Anything, absolutely anything, that makes the ubiquitous family sport-utility market any more interesting than its current state of indolent torpor should be greeted like a supply ship to stranded sailors. So whatever sort of fist Citroën has made with its new C5 Aircross, we should welcome the Gallic kings of weird into this market.
Let’s not get carried away, however. In the C5 Aircross’s promotional blurb, Citroën depicts its past and undeniably interesting vehicles, but by and large those were the ones that eventually provoked the firm’s 1974 bankruptcy and its merger with (and effective takeover by) Automobiles Peugeot.
True, in the last five years, with cars such as the DS3 (which started life as a Citroën) and the C4 Cactus, the company has reintroduced interesting design and innovation, but we’re not talking about feted idiosyncrasies such as hydropneumatic suspension here.
Actually the five-seat, front-drive-only C5 does have an interesting addition to its segment-standard MacPherson-strut front and twist-beam rear suspension, which are hydraulic bumps stops for the dampers. These progressively slow the suspension movement at the extremes of its travel more gently than traditional bump stops, which means that the suspension can be softer and more accommodating in the middle part of its travel.
For the outside, the C5 uses all the current tics of Citroën design including the beaky bonnet, weird oblong air intakes and “air-bump” door protectors, though I can’t help thinking that the hardest part of any future C5 restoration (should that happen) will be sourcing the strange sill finishers.
The Flair entry-level trim comes on 17-inch wheels, and has a pretty good level of equipment, with blind-spot monitoring, automatic braking, lane-departure warning, auto headlamps and wipers, plus powered and heated door mirrors. Next up, Flair trim adds 18-inch rims, front-park sensors, reversing camera, powered mirror folding and tinted rear windows. The top model Flair Plus adds automatic dipping headlamps, keyless entry, laminated front side windows, a panoramic sunroof, 19-inch wheels and active cruise control.
There are two petrol and three diesel options, with predictions for the UK market splitting almost exactly equal between the two fuels. Prices start at £22,225 for the 129bhp/170lbft three-cylinder turbo petrol manual in Feel trim. The two most popular models will be in mid-range Flair trim, both with manual gearboxes: the same three-cylinder petrol at £25,325 or the 129bhp/221lb ft 1.5-litre four-cyclinder turbodiesel for £26,605.
Only the top models were available to test, both in Flair Plus trim; the 174bhp/295lb ft 2.0-litre turbodiesel automatic costs £32,725 and will take only one per cent of UK sales, and the £30,825 178bhp/184lb ft 1.6-litre turbo petrol, which delivers a top speed of 134mph, 0-62mph in 8.2sec, 49.6mpg (we got 30mpg) and CO2 emissions of 129g/km. In all trim levels, this engine derivative is predicted to take about 19 per cent of UK sales.
The options list is reasonably modest with highlights including Grip Control at less than £500 depending on spec, which optimises the traction control in slippery conditions. And the Nappa leather seat upholstery is lovely, but so it should be at £1,770.
It’s 1,155 miles and a less than 20 hours to the C5 Aircross launch hotel in Marrakesh from Touffourt in Algeria, where in December 1922 Georges Marie Haardt and Louis Audouin-Dubreuil’s started Citroën’s first desert croisière. They led a party of 15 B-Type Citroëns fitted with Adolphe Kegresse’s half-track system across 1,865 miles of Saharan desert to Timbuktu and back, creating an adventure legend and opening a route from the Mediterranean into North Africa.
So Citroën has considerable history in these parts even if the hazards of today’s route through the Atlas Mountains are less the formidable blue-veiled Tuareg tribesmen encountered by Haardt and Dubreil and more the VW Touareg and Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs racing tourists up the mountain slopes.
Andrew Cowell, the C5’s design manager, outlines the rather tricky limbo dance which Citroën has to do between the mechanically similar Peugeot 3008, DS5 and Vauxhall Grandland X that occupy parent company PSA’s portfolio. It isn’t easy.
Climb in and your eyes tell you of voluptuous curves and expensive equipment levels, but your fingers find harsh-feeling plastics, sharp edges and burred finishes. Like the C4 Cactus, the C5 links a smart instrument binnacle and centre console with less than brilliant plastics.
This keeps costs down and allows Cowell and his team to include some nice stuff, like the seats, which are lovely to look at and pleasingly comfortable. I could have used a bit more vertical adjustment on the steering wheel, however. There’s huge amount of space inside, good-sized door pockets and a huge centre console box.
The rear seats adjust fore and aft to increase the already creditably large 580-litre boot to 720 litres, but it leaves rear seat passengers with precious little leg room. The rear seats are individually upholstered so this should be a comfortable and commodious five-seater. Folding the rears yields a flat floor and 1,630 litres of load space. Our car had full-sized spare wheel, which won’t be an official option; UK cars will have a spacesaver spare as standard.
The petrol engine is the former BMW/Peugeot twin-cam unit, which PSA has kept on the boil with updates. It’s pleasingly powerful if a bit raucous at high revs, and gets a bit thirsty if you press on.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox comes from Aisin and makes positive changes, but as in other applications it is slow to kick down and prefers to be prompted via the gearchange paddles behind the steering wheel. Grip control is activated with a control capstan next to the gear lever, which also gives settings for: Snow; Sand; Mud; Hill Descent; and ESP Off.
The 2.0-litre diesel is a bit noisy and rattly mainly as a result of new Euro 6 emissions compliance, but it’s certainly economical with a quoted Combined consumption of 62.8mpg (we achieved 45mpg) and a big spike of low-down torque which hides the transmission’s reluctance to kick down.
The ride on 19-inch tyres isn’t really magic carpet-like, more modestly-padded lino, although you can see what Citroën is getting at and feel just how much work it has done to refine the mechanical suspension system. What’s so impressive is the initial bump reaction across some massive Moroccan pot holes, which feels muted and far away. Nor is there that irritating fizzing of some rivals, and it doesn’t all come at the cost of all the handling prowess, either.
In fact the C5 Aircross feels a bit like Citroëns of yore; the body rolls through corners but it’s well controlled and doesn’t float over crests. The major controls feel almost splendidly isolated from the road (especially the long-geared steering), but also controllable, predictable and progressive.
“The hum of our motors must always mingle with the splendour of the scenery,” wrote Haardt and Dubreil to Andre Citroën on their return, “it has a beauty of its own, it is the song of progress.”
We’ll have to wait until 2020 for the “hum” of the plug-in hybrid version, but right now what the C5 Aircross does best is to give a glimpse of beautifully effortless travel, brisk if you like, but most of all smooth and refined.
And if it’s by no means perfect, the C5 Aircross is different and in this market that’s a refreshing change.
Citroën C5 Aircross 1.6 PureTech 180
TESTED 1,598cc four-cylinder turbo petrol, eight-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE range from £23,225 to £32,725 (as tested £30,825)/February 4, 2019
POWER/TORQUE 178bhp @ 5,500rpm, 184lb ft @ 1,650rpm
TOP SPEED 134mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 8.2sec
FUEL ECONOMY 49.6mpg/40.4mpg (EU Combined/Urban)
CO2 EMISSIONS 129g/km (manual gearbox)
VED £165 first year, then £140
VERDICT Any car that offers something different in this hugely popular SUV market segment is to be welcomed, especially if it prioritises ride over dubious “sportiness”. So the C5 Aircross starts in a good place, especially with its rather lovely cabin in more expensive versions. But the spectre of the Qashqai hangs heavy over this sector and the C5 is unlikely to challenge the leaders.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Land Rover Discovery Sport, from £30,145
Quite a pleasing (and larger) vehicle, with a degree of off-road agility, which surpasses others in this sector though a starter 4×4 petrol starts at £36,310. Shame about the dreadful ZF automatic gearbox and the old Freelander 2 chassis, which will eventually be replaced.
Peugeot 3008, from £22,870
Sister car to the Citroen and based on the same chassis. So the engines and driveline options are roughly the same, but so are the shortcomings of the electronics interfaces and the somewhat uninspiring handling. Boldly styled and we like the anti-scrabble system on the front-drive chassis.
Ford Kuga, from £23,225
This family SUV is a pleasant enough vehicle to drive, if not quite top of its class. It lacks interior space and the styling isn’t particularly attractive. Dynamically good, though, and £28,835 gets you into a 4×4 176bhp petrol with Zetec trim, which isn’t a bad price.
Kia Sportage, from £19,195
Kia’s seven-year warranty pulls in lots of retail customers and this recent revamp certainly looks superficially attractive. Dynamically, however, it’s let down by a fidgety ride quality and unconvincing steering. £23,995 gets you into the 1.6-litre petrol with all-wheel drive, but most will go for front-wheel drive.
Nissan Qashqai, from £19,595
Britain’s leading school-run SUV has been brought up to date with a new generation of small capacity turbo petrol engines and a pair of new diesels, but while the Qashqai has been gently improved in the last couple of years, without a hybrid option it’s looking a little out of touch.