Curbside Driving Impressions: 2020 Citroen C5 Aircross Flair PureTech 130 – In Need Of A Sense Of Direction

We’ve all seen, and probably tried, a compact SUV, and there are many, many to choose from, though not all of them vary as much you might expect. What is the French take on this format, possibly a format that doesn’t seem very French? After all, style and fashion have rarely taken precedence over practicality and individuality in French automotive design and choice. See a long list from 2CV to Avantime for further details.

The European template for the family SUV has been set, and the market has declared that this is the successor to the mid-size saloon and the mid-size MPV/minivan/monospace. Aside from the typically Renault (that’s a compliment) Scenic and the automotive Tupperware (I’ll let you decide if that’s a compliment) that is the VW Touran, there are no real contenders from European manufacturers and precious few on the market, and none that are not alongside a more fashion conscious SUV in the showroom.

Citroen, and Peugeot, are not an exception. The long running C4 Picasso has now gone from the price lists, except for the seven seat version, as has the more compact C3 Picasso and larger (Euro full size) C7. Also gone are the C5 mid-size (Passat size) saloon and the C4 compact (Golf size) hatchback. Citroen is now a builder of city cars (the C1), supermini hatchbacks (C3) and larger SUVs, the C3 Aircross and the larger C5 Aircross, alongside the DS branded range of semi-premium models. The C5 Aircross is aimed directly at the Nissan Qashqai, the Skoda Karoq, the SEAT Ateca (derivatives of the VW Tiguan), various Hyundai and Kia products such as the Sportage and Tucson, and the Ford Kuga/Escape.

Some of us remember Citroen for something other than competing with Hyundais, of course. For 30 years, from the end of the 1960s, mid market Citroens were some of the best cars ever offered in that part of the market. The GS and GSA were fully comparable with the Alfasud, Fiat 124 and VW Golf. The BX and then the Xantia were class leaders too. Further up market, the DS was an absolute, the CX was one of the best in its class, let down only by an elderly four cylinder engine, and the later XM and C6 made up in distinction and style what they have may missed out on absolute capability. Some cars from the last 20 years have been less memorable – C4, C5 hatchback, and the DS upmarket experiment is proving a slow burner. But it is still a brand name that has a great Curbivore history.

The C5 Aircross is therefore most easily described as being a direct French competitor to the Nissan Qashqai, a car that set the template for this type of car in Europe 10 years ago, and remains one of the best sellers. Five seats, five doors, sit up high, big wheels, the compact Range Rover feeling, you know the drill.

Being part of Peugeot SA, the C5 is inevitably very closely related to a Peugeot, in this case the second generation 3008, sharing the EMP2 platform. You can take your choice – essentially it comes down to styling and interior design. The Citroen is all, well, a sort of soft, friendly, organic blob with a big flat bonnet, the Peugeot more avant garde and edgy, with a very striking interior.

Somewhere in the middle, and perhaps in contrast looking a bit bland if well executed, sits the Vauxhall/Opel Grandland X from PSA’s Anglo-German (ex GM) brands. Citroen, sorry DS, also offer the DS7 compact luxury SUV based on the same platform. Apparently, it’s France’s best selling compact luxury SUV, even if many markets are not being set alight by it.  Manufacturing, perhaps surprisingly, follows brands’ histories – the Peugeot from Sochaux near Mulhouse, the Citroen from Rennes in Brittany and the Opel from Eisenach. Only the Peugeot is available as a 7 seater, sold as the 5008.

In terms of engineering and general specification, all these vehicles are similar and conventional. There is a transverse front mounted engine, either petrol or diesel, a six speed manual, or six or eight speed automatic gearboxes. Front suspension is by MacPherson struts; the rear uses a torsion bar. There is also a plug-in hybrid version, just coming on the market. This has the 1.6 litre engine and a motor driving the front wheels, and claims 34 miles on electric power.

Uniquely amongst the cars on this platform, the C5 Aircross uses Citroen’s Progressive Hydraulic Cushions suspension. In simple terms, this replaces the conventional upper and lower bump stops with hydraulic units, which are claimed to fully absorb and not return any energy to the spring and damper.  I have to admit that this innovation passed me by, and if you judge success as not noticing any intrusion into regular use then these succeed. The ride is pretty good, though not true hydropneumatic good, but the body does roll noticeably.

But what’s the C5 Aircross like to live with? I spent two days with one just before lockdown, courtesy of work and Avis.

First impressions were pretty good, helped by the fact the car was spot on brand new, with just 100 miles on the clock and freshly inducted into the fleet. The visuals, while a bit over wrought, are not unattractive and are well executed, and the contact points feel solid enough. They do this without feeling sturdy in a truck way, but in a semi-premium manner. In terms of quality impression, this interior, with one exception, was fully comparable with the Mini Countryman I tried a couple of years ago, and ahead of the Jeep Renegade before that. The exception is quite important – light use (like, no bags on the seats) still left a small tear on the outer leather facing on the rear seat (Avis haven’t said anything, yet), which made we wonder how this light coloured interior would stand up to lively family service.

The driving environment is clearly intended to be cosseting and nudge you towards thinking this is a semi-premium product. There is a high centre console, level with the seat squab at its lowest, and rising to form a central armrest – never a good thing as far as I’m concerned. At least this one covers a large storage bin that would take an iPad for example, and has a nifty split and side hinged lid. The seats are typically French and soft, and proved comfortable for a three hour motorway run, though side support was lacking.

The style of the interior is not unattractive and is also fairly distinctive. It is unlikely to be mistaken for anything else, such as a Peugeot or a Vauxhall, and is a step up from many Japanese and Korean interiors in terms of style, to my eyes at least, and with more character than a VW Group interior if not the VW solid feel and laser like focus on ergonomics. More later on those.

Space inside was actually a little disappointing. Given the bulk of the exterior, and this does feel like a big vehicle, both long and tall, the rear seat space was not special and the boot not remarkable either, at least with the seats up. (I didn’t check with the seats down, but if you want to know “how big is the boot with the seats down?” I guess I’d refer you to What Car? or Motor Trend and not CC.) Sitting behind myself was not great, not helped by the high shoulder line and dark door and roof trims. Brochures talk about seats that slide, though how escaped me, and would only have served to make the boot bigger and the seat more cramped, though still usable for kids and booster seats.

It has to be said the combination of low set seats, relative to the console and high window line, big flat bonnet and high dash top, with the Citroen logos was not an easy one to settle with.  This was no DS Safari inside. Or, indeed, a C4 Picasso.

The actual dashboard was a story of two halves. Every feature you could realistically expect was present – auto wipers and lights, cruise, Bluetooth, large electrically adjustable and heated mirrors, navigation system, a TFT screen of instruments, cornering lights and rear view camera with 360 degree plan view. Everything worked, and in most cases in a more rigorously logical way than you might have associated with a successor to the GS or XM.

The TFT instruments were as impressive as these things normally are, with options to place the navigation centre stage in front of the driver for example, and to configure the instruments in various ways. All nicely entertaining, but you suspect the novelty would wear off and a preferred configuration ultimately retained. The actual layouts were not that exciting, with the rev counter for example never being more a sliding bar graph. It is almost as if it was expected to serve as a stop-start system active warning rather than anything else, and thereby sums up the driver engagement expected.

The centre screen controlled many things. Obviously, the navigation system and audio were controlled here, as well as the options to configure the various features of cornering lights, cameras and so on. And the heating and ventilation.

The Flair level trim has dual zone climate control, so in theory you can set and forget. In reality, I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who does, as the car’s determination of when you want more heat, fresh air, a screen demist or whatever is not going to be the same as yours. Therefore, having to use a touch screen for such things is, in my book, a major fail. You have to reach the screen, unintuitively compared to a nice round control knob, minimise the navigation or audio display, select the climate control, make your changes, minimise the climate control and select the map again. All without the real world feedback you get from knobs and twist rings.

Citroen have thought of this, though. You can adjust the temperature by voice control. Select voice control by pressing button, and say “increase temperature”. How much it goes up seems to be a bit of a pot luck number, but you can always go back and say “decrease temperature”, and repeat the cycle until you’re happy.  Give me set of easy to use twist knobs any day.

Also lacking on feedback, more importantly, was the steering. Yes, the wheel was nice hold and the buttons on it for the cruise control and TFT screen personalisation were good to use (as good as any I’ve tried in fact) the steering itself was as descriptive as a video game controller. There is little or no information on what the front wheels are doing, and while you add weight with the configuration options, you only seem to add artificial weight, and not any feedback. This becomes a car you handle with gentle inputs, partly because you can’t sense how big the car will decide the input is, partly because it’s going to lean and lurch if challenged, and partly because it soon becomes clear that is how the Aircross expects to be driven. The first reaction of the steering is seemingly to do little or nothing, then it catches up with you as if it realises you weren’t actually nodding off. And it doesn’t like “slow in, fast out” cornering. Particularly, not the “fast out” bit.

This example had a 1200cc three cylinder turbocharged engine, and if your reaction is around the size of the engine and the size of the car, then I guess you’re not alone. Power is quoted as 130 bhp (hence the naming convention, which is becoming common and replacing the 1200 or 1.2 we were so used to) and 0-60 at 10.5 seconds. 117 mph is possible, apparently. Obviously, I was unable on British roads to try for those figures, but it was a capable cruiser at 80 mph (in the upper quartile of British motorway traffic, in reality), albeit one up. I sense that a car full of kids and their clutter would show a difference. After 300 miles of mostly motorway and dual carriageway, with a bit of town use on top, I got around 40mpg (Imperial, not US gallons). Not spectacular, to be frank, and I suspect the penalty for the bulky profile. My Alfa would have given me 25% more, easily.

In other areas, the car has some weaknesses too. The dash may be up to the minute modern, but it has the same stalks PSA have used for many years. Arming the auto wipers requires the same action as the single flick (mist) wipe, so you end up doing it twice, the cruise control is managed by the same controller PSA have used for cruise and radio controls for twenty years and style does overtake substance and practicality on a few details.  The rear wiper is as small as can be, the rear loading sill inevitably high.

Refinement is fully class competitive, such that I did not notice the three cylinder thrum at any point and had in fact assumed it was the four cylinder engine, and equipment on this mid range Flair variant was good. Digital radio (but no CD player), auto climate, reversing camera with a roof top parking aid, lane departure and blind spot monitoring (a life saver, IMHO), electric parking brake, the TFT instruments and navigation are all part of the package. Apart from the panoramic glass roof, there seems little to lacking for the private buyer.

The car I had was valued in the showroom at £27,970, including £545 for the optional grey metallic. The only non-premium paint is refrigerator white (not Citroen’s name for it but….). The Peugeot take costs about £30,000, the Vauxhall £29000. An equivalent Renault Kadjar would be under £25,000. The Skoda, SEAT, Nissan, Hyundai et al are all there or thereabouts, and the usual monthly based lease plans are available.

No doubt Avis paid less, but you have to ask. A 2019 BMW 320d xdrive Touring with 8000 miles, great visuals through a strong colour, same registration plate year code, BMW warranty (and quality) and a pretty full spec could be yours for less than £23000 from Autotrader, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be expected to be worth just 44% of its value in three years. In practice, I’d contend that it would do everything the Citroen will, probably use less fuel (except when the driver’s alone, maybe) and have the neighbours twitching their curtains, not shaking their heads.

I know where my money would go. Not on the car that fails to be as spacious and commodious as the C4 Picasso or as comfortable as the C5 saloon. Or in as appealing, technically interesting or class leading as my friend Tony’s 1981 GSA.

(A note on the photos – unlike Jim Klein, I don’t have Colorado’s space and scenery as a backdrop for photos, instead having dreary motorway service station in February, before it got dark. Hence, some photos in this review, notably the orange car and the interior shots with auto box, are from Autocar.)