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Citroen C3 1.6HDi (90bhp) Exclusive
6/10

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Road Test

Citroen C3 1.6HDi Exclusive

Driven November 2009

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Reading the specification of the new Citroen C3 is about as fulfilling as watching a bunch of flowers slowly die on the grave of a well-loved family pet. I know, because I've just done it. Let me share them with you. The basics are these: the new C3 is a small Citroen hatchback with a range of four-cylinder engines, from a food-mixer 61bhp 1.1 petrol, through to a pair of 1.4s that come in either 75 or 95hp formats, to a whizzier 120bhp 1.6VTi nicked from the Mini. Diesels come as either a 1.4 or a 1.6, and you can get 70, 90 or 110bhp.

Prices range from £10,800 for the base petrol 1.1 VT, to £16,200 for the top spec ‘Exclusive' trim with the 110bhp 1.6HDi. There you are, informational job done, now go and do something more interesting, like trap your fingers in a door.

But hang on. There might not be a technological Big Idea here and the chassis might not be tuned for a dab of oppo when you crest the apex at your local track day, but the new C3 is actually really very nice once you get in front of it. Really.

The first impression is that, from the outside at least, Citroen's very nearly got it. The new C3 is more artistic than the last, with more C3 Picasso style draped over it and less depressing flabbiness. It's not a double-take, but it is clean and characterful. It makes the Polo look dull, and the Fiesta a bit Focus-lite. Unsurprisingly, it looks best in a bright colour on 17in wheels. Lose the powder blues and bright greens and descend into blacks and greys on small rims, and the C3 starts to look understated into obscurity.

Mind you, the delicate balance between being original and quirky, and just a bit random and daft is well worked. The front is nicely turned, with even a few hints of DS3 and GT in those side strakes either side of the front bumper. The headlights have the ubiquitous little jingle-jangle running light LEDs and the rear clusters are neat little boomerangs that complement the curves. It's all very tidy, very neat and cohesive. It makes the old one look old. And, if we're being harsh, cheap.

There are some good details too: not least that the C3 looks like it's going bald. The new panoramic windscreen stretches right back into a deep portion of the roof and gives the impression that the C3 has a receding hairline. It's available on all but the very lowest spec models, and it gives the C3 a very weird dead-front view. Mind you, it also looks a bit odd in profile: the A-pillar curves down and meets the forward portion of the car just aft of the bonnet, so it looks a bit broken. Still, on the whole it's very pleasing. Round. Inoffensive. Some might even think it gently quirky.

The interior isn't quite as playful as the outside, but at least the C3 feels as though it was put together like the people involved were paying attention, and sober. It's worth noting that on the launch of the last C3, the glovebox fell into the footwell when I opened it, and as I rounded a pair of roundabouts, the central instrument binnacle popped off the top of the dash, making a doomed bid for freedom.

But Citroen makes good cars these days, so this time we get a T-shaped dash, with an unfussy centre console and lots of detail. Gone are the tacky digital bits, instead we see analogue instruments that look far more classy. Even better, everything flows happily from one place to another - from the matte dash top, to the graphite plastic of the dash itself to the door cards, nothing feels like an afterthought. Colours are muted, with brief flashes of chrome to liven things up.

The seats are comfortable, wide and easily adjustable, and the windscreen a joy. Natural light really does lift an interior, especially on a grey day - and the C3 is flooded. The only thing that possibly spoils the illusion that you're in convertible is the rear-view mirror, which looks lonely and lost in such a great swathe of glass. But in a supermini, the feeling of space is welcome. It's not so huge in the back seats, even though the rear legroom is supposed to be 30mm greater than before, but that big windscreen means that the back seats don't feel as oppressed as most superminis.

Driving it brings more of the same. It's quietly good, much improved, well thought out. We've got the high-selling 1.6HDi with 90bhp and a five-speed manual, and there's nothing wrong with it at all. Strong through the mid-range with 158lb ft of torque delivered early, exceptionally quiet, easily accessed. It might not be the revviest of engines, but you certainly don't feel underblessed even though it's not quick at 11seconds to 62mph and a top speed of 111mph.

The gearbox and clutch are both light, lazy and easy but a little loose - but nothing that'll worry the kind of driver likely to find themselves in a diesel C3 by choice. The steering is accurate and it rides well, too. The roads around Rome on which we tested the cars aren't exactly glassy, and the C3 remained composed and quiet even along the worst bits, where the edge of the road looked like it had been bitten off, chewed, and then glued back on.

You won't be surprised to hear that razor-sharp dynamics aren't really on the cards, with progressive understeer the only thing you'll provoke if you start getting excited. But it's perfectly good in almost every situation. Fun? No, not really. But it steers well, stops well, and deals with the bumps. It's fine. Which means that all in all, you've got a pretty little Citroen that looks good, does everything pretty well and needs absolutely no excuses or explanations; this is a good car, hugely improved over the old C3 and exactly what Citroen needs.

But that sounds like damning with faint praise doesn't it? I don't think the marketing department of Citroen would have a particular field day with a tagline that read "Citroen: not as shit as it used to be." But the C3 needs to cater for the conservatives for whom the forthcoming DS3 might just be a little bit too avant garde. Ford's Fiesta is undoubtedly the better car to drive, and the VW Polo has the leaden-faced austere vibe down pat, but there's a little space for the C3 in the dead radar where those two don't reach. Despite the lack of a big USP, the C3 looks like it's carved itself a neat little niche. It's not a driver's car, but if you're looking for something that covers bases, and has a bit of character, the C3 puts a satisfied little smile on your face.

Tom Ford

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