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First drive: Citroen plans small car revolution

Mighty mini: C3 offers exceptional high-speed stability, crisp handling and an impressive equipment list.

Citroen hopes to double sales in Australia when the C3 goes on sale in August

13 Mar 2002

By MARTON PETTENDY in PARIS

AUSTRALIANS will have access to a small Citroen for the first time when the all-new, "super-mini" sized C3 hatch, launched this week in France, goes on sale here in August.

The first product to sprout from a new A-segment platform developed by Citroen and Peugeot parent company PSA, C3 is expected to double local Citroen sales volumes in its first year on sale.

Australian Citroen distributor Ateco Automotive currently sells about 1000 vehicles per annum.

The same flexible small-car platform will eventually form the basis of Peugeot's 206 replacement, likely to be called 207, as well as an all-new three-door replacement - to be known as C2 - for Britain's top-selling hatch, the Saxo.

C3 will also form the basis for the convertible-utility Plurial concept first shown at the 2000 Paris motor show, to be made available Down Under in 2003.

But it is the volume-selling C3 five-door that Ateco has pinned its Australian resurgence upon and after driving the uniquely styled French car at its European release, it seems C3 has the goods to compete on an equal footing Down Under with rivals like 206, Volkswagen's Polo and five-door versions of the Holden Barina and Renault Clio.

But C3 will also face stiff opposition from keenly priced A-size vehicles like Toyota's Echo, Hyundai's Accent, the Kia Rio, Daewoo Lanos and Suzuki Ignis.

Two engine variants will be offered locally, with an entry level 1.4-litre, fuel-injected, four-cylinder petrol engine producing 55kW at 5400rpm and 118Nm of torque at 3300rpm likely to be priced under $18,000.

Australia's top-spec C3 will be powered by Xsara's more recently developed 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine delivering 80kW at 5750rpm and 147Nm of torque at 4000rpm, which is likely to be a $19,990 vehicle in Australia.

Like the 1.4, by the time it is available here the 1.6 will also be available with an optional (up to $2000) four-speed adaptive automatic transmission with sequential manual shift function. Auto versions are expected to account for 70 per cent of local sales volumes while the 1.6-litre C3 will comprise 60 per cent of sales.

No specific demographic has been targeted by for C3, with Ateco obviously hoping to attract much younger buyers than the Citroen brand currently does Down Under, as well as small families, females and older customers.

Europe's entry level 44kW, 1.1-litre C3 will not be offered locally, while the 1.4-litre turbo-diesel model remains under consideration for our market. Sequential manual gearbox-equipped versions of both models will also be offered in 2003, while warmer VTR and VTS iterations of the C3 are also likely to come on stream.

C3 is built exclusively at PSA's Aulnay plant outside Paris, where ramped-up production will reach 1100 units per day - more than Australia's total yearly allocation. But C3 will also be produced in Spain and Brazil by 2003, when total worldwide production is expected to be 334,000 units.

Ateco Automotive originally announced the C3 would be priced around $21,000, but Citroen headquarters' desire to double Australian volumes inside 12 months has seen Ateco keen to bring C3 in under the $20,000 mark.

If it does, the high level of standard equipment and interior space will augur well for C3, which sits somewhere between Barina and Astra in size but is priced closer to five-door Barina in entry level form.

Final Australian specifications and pricing will not be known until May, when Australian production begins, but it is unlikely Australian C3s will be stripped-out versions of the full-loaded Exclusive-badged European offerings.

That means ABS, Electronic Brake Distribution, five lap-sash seatbelts, five adjustable headrests, at least two front airbags, power windows, single-CD audio with six speakers, 60/40 split-fold rear seating, a height and reach adjustable steering wheel and remote central locking are expected to be standard on both local models.

Alloy wheels, air-conditioning and full-length side curtain airbags may be offered as optional equipment.

Despite being a fair bit larger than Barina with only a slightly higher pricetag, C3 still slots into Europe's small A-car segment, which is growing rapidly and could soon overtake B-segment cars like Golf, the top seller in Europe where size and fuel efficiency matter most.

As such, European C3s are available with a plethora of equipment, including such luxuries as heated leather seating, five-CD audio, climate control air-conditioning, leather steering wheel with cruise controls, stalk-mounted audio controls, parking sensors and a large, two-piece panoramic sunroof. But most of these items are unlikely to arrive here.

C3 will, however, bring a number of refreshing surprises, such as its Moduboard cargo storage system, which creates separate compartments in the deep, 305-litre boot (stretching to 1155 litres with the 60/40-split rear seats folded down) and can provide a flat load floor and two levels of storage space. All this despite a full-size spare wheel.

There's also a large, seven-litre glovebox, plus an extra five-litre compartment on top of the dash, four large door pockets, two under-seat sliding storage trays and proper door handles.

A 30-second headlight delay, overspeed alert, reverse warning chime and automatic hazard light activation during hard emergency braking are clever touches.

Citroen's 14 Australian dealers have also been trained to offer remote trouble shooting via C3's intranet-based multiplex system.

Key dimensions of 3850mm length, 1667mm height and 1519 width, plus a 2460mm wheelbase, make C3 - which fits into Citroen's range between Xsara and Saxo - slightly longer than both Barina and A-class, but with exceptional headroom.

C3's highly rounded profile is a unique proposition, even on European roads, as is the prominent dual-chevron Citroen logo on the three-slot grille.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

FIRST surprise with C3 is the ergonomic seating position. Unlike 206, the seat/pedal/steering wheel relationship is well thought out, although the short seat squabs seem better suited to small French frames than large Australian ones - and the firm seatbacks lack side support.

Otherwise, C3's tall (325mm) seat height offers a commanding view of the road, with good vision through the wildly curved windscreen and A-pillars.

The rounded theme continues inside with four innovative circular air vents on the two-tone dash, which features an exaggerated binnacle hood. Underneath, a large digital speedo is bordered by a hard-to-read analogue tacho, but the interior exudes the quality of many larger vehicles, notwithstanding its use of some hard plastics.

Second surprise, once on the road, is C3's very un-French-like handling. There is very little bodyroll, even during extremely ambitious cornering, and the grip level remains impressively high until gentle, well-signalled understeer sets in.

Indeed, the speed sensitive electric steering works a treat in combination with the taut yet compliant MacPherson strut/transverse beam suspension, requiring delightfully light work at low speeds yet firming up nicely when the pace picks up.

Aside from a slightly electronic feel at ultra-low speed, it is well weighted yet delivers enough feedback - precise yet almost immune from torque steer.

That said, the 1.4 petrol (as yet only available in auto guise) we drove was hardly capable of testing straightline grip levels, providing only adequate progress via the surprisingly adaptive but abrupt-shifting four-speed auto with manual control.

In contrast, the 1.6 is freer-revving - all the way to 6500rpm - and combines with a paltry 1058kg unladen weight and refreshingly low gearing (almost 3000rpm at 100km/h in fifth) to deliver sparkling performance from as low as 2500rpm.

Combined with a general feeling of solidity and structural integrity - the doors close with a distinctly robust thud - the 1.6-litre C3 becomes a formidable package.

It offers exceptional high-speed stability, crisp handling, an impressive equipment list and competitive pricing.

Citroen will also be banking on its individual - dare we say quirky - styling, which was once the brand's biggest drawback in Australia.

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