by John Carey
THE rounded, non-aggressive shape of the new C3 Aircross makes it a cute and cuddly urban SUV. And Citroen's latest model, due in Australia in just over six months, doesn't stand out simply for its individual looks.
On Corsica, France's island in the Mediterranean that Citroen chose for the car's international launch, brand execs talked up its most important features. The C3 Aircross comes equipped with a dozen driver aids, has great connectivity and gives buyers 90 colour combinations, they boasted.
Citroen is beginning an international SUV offensive, they added, and aiming for global sales growth with a target of 1.6 million vehicles annually within three years.
The French brand was late to spot the SUV trend and its sales slumped as a result. The C3 Aircross, which replaces the C3 Picasso (a small people-mover that never sold here), is an attempt to remedy this.
Citroen developed the basic framework, or platform, for the C3 Aircross in partnership signed with Opel in 2012. Sharing costs this way saves money.
Opel's version, the Crossland X, looks quite different despite sharing much under-the-skin technology and coming from the same factory in Zaragoza in northern Spain.
A line-up free of SUVs isn't the only reason Citroen sales barely register on the chart in Australia. The French brand's market share is just 0.1 per cent and it has sold fewer than 500 cars in nine months this year.
Australia prefers automatic, France is mainly manual. In the past, Citroen has focused on keeping customers at home happy rather than winning customers elsewhere.
As a consequence, the likes of the quirky C4 Cactus crossover arrives here with engine and transmission combinations that seem chosen to repel customers. The only auto option in the Cactus is a clunky and slow-shifting robotised six-speed that comes only with a diesel engine.
But, as the C3 Aircross demonstrates, this era may be coming to an end.
As with the new C3 hatchback, the C3 Aircross uses the very efficient 1.2-litre three-cylinder turbo that's the best engine produced by PSA, owner of both Peugeot and Citroen. And it comes only with a proper automatic.
The C3 Aircross isn't a quick car, taking well over 10 seconds to get from rest to 100km/h, but the little turbo triple delivers real oomph once the car is moving.
The six-speed auto, sadly, isn't as good as the engine. It's prone to jerky downshifts when slowing and takes its sweet time kicking back a gear when the accelerator is pressed.
Despite the high-riding SUV look, the C3 Aircross drives only the front wheels. There's a dial inside to choose traction control modes for different types of terrain but this is basically a hatchback with 175mm ground clearance.
That's the way it drives, too. It has firmer suspension than the C3 hatch to contain the tendencies of a higher vehicle to pitch and sway when cornering, braking and accelerating.
It's capable enough on bends but the ride becomes bumpy if the road is lumpy. The steering is light and doesn't provide much sense of connection with the road.
The interior of the C3 Aircross is its best point, with plenty of soft curves to match the exterior. The instrument panel is mostly hard plastics but still manages to be chic.
Invitingly soft, the seats are not well shaped for support when cornering quickly. The ambience is loungy and relaxed, yet the C3 Aircross doesn't neglect practicality.
It's a little longer than the C3 hatch, with more rear seat room and a larger cargo space. The rear seat back split-folds 60-40.
In Europe, buyers choose from eight body colours, three contrasting roof colours, four exterior colour packs (mirror caps and roof rails), three wheel designs and five interior colour themes.
This Mini-like level of customisation will appeal to some potential buyers but it's tough for Citroen to deliver such extensive choices to far-flung markets like Australia.
New Australian importer Inchcape has time to work on this before the C3 Aircross's launch next year. That distant date also means negotiations between Inchcape and Citroen on pricing are not complete.
It's sensible to expect the C3 Aircross to cost a little more than the C3. The C3 launches from $23,000 so a $25,000 starting price for the cute C3 Aircross seems likely.