A few weeks ago I finally had the chance to check out the new Citroen C4 Cactus at a dealer. I sat in it and had a good look around. What an impressive car, truly excellent design from Citroen! I was shocked at just how small the car is from the outside. It really is tiny, smaller than even a standard C4 or DS4, but space inside is superb. The boot capacity is rather small thanks to a cute stubby rear overhang, and for my family it’s inadequate. The loading lip is very high and unsuitable for my dog. There are no rear quarter lights either. So maybe it’s not for me (shame because I really want to buy one) but it’s clearly one of the best new car designs for many years. The interior is truly special. The dealer I visited also sell Mercedes and I sat in the new GLA class crossover. Guess which car has more space and then guess which has the best quality interior materials and design? Yes the Citroen. Bravo! For less than half the price the little Citroen beats the Mercedes hands down. The door cards and door pulls on the Cactus are wonderful. The touchscreen centre console is much higher quality than the Mercedes. The front bench seat style cushion that stretches across the range topping Cactus I sat in feels so luxurious. I can’t praise this little car enough. Car of the year 2014 for me, without a doubt.
Some of the design team talking about the C4 Cactus production design.
Recently we’ve seen a couple of major Auto Shows go head to head, West vs East in May with New York and Beijing shows back to back. Toyota chose the Beijing show to launch the production version of their Lexus branded small crossover. I’ve posted here before regarding crossover vehicles (and I once owned the trendsetting Qashqai myself). The new Qashqai has been underwhelming in design, and other manufacturers are still following the styling of the previous model. Toyota have been finding their design stride recently, especially with the bold designs under the Lexus brand. Risks are being taken, and that is very nice to see. Some designs are successful, others not so much. Their small crossover concept, the LX-NF, last year was radical in it’s surfacing treatment (incredibly over the top) but has translated very nicely to a less frantic production design. Thank goodness for those metal stamping production limitations… the changes are subtle, but for the better.
Here’s the original Lexus LF-NX crossover concept. And then the production version Lexus NX (this one is the 200T)which was launched in Beijing.
If we go back to March 2014 we also saw some great auto design work at Geneva, and another very nice transition from concept to production for the Citroen C4 Cactus. This one has been in the works for a long time, and began with the C-Cactus concept of 2007. The C3 Picasso for example follows a similar styling theme. The production version is very innovative, and not just in styling terms. Citroen are experimenting with selling the Cactus in a new lease contract based system. These two manufacturers can be applauded for their risk taking, unlike the ultra conservative German manufacturers who seem to be painting themselves into a corner.
This week our new car was finally delivered! A Citroen C3 1.4 16v, which is actually my wife’s car, not mine at all. Now, frankly this is not a car I would have chosen myself- I guess there is just something really girly about it. I also criticised the design somewhat- it is slightly flawed let us say. After thinking it over, the design can best be described as different rather than wrong. It actually begins along a similar theme to Twingo, and was designed by some of the same designers. It is not a traditional “automotive” style car, in that it is targeted towards women rather than men- and it is not designed to look fast, aggressive or sporty in any way at all. There is a distinct lack of fast, or accelerating lines on the C3. I can explain what I mean by comparing the design with a car showing much more typical automotive styling- the Mercedes A-Class. Car designers will often talk about fast or slow lines, accelerating or decelerating lines, and most of the time they aim to draw or create dynamic accelerating lines on every vehicle. This is partly tradition, and partly just because cars move. They are dynamic moving objects, so it makes sense to express this in their form. Form follows function after all, and when a car is fast it often needs to have lines that assist in that movement (aerodynamically). Look at the side view of the A-Class.
I’ve extended the main feature lines to show where they might continue- imagine hand drawing the lines, and you hopefully will see what I mean about them accelerating away from the car. Accelerating curves are ones that reduce in radius along their direction of travel. Put simply, drawing a tight curve is slower than drawing a very shallow one. The lines also travel through the red vertical lines that represent the wheelbase, and full length of the car. Even the window line that shoots upwards will eventually cross the red line. It’s important to note that the lines do this, when we look at the C3.
The first thing to note is the main roof and window lines that slow down- decelerating (gaining a tighter radius) as they finally drop towards the ground. They end within the length of the car, which is unusual but not completely unique. The fact that the form is self-contained, finishing within the cars length- gives quite a static looking design. C3 is designed more as a non-moving, non-dynamic product- like a toaster! Now, if you think about your car the same way as your toaster, or ipod, or laptop (my wife’s laptop and her C3 are the same colour) this type of styling is not a bad thing- but if you really are stuck with that very male idea that cars have to be fast and sporty, then C3 just doesn’t work. The truth is that both of these cars are not fast, they are not racing cars. The A-class is using fast car design language though- whereas the C3 uses a more honest philosophy of just trying to be functional, friendly, and pleasant looking. There are however a couple of areas that the Citroen has room for improvement, mainly the top of the windscreen and the rear lights. The windscreen has too much curvature in side view (towards the top)- which is very unusual to see on any car due to legal requirements. We are simply so unaccustomed to seeing this, it looks very wrong. It also makes it look like something has sat on the roof! The rear lights are a bit cheap looking, they seem to just fill gaps in the panels- rather than being designed to be that shape.
OK, so enough about our new car, my wife loves it so clearly it works for the intended consumer. This is always the definition of a good design. Finally I’ll include a proper fast car, designed with all those rules of accelerating lines and curves. This is what the A-class above is trying to emulate- even using some of the same lines in fact. Is that good design? Or is it just a boyish cliche of automotive design? I’ll let you think about it yourselves.