The new C3 is best evidence so far of Citroen's long march from the lacklustre anonymity that affected this most idiosyncratic of manufacturers after its takeover by Peugeot a generation ago. It is a well-designed, charming, comfortable, characterful car that is a delight to use. Partly as a result of this, UK sales of parent company PSA exceeded those of Ford for the first time last year. French critics say the new Fiesta suffers from presentation triste. The C3 is quite the opposite: its presentation is very jolie indeed.
Like Renault, Citroen has always benefited from being a metropolitan manufacturer whose points of reference are determined by what's culturally available in Paris. This makes a big difference in access to chic when you think that rivals are based in Brentwood, Russelsheim, Sunderland and Nagoya. Never mind the innovations in design and technology that made Citroen famous, there are other marvellous eccentricities in the company history. Once, an astrologer was commissioned to advise on the most propitious time to launch a new model.
Even better, one of the collaborators in the famous Croisiere Jaune (Central Asian Expedition of 1931-32) was the renegade Jesuit and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Besides discovering Homo Sinanthropus (Peking Man), Teilhard developed the concept of the noosphere, which postulated a mysterious democracy of thought among sentient beings. Citroen designers have recently been deployed in the noosphere, where they learnt the democratic thought that most people find the run of the superminis boring. Thus the C3.
Styling is fashionably globular, but elegantly so. There are visual references to the marvellous old deux chevaux, with its Bauhaus geometry, but they are witty nuances, not doleful full-blown retroidism. In profile, the curved cabin excites historical memories, but also provides exceptional interior space. Inside, the C3 feels like a much bigger car. It also rides and cruises au-dessus de sa gare: the comfortable suspension is soft and the car feels exceptionally stable, even at ambitious motorway speeds.
Of course, this is not a car designed for drag racing, but the 1.4 litre engine performs smoothly and, although there is no obvious danger of bursting capillaries during acceleration, the C3 does not feel embarrassingly slow.
People who like to thrash cars complain that, at the margins, the C3's handling and road-holding turn ugly, but this may be the price that the laws of physics extract for a decent ride and a high centre-of-gravity.
In any case, sensible people do not drive that way. Instead, sensible people take a C3 on a shopping trip to Paris, as we did.
On the crowded M20 and the deserted A26, the little Citroen was relaxing, quiet, fast and nimble. The interior ambience is Modern Dignified, rather than Look-at-Me-Wacko. The dashboard seems to have been designed by thoughtful, mature people for use by other thoughtful, mature people: there are generously sized buttons, clarity of function, a general sense of no-nonsense and nice touches like alloy-effect plating for ventilation nozzles that lift the mood. I enjoy the armrests, which turn mere front seats into more agreeable captain's chairs.
You cannot take an interest in car design and not be acutely conscious of social competition. Maybe it was the piles of carrier bags from the Grande Epicerie de Paris that helped our status predicament, but in the queue for Le Shuttle on the way back, our pounds 10,000 Citroen was next to a cheery chap in a BMW costing four times as much and we did not feel like a poor relation. We just felt we were in the amusing part of the noosphere, where you equip the car with a case of Vacqueyras and some Vacherin de Mont d'Or, a Poilane loaf and a few Bresse chickens. We ate some of our shopping while travelling underneath the Channel. The C3 is a happy sort of vehicle that makes you want to do that sort of thing.
A magazine recently asked me to list the sexiest ever cars. I resisted routine supercars but had no qualms about including the C3. Partly because, if I had either, this is the car my Parisian mistress would drive, but mostly because there is nothing sexier than good humour. If you bought a C3 in black, with leather upholstery and a full-length glass sunroof, you would become a happier person.
- Citroen C3 from pounds 8,495 to pounds 12,495.