LAUNCH REPORT:

Citroen C4 Picasso review

Citroen C4 Picasso.

The first Citroen Picasso - based on the platform of the long-gone Xsara - was a popular and practical compact MPV, but it has now been eclipsed by its altogether more impressive successor, which in several areas goes straight to the top of the class.

Actually, the original car hasn't entirely gone. It will continue in production as a cheaper alternative to the new model, though probably only in the more basic versions. Citroen has not actually confirmed that the higher-end models will soon disappear, but a Citroen PR person I spoke to used so many code phrases in his apparently non-committal reply to my question that I would feel safe in betting a handsome sum on it.

The new C4 Picasso is a more expensive car (£14,995-£21,695), a larger one, and one which raises the compact MPV benchmark. Probably its best feature is its seating arrangement. All models get seven seats as standard, and changing their layout is a matter of the utmost simplicity.

Each of the five seats in the second and third rows can be raised or lowered using no more than one finger, and in fact I watched another Citroen PR person fold them all down - thereby increasing the luggage volume to a flat-floored 1951 litres - in less than 30 seconds with his left hand, while he chomped away on an apple held in his right.

The amount of space given to the five rear passengers is not above-averagely generous, but access to the third row certainly is. In another very simple operation, the outer seats in the middle row can have their squabs raised from the front (think of a cinema seat if that phrase doesn't mean anything to you) before the whole lot is moved forward. The badly restricted access provided in other compact MPVs, once merely irritating, has now become unacceptable.

Once a customer has bought a C4 Picasso and lived with it for a few weeks, this will probably seem its most important feature. Before the purchasing decision is made, though, other aspects of the interior may be thought of as equally significant.

The first of these is the lighting pack - standard on the range-topping Exclusive, optional elsewhere in the range - which gives the car a luxury feel it could not otherwise hope to achieve. There are more than two dozen light sources (including one each in the door pockets, activated when a hand is detected reaching into them) and they have been brilliantly devised; a first-time occupant, unaware of the badge on the car, might imagine they had stepped into something German and expensive.

Daylight reveals that the interior isn't as splendid as it appeared the previous evening; in fact, some of the smaller plastic components are disappointingly low-rent. But that point might be missed at first thanks to the enormous glass area, a lot of which is concentrated in a windscreen that nearly goes over the heads of the front seat occupants. The side windows are more conventional but still quite large, the rear three-quarter view is better than average, and the front three-quarter view (through a colossal front quarterlight surrounded by relatively thin pillars) is so good that it shows up the blind spots in other manufacturers' products for the unnecessary dangers that they are.

Citroen's determination to provide at least the front passengers with as much room as possible has led to a couple of perhaps unfortunate decisions. The real blooper is the electronic handbrake - or, rather, not so much the system itself as the placing of the control button in the middle of the dash, too far away from the driver to be reached without stretching. The brake can be released either by pressing the button again (after which there is a three-second delay before anything happens) or just by driving off (the brake comes off when the system senses that the car is straining against it). Either way there's a lot of whirring and clunking, which may or may not be because the two cars I tried were very early models.

Then there's the gearchange. Six of the 14 cars in the range have five-speed manual gearboxes with conventional gearlevers, but the others use the six-speed electronic manual system also found in the C4 hatchback. There's no clutch pedal because the system looks after clutch operation itself, and it will also choose what gear to select next unless you want to retain manual control of that bit.

One day, I hope, systems like this will provide gearchanges as smooth as the best automatics, but none of them do at the moment. Citroen's effort is not the worst, but it's still not up to much, and the company is courageous in assuming that most Picasso customers will accept it.

For me, it's one of the few reasons to dislike the car. Another is the fact that the foot rest (where your left foot will spend all its time, since there's nothing for it to do) is far too high. Even on a short trip this is quite uncomfortable, but the next most obvious place to put your foot is under the brake pedal, which would be very dangerous.

All this does nothing to improve a driving experience which is already questionable. I've said before that the makers of compact MPVs seem able to give them remarkably good ride quality - in several cases better than that of the hatchbacks on which they're based. For some of the time, the Picasso beats all the opposition, but that's only when it's being asked to tackle gentle bumps at low speeds. In these conditions it is extraordinary - a long, long way above the class average.

But roads aren't always like that, and when any rapid change of attitude is called for (on a sharp corner, for example, or over a bump that would not be considered excessive in most other cars), the Picasso becomes awkward, and falls well behind the other compact MPVs which it had previously shamed.

The most popular engine option is likely to be the 1.6-litre HDi 110 turbo diesel, which comes with either of the available transmissions. If economy is a priority, go for the otherwise unappealing six-speed electronic manual, which provides the lowest fuel consumption in the range at 49.6mpg combined. It also blunts the performance slightly, but whichever gearbox you pick you have a 112mph top speed and 0-62mph in around 13 seconds, and I doubt that many customers would intend to go that quickly anyway.

The other engine options are the 2.0 HDi 138 and 1.6- and two-litre petrol units. Trim levels, starting from the bottom, are LX, SX, VTR+ and Exclusive, and there's a tendency for the higher equipment levels to go with the larger engines.

445stars

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