French cars are rarely boring, and never predictable
Are you the sort of person who loves loud-shirt days at work and other wacky, fun-loving things? Do you like to be the centre of attention? Do you stand out as much as a moment of subtly and thoughtfulness in a Michael Bay movie?
Then something like a Toyota Corolla probably isn’t for you.
Luckily, a country called “France” builds cars that will suit your extrovert personality perfectly. Generally stylish and, let’s face it, a little eccentric, French cars are rarely boring and never predictable.
And so it is with French car companies. Just when you think they are going in one direction, they do something entirely out of left field. Two examples of which are the Citroen C4 Cactus and the Renault Captur.
Where the C4 Cactus is rather avant-garde and oddly retro (without being particularly retro in any way), the Captur is a moment of well-designed clarity from a company that has veered wildly between deadly dull (Fluence, Koleos) and extremely cool (anything with an “RS” after its name), with a lot of vans in between.
Handily, they meet in the middle to play in the same price range; the vowel-deficient Captur starting at $35,990 and the cheerfully squinty Cactus coming in at $37,990.
Both are small five-door hatches that are almost SUVs, but their external appearances couldn’t be more different. The Renault is easily the best expression of the company’s current design language, with a strong family look and an extraordinarily stylish stance. It is sleek, modern and remarkably attractive, something that is particularly difficult to pull off on this body type.
And it is not entirely without its odd little French quirks either: the two-tone colour scheme you see here is one of several options available.
The Citroen on the other hand is all kinds of wild. At its heart it is a relatively simple design, but that simple design has been draped with incredibly bold styling decisions that work together brilliantly. You will either love it or hate it, but during our time with the Cactus we met very little in the way of hate.
The most striking feature of the exterior would probably have to be the remarkably bold “Airbumps” on the doors. They really are full of air and not only look unique, they are also extremely functional and remove the need to burst into a random fit of swearing after some idiot in a carpark slams his door open into yours.
Inside, the Citroen continues with the fantastic “retro-futuristic” theme (i.e; it looks like the sort of cars people in the 1950s thought we would be driving today, except it doesn’t fly) and features a great mix of materials and colours without being over the top.
The sensationally comfortable seats look brilliant too, looking for all the world like a bench seat, yet offering fantastic lateral support. Wonderful visual quirks like the big handbrake and push-button transmission abound and the interior of the Cactus feels special.
The big downside inside the Cactus, however, is the touchscreen that is rather inadvisably used to control everything. All the separate screens and menus means lots of pointless flicking through menus for EVERYTHING, including adjusting the fan speed or temperature. The single cupholder is tiny, low-sided, badly placed, largely pointless and typically French.
Inside the Renault everything is stylish and sporty, carrying through the external design. With fantastic looking seats (that aren’t anywhere near as supportive as they look) and a steering wheel that looks and feels brilliant, the Renault is stylish and modern, but the dominance of hard black plastics is hard not to notice, and the shiny bits are fingerprint magnets. Still, the Renault’s touchscreen interface and controls are remarkably sensible and far, far easier to use than the Citroen’s.
One remarkably clever feature that the Renault boasts is removable seat covers. Sick of the trim after a few years? No problem, nip down to the dealership and for $750 you can get synthetic leather covers. Or just give the old ones a wash and pop ’em back on. Clever and surprisingly functional. On the road the two ‘‘droles de petites voitures francaises’’ (funny little French cars) are as different as they look.
The Renault is powered by an 88kW/190Nm 1.2-litre petrol turbo four-cylinder engine hooked up to a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the Cactus gets a 68kW/230Nm 1.6-litre diesel turbo four-cylinder engine hooked up to a six-speed single-clutch automated transmission.
This translates to broadly similar performance, the Cactus comes with the interminably long pauses between gears that are a long-standing tradition of single-clutch automated transmissions, as opposed to the Renault’s swifter, smoother dual-clutch set up.
The traditional way to avoid this frustration is to treat it like a manual and shift gears manually using the paddles and lifting off the throttle as you do, but the Cactus frustrates this technique by not offering a full manual mode on the auto trans. You just have to get used to it which, surprisingly, you do.
The Renault, on the other hand is far more normal to drive. The engine is surprisingly strong and eager for a 1.2, and the transmission is slick and smooth. Unfortunately it suffers from a too-firm ride that unsettles things around town, and an absolute lack of steering feel blunts things out on the open road.
The Cactus fares little better in the handling stakes, but does offer more feel to proceedings. However, it is a remarkably comfortable car. The ride is only marginally better than the Captur’s, and the incredibly comfortable seats and more compliant damping make for an extremely relaxing driving experience, completely at odds to the quirks it offers.
Both cars suffer from being a tad too expensive, but both hold appeal in different ways.
The Renault is the easier car to live with around town, with its smooth engine and slick transmission making it far easier to slip in and out of traffic or park. It looks great and is surprisingly spacious and practical for such a small car.
The Citroen, on the other hand, is a mass of quirks and foibles that, although not exactly annoying as such, don’t go out of their way to make your life easier. The odd-ball transmission makes parking, hill starts and, well, most things, more difficult than they should be, but its extraordinary comfort, higher quality and fantastic looks elevate it above the Renault.
If you can deal with the quirks (or, indeed, enjoy them as I ended up doing) then the Cactus is a far more rewarding car in almost every way. The Renault is just the more normal.
RENAULT CAPTUR PRICE: $35,990 ENGINE: 1.2-litre petrol turbo four-cylinder Surprisingly practical, stylish looks and has a great drive train. Thirstier than it should be. Harsh ride.
CITROEN C4 CACTUS PRICE: $37,990 ENGINE: 1.6-litre diesel turbo four-cylinder Those looks! Remarkably comfortable and a fantastic interior. Those looks! (possibly) And the weird transmission.