When I was younger, my grandmother used to brew herbal tonics for me on a frighteningly regular basis, ostensibly as a way of ensuring I’ll live long enough to sire a child and carry on the family name.
I obviously never reckoned with how strong her desire for a grandchild was, because despite my refusal to drink it, citing how it tasted and smelled like it was dredged up from a nearby drain, my protests always fell on deaf ears.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is this: According to received wisdom, there’s an inverse relation between how bad something tastes and how good it is for you, which brings me neatly to MPVs, the herbal tonics of the automotive world.
MPVs are hugely practical, but are usually also hugely dull, even in their slightly smaller, five-seater form. They’re meant to be tools built to perform a task, much like how a washing machine or a fridge is. That said, like the aforementioned household appliances, an MPV is fabulous at what it does, as thanks to its oversized glasshouse, the breed boasts interior space that few cars can top.
Unfortunately, those ungainly proportions also mean stodgy handling at best, and let’s face it – an MPV is hardly what you’d call handsome. Citroen, however, has turned most of that completely on its head with its new C4 Picasso (a seven-seater Grand C4 Picasso is also available).
But if you’re expecting me to now start talking up the new Citroen C4 Picasso’s handling and putting it on par with a hot hatchback, you’re going to be disappointed.
That said, it’s a good long way from its predecessor, which is a bit roly-poly. Key to the C4 Picasso’s improved dynamics is a new modular platform, which Citroen dubs EMP2. That, along with other weight-saving measures, such as a composite rear floor, contributes to the C4 Picasso’s 130kg “diet” (it now weighs 1295kg).
This makes it ride with a good deal more delicacy and makes it feel far less “fat” than before. Part of the new platform’s magic also allows the engine and floor to be built closer to the ground (by 50mm and 20mm respectively) for a lower centre of gravity.
The new C4 Picasso is tangibly improved, but this has merely changed the feeling you get when it takes corners from “mildly terrifying” to “mildly disconcerting”. That, and the slow steering (three turns lock-to-lock) makes for wildly flailing arms when driving it hard.
What isn’t new, however, is its engine, the PSA Peugeot Citroen Group’s ubiquitous 1.6-litre turbo-diesel that develops 115bhp. It does suffer from some turbo lag here, not helped by some overly tall gearing, but once on song, the motor is decently punchy.
But that’s just my inner petrolhead talking. In all fairness, the C4 Picasso handles more than decently for an MPV, and should you happen to crave a little more performance, a switch to a set of sportier tyres, away from the comfort-biased Michelin Primacy HP ones would probably do the car a power of good.
But if you were looking to buy an MPV primarily for its handling prowess, I think you might barking up the wrong tree. No, you want to buy an MPV because you desire practicality, but as the second-generation C4 Picasso proves, it doesn’t mean you have to look frumpy while at it.
If you thought it was impossible to pull off this miracle, well, just look at it. In contrast to its quirky-looking predecessor (designed by Donato Coco, now head of design at Lotus), the current C4 Picasso looks like it’s just come off the set of a science fiction movie.
The new C4 Picasso is certainly a good-looking thing, what with its slitty-eyed, split-level headlight cluster, almost unadorned flanks and faceted tail-lights. And it’s just as attractive on the inside as well, though the incredibly busy steering wheel festooned with more buttons than the Space Shuttle makes a reappearance.
That aside, the interior has just as much futuristic charm as the exterior, a particular example being the textured, handsomely sculpted dashboard. To drive home that last point, the instrument cluster is an all-digital affair with a centrally mounted 12-inch screen (this has three changeable themes should you not like to see conventional, round gauges).
And best of all, C4 Picasso still has what an MPV buyer craves most, that is, plenty of interior space. This, thanks also to the new platform, is even better than before. While its overall length has shrunk by 40mm, its wheelbase has grown by 55mm, and so too has its boot space, increasing by 40 litres to 537 litres.
So it seems like Citroen’s MPV is just the thing that could make practical motoring fun for the first time in ever, but there is a bit of a chink in its armour, and unfortunately, it’s quite a big one.
No, it’s not how the turbo-diesel motor is getting a little long in the tooth and more than a little agricultural. That it may be, but on the plus side, it does return 25km/L and its 105g/km CO2 emission figure means a $15,000 CEVS rebate. This frugality should take some sting out of the “driving a taxi” vibes you’re inevitably going to get.
But all that is comparatively minor against its gearbox, a 6-speed automated manual. As with the car’s handling, the C4 Picasso’s transmission is a vastly improved proposition over its abysmal predecessor (it handles low speeds with decent smoothness and shifts gears without too much lurching), though only for a given value of improvement. It’s still a little too easy to catch it out, particularly when going up multi-storey carpark ramps, where the gearbox will shift up into second too quickly, only to suddenly drop into first when it runs out of puff, resulting in a huge lurch and momentary loss of drive.
And while the C4 Picasso’s gearbox touts improved “creeping”, having to second-guess the clutch sometimes (whether it’ll suddenly slam shut and shunt you into the car in front, or not bite and let the car roll backwards) is rather stressful.
Whether that’s a deal breaker is open to debate, but for me, it isn’t. Having to work your way around a car’s rough edges is just another part of owning one, and in light of how the C4 Picasso has plenty of redeeming qualities, I can let this one thing, even though it’s quite a glaring flaw, slide.
Warts aside, the C4 Picasso proves a car that’s practical needn’t mean it’s also completely bereft of charm. Now, if only Citroen could find a way to make grandmothers’ herbal tonics more palatable.
TYPE Inline-4, 16-valves, turbo-diesel
BORE X STROKE 75mm x 88.3mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 16:1
MAX POWER 115bhp at 3600rpm
MAX TORQUE 240Nm at 1750-2500rpm
POWER TO WEIGHT 88.8bhp per tonne
GEARBOX 6-speed automated manual
DRIVEN WHEELS Front
0-100KM/H 12.3 seconds
TOP SPEED 189km/h
CONSUMPTION 25km/L (combined)
CO2 EMISSION 105g/km
FRONT MacPherson struts, coil springs
REAR Torsion beam, coil springs
FRONT / REAR Ventilated discs / Discs
TYPE Michelin Primacy HP
SIZE 205/55 R17
TRACTION CONTROL ABS with ESC
KERB WEIGHT 1295kg
TURNING CIRCLE 10.8m
PRICE INCL. COE $149,988 (after $15k CEVS rebate)
WARRANTY 3 years/100,000km
+ Good looking exterior, futuristic interior, great practicality, improved agility
– Turbo-diesel engine starting to show its age, gearbox still isn’t very smooth