Citroen’s new widescreen Picasso aims to capture extended families, but is it all just a gimmicky sideshow? Simon Hacker takes a front-row seat…
You might think his talent for painting twisted faces and distorted bodies would make Pablo Picasso the last person Citroën would name a car after. But a massive 300,000 sales in the UK do tend to silence the critics and – love or loathe its maritime shape – the Xsara Picasso people carrier has been a work of art for the French maker’s profit margins.
So now Citroën is seeking to stretch the idea – literally. This expanded, seven-seater Picasso, on the way to your nearest Citroën dealers next January, slots alongside the existing car but is based upon the C4 – Citroen’s family hatch in those sinister dancing robot ads. As part of its cunning plan to offer people carriers of every size, Citroen’s ‘seven-up’ Picasso will plug the gap between the original, six-seater model and ungainly eight-seater minibus C8. People carriers are, as any schoolboy knows, like sliced bread: they make good practical sense and they cater for the family’s needs. But – and it’s a big but to all those style-conscious drivers out there – the hidden subtitle is a big sign saying “Please look away, I’m exceptionally dull”.
With competing designs from Europe and the Far East blending like peas in a pod, buying an MPV – let’s face it – is as exciting as shopping for Kingsmill. Yet maybe, just maybe, things are a-changing. Even to the untrained eye, it’s not hard to spot that this newcomer has more than a little X factor. And call it a gimmick or a stroke of genius, the chief difference lies in the windscreen. While normal MPVs have glass that stops somewhere just above your eyebrows, the C4 Picasso’s keeps going… and going… extending as far as the top of your head. You can dismiss this design quirk as great news for bird spotters and quick-fit windscreen firms, but from the driving seat, there’s a palpable feeling of freedom and space, thanks to this glassbubble effect.
Citroën has clever diagrams to show it’s also a safety asset, though only perhaps if your morning commute is in danger from homicidal helicopter pilots. Whatever the logic behind the move, it immediately sets this model out from the crowd and makes the interior incredibly bright and breezy. And in case you worry about consequent sunstroke, the sun visors extend on retractable blinds before folding down, so there’s no need to squint. Citroën also promises that a chip or a crack won’t spell financial ruin: a replacement screen shouldn’t, I’m told, carry a premium. So much for the big screen excitement, but what of the allegation frequently levelled at Citroën – namely that their cars are far tinnier than those of home-grown rivals Peugeot and Renault, and the firm is more about volume driven by cashback deals than quality wheels?
The C4 Picasso will leave this argument in shreds. Every little detail about this newcomer shows a model that isn’t just well designed but has been put together with obsessive care. Cheap plastics are banished; all the textiles and man-made coverings feel expensive and solid and the colour schemes and patterns are subtle and chic. Clever design reinforces this feel-good mood: spindlier roof support pillars let in far more light and boost visibility, the gearstick sprouts from the dash (or, if you opt for the automatic, is operated from the steering column so allowing an extra central storage bin) and the rear tailgate has a dual-opening feature, so you can flip up the glass to load shopping if someone’s boxed you in. Handbrakes are also ditched as pointless clutter – replaced by an electronic device operated by a dashboard switch.
There’s even a light in the boot that doubles up as a rechargeable torch, though I’m not as convinced as fellow DC writer Sue Baker, by the in-dash optional air freshener. She loves them – a puffy pong which when activated, periodically sprays the cabin with a choice of scents – but I find all of the scents far too girly! With so many innovations – did I mention the topmodel parking radar gadget which will measure a space and tell you if you can safely park in it, so saving large measures of oeuf au visage? – the C4 Picasso is clearly going to perform exceptionally well in the showroom and, with early indications on pricing being from £15,000 to £21,000 (final trim levels to be announced), and you’ll have plenty of power options. Diesel, of course, is key to the model’s success, taking the majority of expected sales. For now, the choice will be between a 1.6-litre with 110bhp or a 138bhp 2.0-litre (the petrol options being a 127bhp 1.8-litre or a 143bhp 2.0-litre. A short spin in the range quickly sorts the petrol vs diesel running order.
Least credible, sadly, has to be the 1.6-litre diesel which struggles under acceleration and feels gruff. Step from this to its 2.0-litre brother and the difference is dramatic. Here, you have a willing worker capable of hauling the car’s hefty body without complaint. By comparison, neither the 1.8 or 2.0-litre petrol models will match the bigger diesel’s all-round flexibility and the steering on the big diesel, balanced to compensate for a heavier nose, suggests the most balanced example here. If you want motorway-cruising refinement, the big petrol, regrettably, has a slight edge in terms of vibration and noise, though the HDi unit, on the whole, is fairly civilised and little rumble feeds through to the cabin.
And for mpg, the bigger petrol’s 31.7mpg is roundly trounced by the bigger diesel: it strides home on an infinitely more affordable 46.3mpg. Diesel drivers also have more point-and-shoot fun. The two-litre car comes fitted with a paddleshift six-speed automatic box (it’ll be an option on the 1.6), making the petrol a poor relation – its auto is a workaday four-speed design. All models will have many control buttons positioned on the static steering hub – proof that French eccentricity is alive and kicking. But despite its size, this Picasso displays a near- Germanic calm when shown a twisty road (especially if you go for the top line Exclusive, which features air suspension). It’s certainly unlikely the jelly-free ride in any model will trigger a passenger mutiny.
There’s also a convex ‘spy’ mirror to keep an eye on rear occupants, but chances are they’ll be a happy crew, given that there’s plenty of leg and elbow room even in the rear-most seats – all of which can be adjusted to fold flat with no risk of consequent hernia. So is the party-size Picasso the breakthrough car Mr and Mrs MPV have long dreamed of? Follow one at night and witness those neon-style oversized tail lights and you could well suspect that parenthood has acquired a new, cool edge. Those glass-domed occupants, on the other hand, will already know it for a fact.
On sale: Jan ’07 // Price from; £21,000 //
Main rivals: Vauxhall Zafira 1.9 CDTi, VW Touran 2.0 TDI SE 7-ST
- Price: £21,000 (est)
- Engine: Common-rail 2.0-litre, fourcylinder turbodiesel-rail
- Max Power: 138bhp at 4,000rpm
- Max Torque: 199 lb ft at 2,000rpm
- Combined Consumption:46.3mpg
- CO2 Emissions (taxband): 159g/km
- 0-62mph: 12.4sec
- Max speed: 121mph
Six-speed paddle-shift auto transmission
Self-lvelling pneumatic rear suspension
Sill height adjustment
Four-zone air con
Parking space measurement system
Air scent diffuser built into dash
One-touch fuel cap system
Fully-integrated twin DVD system
Hill start assist
Aircraft-style rear seat tables
17-inch six-spoke alloy wheels
Height/reach adjustable steering
Three dashboard storage bins
Subtle interior night lighting system
Instrument display colour choice
Power door mirrors
At last, a seven-up MPV that has a measure of streetwise cool. Design is excellent inside and it looks built to last and is easy to convert for loading
Not cheap (but pick up a 1.6 diesel base model at around £15,000). That bulky body makes the engine sweat – space awaits for a meatier engine…