every version of the C4 ordered before the end of January and delivered by the end of March qualified for £1,100 cashback payments. But despite that, unusually high levels of equipment and specification still allow the Exclusive to represent strong value in the category.
FRESH styling doesn’t come at the expense of practicality with the C4. Unusually in the sector, the car’s front end uses aluminium and plastic instead of steel in the interests of pedestrian safety and cost-effectiveness. As a result, anticipated costs of £1,470 over three years/60,000 miles are £150 inside the expected total for the Golf. But the Focus still achieves a lower total (£1,446) and the Astra (£1,398) is the clear winner.
NICELY proportioned and curvy, the C4 is also particularly slippery when it comes to aerodynamics. With specially shaped door mirrors, new-style windscreen wipers and bumpers that improve airflow over the wheels, its commendably low drag co-efficient of 0.29 makes a perfect partner for the highly-regarded HDi motor developed jointly by PSA and Ford. As a result, the Citroen is way ahead on fuel costs, with an expected total of £4,716 reflecting a £180 cost advantage over the Focus, £258 over the Golf and £348 over the Astra.
THE C4 represents Citroen’s drive back to the days when it dared to be different with design themes that were bold and individual. The bad news is that appearing distinctive still means the steepest depreciation costs – but the newcomer’s expected total of £12,054 is only £198 behind the Astra over three years/60,000 miles. However, CAP Monitor predicts that the Golf will repay its high front-end pricing with a total of £9,432, a substantial difference of £2,622.
GERMANY triumphs over France in a big way here, with the Golf’s total wholelife costs figure of £16,026 allowing it to rack up running cost savings of £222 – a significant advantage – compared with the C4 over the three years/60,000 miles period. Elsewhere, the figures provide little by way of consolation for Citroen by revealing that the Focus trails the Golf by £1,362. With a hefty disadvantage of £2,292 against the Golf, the Astra is relegated to fourth place.
EMISSIONS AND BIK TAX RATES
DESPITE boasting a combination of 138bhp and the lowest CO2 emissions, the new Citroen is last to the post here, with a monthly bill of £60.20 for the 22% taxpayer. Thanks to a lower P11D price, the same PSA-Ford base power unit drives the Focus into first place, with a monthly cost of just £51.40, to leave the Golf in second place with a monthly tax bill of £57.84. A BIK penalty of £58.64 secures third placing for the Astra.
BACKED by seemingly rock-solid residuals, the Golf remains true to form to emerge as victor yet again – and with a predicted advantage over the Focus of more than £1,600 after three years, the latest version makes a very strong case for itself. Relatively little separates the Focus and Astra, but the fourth placing of the C4 reflects a particularly cautious stance on residuals. However, the way the car blends good looks with capability could see it outperform the predictions in due course. WINNER: Volkswagen Golf 2.0 GT TDI 5dr
Citroen C4 2.0 HDi Exclusive
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £18,242
CO2 emissions (g/km): 142
BIK % of P11D in 2004: 16%
Graduated VED rate: £115
Insurance group: 10
Combined mpg: 52.3
CAP Monitor residual value: £5,125/28%
Depreciation (20.09 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,054
Maintenance (2.45 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,470
Fuel (7.86 pence per mile x 60,000): £4,716
Wholelife cost (30.40 pence per mile x 60,000): £18,240
Typical contract hire rate: £381
AT A GLANCE