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Citroën C4 Picasso Intensive e-HDI 115 (2013)

18/12/2013 10:49 | Comments: 

Editor

As typical of a long-serving automotive journalist he worked at nearly all of the major printed automotive magazines in Hungary before ending up on the internet. More of the new cartester type, he’s also an automotive engineer by profession. Although he’s the editor in chief
of the mother magazine, totalcar.hu, he loves doubling as a photographer – we sometimes
think he made a mistake when choosing titles. Has a wife and a small daughter.

If I ever wanted to buy a monospace vehicle I'd definitely get a French one. They have a sense for this genre. Minivans usually feel like they were designed by indifferent engineers on loan from the commercial vehicle department. Not with the French, however! Look at this Citroen: instead of building a scaled down people carrier they created a glass bubble to entertain passengers.

Looking back at the C4 Picasso or even the Xsara Picasso before that, you find the same recipe: loads of windows, a forest of roof pillars, moveable seats and the like. Then we got the panoramic sunroof. And the extended windscreen, the eighth wonder of the century until it's chipped on a neglected stretch of road. But kids looooove windows! And whatever kids like, their mommy does, too. And whatever mommy wants daddy usually buys. That's how it works.

I really can't decide if I like the looks of the new C4 Picasso or not. I was there at the Geneva show where it was unveiled and I walked past by it even though it was on a rotating platform. Then, in the evening I read it was on display so I ran back and looked for it. Tiny headlamps, massive LED eyebrows; all of this could have easily passed for a facelift. But why argue about looks? Some think it's ingenious. I might think so too if only its predecessor didn't look very similar.

But this car is brand new. Even the platform it is built on is brand new. So why take a brand new technology and make it look like old stuff? Because the old stuff was very popular, and they wanted to improve upon that. Let me give you an example. The new Picasso C4 is 140 kg lighter than the previous one - that's almost like removing two passengers.

The other change, although important, you won't notice. The car's overall height has been reduced by 4 cm. You see, monospace vehicles are all about excessive headroom anyway so losing 4 centimetres of that won't hurt anybody. The French have also replaced the weird steering wheel of the previous Picasso (and all contemporary C4 models) - remember the stationary hub? Unfortunately they came up with other gadgetry instead, but I'll come to that later.

The Picasso follows the trodden path as regards seating. There are three individual seats in the back. These tend to be on the smaller side because typical owners will either strap child seats on them or fill them with adolescents. Said adolescents also tend to have long legs but it's alright, legroom is plentiful, nearing Škoda Superb-esque dimensions. Our test car (Intensive) also had sliding rear seats – lower spec levels don't offer that.

The Picasso may not be an overly long vehicle but it still feels insanely spacious, both because it is tall and because the base of the windscreen is moved forward, almost to the line of the engine. The luggage compartment is rated at 537 litres but that only holds true if you have a flat tyre repair kit instead of a regular spare tyre. Our test vehicle had the latter (good on you, Citroen), reducing the useful capacity to something like 450 litres - this is only a guess, there are no official data. Former Picasso owners will be disappointed to see that the folding trolley is gone from the trunk. At least we still have the removable flashlight.

Once you start folding the rear seats the compartment becomes cavernous. Pulling upward on the cloth tags you can fold the seat backs. They resulting floor is fully flat, with fold-out flaps covering the gaps. Rear seats are not user removable.

There is another important change: the tailgate incorporates almost the entire rear facade of the car (cf. Opel Insignia Wagon). When swung up you lose the functionality of the taillights so Citroen added small auxiliary lights at the corners of the rear bumper that light up to mark the extremities of the vehicle (Opel did a better job hiding the spare positional and directional lights behind the tailgate). The main light cluster itself looks like it came from Audi. The 3D lighting effect is a beautiful, albeit optional touch: bundled with the tinted rear windows it costs almost €400 (3D Style pack).

It's time for celebration because the Citroen Picasso is a markedly excellent MPV even though it is smaller than its predecessor in every dimension. But it can still do what it's supposed to do and comes with all the optional extras that German or Far-Eastern family movers do not typically offer: decent sunshade rolls, fold-out tray with reading lights, storage compartments wherever you look, humongous door pockets. And for connoisseurs there are now massage seats available; and you can also pamper your front passenger with a business class seat that comes with a fold-out foot rest and costs a mere €900. All of this comes standard if you opt for the Lounge specification, tailored for French executives.

Strange as it may sound we sometimes forget to check the specifications before getting into a test car. In this case I was sure this car was a diesel, and judging by the dynamism it must have been a 2.0-litre one. Although its sportiness abated on the highway I ascribed that to the large frontal area and the demands of Euro5 emissions standards.

I did not realize until the photo that it was a mere 1.6 engine. Wow! Considering its size, this is a great engine. I assume its dynamism came from the smaller and lighter chassis. 115 PS sounds frighteningly feeble but in fact this little powerplant already packs some serious punches around 1300-1500 rpm and becomes especially lively over that. This must be the most proven engine in the PSA line-up today. It was also an e-HDI; meaning it comes with a start/stop function. I usually switch that off first thing I start the engine but not in Citroen or Peugeot vehicles as they are able to restart the engine lightning fast as you declutch.

Lo and behold: the French have mastered the art of building quality gearboxes. I recall the gear lever of the Xsara Picasso being extremely loose even when engaged. I would have never known whether I was in gear or neutral had it not had a travel of at least 30 cm. Today, PSA gearboxes are on par with Opel units. The lever runs tight and straight, the gearbox operates smoothly and precisely once the oil is warmed up (the first two gears are on the crunchy side until that), travel is short. Add to the joy of driving the light clutch and the precise brakes.

I have nothing but praise for the suspension. The C4 Picasso does not jitter at low speed, yet it is not prone to excessive wobbling despite the high centre of gravity. It is of course a far cry from the hydropneumatic wonders of Citroen; t does maintain a solid contact with the road but it has lost the rather uncomfortable stiffness that plagued the previous generation.

Wait a second - have I just been praising a Citroen for its engineering content? Who would have thought...?

Add to that the favourable fuel consumption. While I realise the official claims of sub-5 l/100km consumption are exaggerated, I could happily drive around town at 5.5 litres or so and that is amazing. Combined consumption, including some highway stretches, worked out to around 6.5 l/100km. Considering the aerodynamic performance of the car this is an excellent value. The 1.7-litre Kia Carens needed almost exactly one litre more per 100 km.

Indeed, the Citroën C4 Picasso has everything it takes to be the best of its class.

Everything except it comes with this awful touch screen interface, only superior to the first generation iDrive of the Chris Bangle BMW7 or the control unit of the last Nissan Primera (the one with the snowed-in looks)

First things first. The interface itself is a wide format screen that can display a range of information from satnav through B/C to the media player, it even comes with a built-in image viewer although I cannot fathom why. But I could live with that.

One thing the designers should have considered is that in a car built of nothing but glass there is a high change of sunlight glare reducing instrument readability to zero. Luckily there are still angles you can read the gauges from; or never leave home without your wife, she can always tell you the current speed and similar readings.

You can also change colour schemes. There is a fancy blue one and a simplistic, squared-off grey one. I had to try this before my first drive. I changed over and the screen started working... and working... still working. I grew tired of waiting and drove off. And then a stark message came up on the screen: The system will now restart. Everything went blank, the radio was muted. Holy shoot, is the engine also going to die on me? Why couldn't I stick with the fancy blue scheme...?! Phew, the engine stayed on.

Below, there is a 7" colour touch screen. This replaces A/C controls, radio controls, satnav controls and in general all physical controls. You can only adjust one thing at a time: if you want to tweak the climate settings you have to lay off the navigation. There are touch sensitive surfaces on either side of the screen giving you access to the desired function. Or should I say touch insensitive?

The speed with which the system operates is downright pathetic. Screen shifts take almost a second, but if you failed to touch (i.e. to rub) the surface the way it prefers to be touched (rubbed), nothing happens. In that case you rub again and wait another second. At 130 kph you cover about 70 metres looking down to no avail.

But the speed of operation is still stellar compared to the menu system. Most screens will offer you subscreens that open on the side - after further delay. Suppose you want to switch off the rear parking assistant, the lane keeping assistant, or some similar function. You have the option of going for the submenu of the Settings menu, or the submenu of the Car settings menu. Strangely enough the ESC can be deactivated with a dedicated button in case you feel like broadsiding your family van.

The option of viewing images stored on a USB key is amazing but if they chose to support Bluetooth streaming why the hell didn't they allow the browsing of music folders instead of just play next and play previous? Pairing your device wirelessly is all about controlling your music from the steering wheel instead of playing with the phone itself. That's a basic safety flop. At least you can fully control the music played from the USB key.

No worries, we'll just listen to the radio. The JBL system sounds nice, has great dynamics and in general has far more functions than you'd expect from a car audio system. Maybe that's why it invariably comes on with the ignition, even if you switched it off before shutting down the engine the last time. And while there are all sorts of silly functions I cannot adjust the default volume of the set.

At least I could not find the right combination of rubs and waits and submenus to activate a basic audio function that was available on Opel Astras over 20 years ago.

It's not that the operation of the system is overly complicated for anyone over an IQ of 60 or under the age of 60, but I find it aggravating that a great family car should be ruined by something so silly. In fact the simple fact that menu screens and commands were left untranslated for the local market is just enough to annoy me.

Either way I managed to get a grip on the system. Having mastered the operation after days of practicing in a state of near insanity I thought I would move the satnav screen to the upper screen, leaving me the lower one to operate the multimedia and/or air conditioning systems. Aren't I a genius? No. The map will only display in the upper screen if I also run it in the lower one. AAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh enough, I give up!

All of this is really unworthy of this car which could be the ultimate versatile family vehicle with an excellent ride, low consumption, high equipment levels (including a quite reliable rain sensor for a change). Equipped with the 115 PS e-HDI engine it should be available for just under €31 000, and for about 10% more you get quite a handful of amenities with your car.

I am not going to talk you out of this car. The touch screen drama really isn't that bad, I probably overreacted. In fact this was probably the second or third car in my entire professional life that I found worthy of scoring the maximum five stars. But this user interface nonsense blew it. I won't make a fool out of myself in front of anyone who have seen a semi-decent smartphone in their life.

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