Citroen C3 takes aim at millennials

Peter Atkinson
Citroen has brought personality and panache to the hatchback segment with its distinctive new C3

Could this be the perfect first car?

For a start, it's as cute as a button, which never hurts.

But there's also its friendly driving personality - nimble, responsive and with great all-round visibility. It's zippy, but falls well short of being fast enough to have mum and dad concerned.

It uses next to no petrol - and just as important for the millennial market at which it's aimed, is extremely clean and green for the planet.

It's safe, too - thanks to front, side and curtain airbags and a suite of electronic drive aides. With ample space for four teenagers, it is still compact enough to be easy to park (even reverse parking, thanks to its reversing camera).

Oh, and there's one more thing sure to impress learner drivers (and their parents) about Citroen's all new C3 hatchback.

It's dint-proof. Well, almost.

This clever, quirky little city car comes complete with its own little buffers to protect against those annoying little traffic scrapes and shopping centre dings. Citroen calls them "Airbumps" - and they make perfect sense for a car designed and built for life in an urban environment.

Or for drivers still finding their feet.

These high-tech cushions on the C3's doors not only make the Citroen feel indestructible, but also complete a distinctive style that is sure to make this little French machine stand out from the crowd.

The C3 follows very much in the stylistic footprints of the French maker's other recent release, the slightly bigger, slightly more unusual C4 Cactus. Yes, the car with the bravest name in the automotive world.

This one does without the unforgettable name, but it brings many of the qualities we enjoyed about the funky Cactus into a smaller, cheaper and more economical package.

Citroen boasts that it combines practicality, personality and panache.

The C3 model has been around since 2002 and has long been a volume seller for Citroen, which along with fellow French marque Peugeot forms part of the global giant PSA Group.

So it's got a pretty decent pedigree.

This all-new model carries heavy responsibility for the brand with the massive switch in Europe towards smaller, cleaner and more economical cars - driven by the EU's ever more stringent emissions laws.

With a small but surprisingly peppy little three-cylinder turbocharged engine, the C3 is custom-built to achieve those benchmarks.

There are a few other things about the C3 that the younger brigade will love (and possibly their parents, too).

It's infinitely customisable - with more than 30 exterior colour and trim combinations, as well as three distinct interior "moods" - ensuring you're never likely to turn up at the coffee shop alongside someone in an identical machine.

The C3 also has two features Citroen claims as a first for this segment - a Lane Departure Warning, and a Traffic Sign Recognition system that understands, and reminds the driver, of the recommended speed for any piece of road. Clever.

And if there was any doubt about the C3's target market, it even offers an optional "ConnectedCAM" - a dash-mounted camera that allows the driver to capture and share images from their trip directly to social media once the journey is done. Hey, it's a millennial thing.

The system will also automatically record up to 90 seconds of video if the car is involved in a collision - useful as evidence in insurance claims.

So what's not to like about this little machine? Not much.

The C3 is not exactly cheap, with the entry-level Shine model hitting the market at $23,490 - or $26,990 drive away, which puts it at the upper end of this small hatchback market.

But like most French cars it delivers plenty of equipment for the price, as well as a premium feel and quality finishes - and there's a five-year warranty plus roadside assist.

Standard equipment includes 7-inch colour touch-screen; 3-D navigation with voice recognition, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, reversing camera and rear parking sensors plus driver attention alert.

Interior styling is relatively restrained - save for the distinctive little air vents that seem to owe more to style than practicality. Beyond that, the centre-stack is pretty conventional and the instrument panel clean, crisp and functional.

The seats are impressively wide and comfortable, although they don't offer a lot of lateral support. Citroen says the cockpit has been designed to feel "like an extension of the driver's home" - perhaps best exemplified by the "trunk strap" door handles that look like those found on old-style luggage.

Buyers can choose between three distinct finishes on the dash trim - a glossy painted look, wrapped in textiles or covered in the same material as the exterior Airbumps.

The majority of cabin functions are accessed via the vivid colour touchscreen at the top of the centre stack - all fairly logical and intuitive, although sometimes requiring the driver to take their eyes off the road to perform some tasks.

Perhaps most notable about the C3 is its highly-efficient drivetrain, featuring a three-cylinder, turbocharged engine with just 1.2 litres of capacity. This configuration has become almost the norm for European small cars these days, and it makes perfect sense for cars that spend most of their time in built-up major cities across the Continent with its harsh pollution standards.

The C3 certainly meets that mark, with emissions of just 110 gm/km and average thirst of less than 5L/100km.

For a car that will probably only rarely make it out into wide open spaces, the three-cylinder C3 (with 81kW and 205 Nm) is perfectly suited to the world of heavy traffic and, just as likely, navigating tight inner-urban streets.

It does all of that with aplomb, as well as the panache we've come to expect from French machines. But it also feels safe and very sturdy in highway driving, with adequate acceleration and the choice of cruise control or speed limiter to help set the driving pace.

There are a couple of areas where the C3 could be better. The cargo space is flat and quite generous (300 litres) but when the rear seats are folded forward, they don't lay down completely flat, thus affecting the usefulness of the loadspace.

On the positive side of that ledger, there are plenty of little storage spaces plus a series of "cubbies" between the front seats and on the door trims that help declutter the cockpit space.

Despite its modest performance, the C3 is actually an engaging little thing to drive. It's not as out-there as some of its Gallic stablemates (yes, I'm thinking the Cactus for one), but it still brings a fair helping of French style and innovation.

The six-speed transmission is quirky and a bit hesitant between shifts, but still works very competently. The three-cylinder engine delivers surprising torque and also a raspy, interesting exhaust note - and it gets the car up to highway speeds without any sense of effort or strain.

And the car's general balance and nimble handling makes it a treat to throw around city streets.

Which raises one final problem.

It's such good fun to drive that the learners in the family might have to battle with mum and dad to get a turn behind the wheel.

CITROEN C3

HOW BIG? Surprisingly roomy for a car in this class, with impressive cabin width and plenty of glass to emphasize the light, airy feel.

HOW FAST? Not very. It will take almost 10 seconds to reach the speed limit, but will keep accelerating to a maximum speed of 188km/h. Yet it feels zippy and alert, particularly in city traffic.

HOW THIRSTY? Meeting the strictest of emissions targets, the C3 sips 4.9L/100km and emits just 110gm/km.

HOW MUCH? Prices start from $23,490 plus on-road costs. That gets you a high level of standard equipment - but choosing to customise exterior and interior finishes will add to the price.