The Blue Room

SHIFT JUST GOT REAL

NATHAN PONCHARD

Gearshift wand sticking up in the one o’clock position a nostalgic reminder of old-school Citroen ergonomics

The engine currently known as Prince

THE joint-venture PSA/BMW 1.6-litre ‘Prince’ engine has never been a favourite of mine. Packed with effervescence and character in Mini JCW guise, it has never quite nailed the same highs in Peugeots and Citroens. The Pug 208 GTi 30 I drove recently definitely set a new high-point for the French offerings, but there’s always a lingering memory of the harshness of the same donk in 115kW guise in the long-dead 207 GT.

OurGarage

Another French renaissance master

LIKE every other Francophile, I’m loving that French cars are enjoying a renaissance right now. The revival of ride quality and some fine new engines have done wonders for the model line-ups of Renault and Peugeot, but what about Citroen, for such a long time the weirdest and most wonderful of them all?

While this decade’s DS-badged models were a start – particularly the great-handling DS3 DSport – it has taken until last year’s new-gen Grand C4 Picasso to show what today’s Citroen is truly capable of. So I thought I’d volunteer to run the five-seat version long-term, even though I hadn’t actually driven one.

Talk about a leap of faith. I’ve gone from a bad-arse-black BMW M4 manual to a “mumsy” aqua-blue C4 Picasso Exclusive with a columnshift auto. Not that I think the five-seat Picasso is a pregnancy chariot, but my arty, non-carloving friends described it as a “mumsy thing to carry kids around in”, not the chic and glassy piece of French weirdness I thought they might appreciate.

Granted, the seven-seat version is arguably the better looker, with a sleeker window-line and detail styling, and a less puffy bottom.

But I love it when form and function meld so neatly into one the way the C4 Picasso does.

Starting at $40,990, the five-seater is $4K cheaper than the seven-seater, though given it’s a petrol, not a turbo-diesel drivetrain that traditionally commands a premium, the price should definitely start with a ‘3’. But my pretty blue one is a fair way beyond that.

Premium ‘Bleu Teles’ paint ($900), an electric tailgate ($1000) and black/beige Nappa leather trim ($5000) take tr trim ($5000) take CVD-44G’s sticker to $47,890. And while $5K could buy a bloody nice leather lounge suite, at least the C4’s optional upholstery throws in heated/massaging front seats, an electric ‘ottoman’ for the front passenger, and ‘butterfly’ tr headrests for all five buckets that are meant to act like neck pillows.

Instead of getting Citroen to truck the C4 Picasso up from Melbourne, I decided to settle into it over deadline week and deliver it to Sydney myself later on. Which, given its expansive vision and likeable ride quality, sounded almost pleasant.

Surprisingly, so does its engine. PSA’s re-engineered 1.6-litre turbo four, now with 121kW and a chubby 240Nm from just 1400rpm, has lost the intrusive coarseness that it suffered at high rpm in its previous tune, though it still lacks the charm of the brilliant 1.2-litre turbo triple – and, after seeing a cabin pic of the Euro version, a neat six-speed manual shifter riding atop the centre console.

Citroen’s six-speed auto is a good one, though, despite the weird gear selector ‘wand’ atop the steering column, which requires acclimatisation if you’re performing a quick three-point turn. I whacked the wipers on full instead of grabbing reverse a number of times before getting it together.

That said, the Picasso’s wonderfully tight turning circle is more than compensation.

So first impressions are good, if not flawless. A high-mounted brake pedal and over-sensitive braking response made my first steer a rather pitchy affair, though you get used to it. The engine’s idle-stop system isn’t the most seamless, either, and rewards prompt acceleration, not dithering off the line. And Bluetooth reception is scratchy unless my iPhone is out of my pocket.

Having spent a lot of time in Peugeot 308s Having spent a lot of time in Peugeot 308s of late, I wish the C4 Picasso was a little more agile like the lighter Pug, but the Citroen is certainly no numpty in the handling department.

What I’m loving, though, is the excellence of the Picasso’s heater, the toasty warmth of its three-setting seat heaters and the ease of keyless entry and auto-folding mirrors when you lock it. Living in a very narrow street, having a car tuck itself in at night makes you want to give it an extra hug.

Thankfully, the Picasso’s 121kW version has finally learnt some manners. It revs out cleanly, keeps intrusive induction noise mostly at bay, and performs with unexpected vigour.

With the six-speed automatic, Citroen claims 9.3sec to 100km/h but I reckon it might drop into the eights. Not bad economy on its first tank, either, though 9.2L/100km in predominantly city driving is shy of the 7.4L/100km urban claim. Can next month’s interstate slog dip into the sevens?

CITROEN C4 PICASSO

Date acquired: June 2015 Price as tested: $47,890 This month: 605km @ 9.2L/100km Overall: 605km @ 9.2L/100km