Citroen C3 Aircross

Style-driven segment gets the French kiss itís been pining for

ASH WESTERMAN

Model Engine Max power Max torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Economy Price On sale Citroen C3 Aircross Puretech 110 1199cc 3cyl, dohc, 12v, turbo 81kW @ 5500rpm 205Nm @ 1500rpm 6-speed automatic 1203kg 11.8sec (claimed) 5.6L/100km $32,000 (estimated) Q2 2018

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

NOT FAR from where Iím writing this, on Parisís famous Champs-Elysees avenue, a queue of about 40 people wait patiently. Not to see a live performance, not to meet a celebrity, not even for a special meal. No, they are standing around for their turn to enter a shop. Iím told the shop is full of very stylish, very expensive goods Ė clothes, shoes, bags, accessories Ė and this is what makes it worth queuing up for. But the fact remains, if you have a pressing need for any of this stuff, there are literally hundreds of stores along this retail strip that can provide it, with no queuing required.

Itís a snapshot of the lure of that abstruse thing called Ďstyleí.

Certain people care deeply about it, they know it when they see it, and they are prepared to pay a premium for it.

Citroen likes these people. Itís that mindset, when applied to an automotive purchase, that will help sell cars like the new C3 Aircross. Because if youíre going to enter a non-pragmatic segment like that of the compact SUV, it really helps to do it with a degree of panache.

Fortunately the C3 Aircross has more than just design flair in its favour. Itís roomy inside for a car of such a compact footprint, meaning a six-foot passenger can sit behind a six-foot driver, and three adults can cosy up across the back for short hops. The rear seats slide fore-and-aft to create extra luggage space if you only have kids in the back, and the rear backrests are rake adjustable.

And like the regular C3 hatch with which it shares powertrains and interior architecture, the cabin is a cheerful, agreeable place to spend time. The front seats may lack under-thigh and side support, but they are otherwise a bit larger and more generously padded than the class norm. The 7.0-inch touchscreen has all the expected functionality and connectivity, even if some owners will miss dedicated climate control knobs, and the Grip Control system with multi modes to optimise traction on different surfaces is a gimmick.

What will attract attention is an interior that stands apart from the competition for design flair, with just enough high-quality materials to deliver a premium impression.

We drove both the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel four and the 1.2-litre turbo-petrol triple at the launch, and side with Citroen Australiaís decision to only take the latter, mated to a six-speed automatic, as per the C3 hatch which will arrive here well ahead of the Aircross.

This little three-pot really is a zesty jigger Ė itís an Engine of the Year winner in its category three years running Ė and makes the Aircross willing and happy to cop a bit of a spanking. My co-driver pointed out its soundtrack is a bit like half an atmo 911 climbing on cam; try hard and you can sort of hear it.

The steering is not as feather light as that in the C3 hatch, which better suits the Aircross. Itís slackfree in its response, but devoid of road feel. Body control is about what you expect in this class, as is the ride Ė it tries hard to stay composed, but sharp edges make it terse, and even fairly restrained speed on a rough section of dirt brought some butt-puckering crash-through.

The only other concern lies with the transmission calibration, which is prone to the odd unpleasant thunk as it searches frantically for a lower ratio during heavy braking.

But will the type of buyer seduced by the Aircrossís splash of individuality and practicality notice or care? I doubt it. Hey, the luggage bay holds 410 litres, which translates to quite a few Louis Vuitton bags Ė if only this wretched queue would move along.

PLUS & MINUS

Interior packaging and style; engineís verve; equipment; customisation Jerky transmission; front seats lack support; lack of control knobs

The non-SUV dept.

If youíre SUV-averse (er, anyone? Hello?) then Citroen will offer the C3 hatch from the first quarter of 2018, with a price starting at $22,990 for the Shine Puretech 110 model, which is powered by the same perky 81kW/205Nm turbo-petrol triple as featured here in the Aircross. It delivers similarly peppy performance, but like the Aircross, the transmission is prone to doziness and/or clunkiness, as well as low-rpm vibes. On the upside, the ride has more absorbency than its baby- SUV brother, even if ultimate body control can be iffy.

OR TRY THESE...

Mazda CX-3 Akari $33,490

Nails the brief for presentation, user friendliness, and drives with a healthy disregard for the inherent compromise of its mini-SUV-ness.

But the ride is tetchy and road noise is a thrummer. Sorry, bummer.

Toyota C-HR Koba $33,290

Along with the Hyundai Kona AWD, C-HR goes against the class norm by providing double A-arm rear suspension (rather than a torsion beam), which brings planted, secure dynamics on Aussie roads. Engine decent; not class-leadingly quick.