As part of the union between PSA Peugeot-Citroen and Japanese marque Toyota, the first Citroen C1 was a pretty cutesy take on the city car. Built alongside the Peugeot 107 and Toyota Aygo on the same production line in the Czech Republic, the trio are now as familiar a sight in our towns and cities as upmarket coffee chains.
Fast forward a decade and there’s a new generation of Peugeot-Citroen-Toyota city cars and this time the French models have stolen a lead, offering a convertible body style called the Airscape. So is this modern take on the classic continental runabout worth a look, or should you stick to a hardtop?
First, the good bits – the back end is brilliant. It’s a really sharp looking effort that avoids the boxiness of competitors in the sector. The entire hatch opening is a single piece of glass, incorporating a pleasantly angled rear screen, bounded by those big, thick “3D” tail lights which we like a lot. We’re a little less enticed by the boot mechanical release button, which sticks out beneath like a gothic thimble.
It’s pretty good-looking from in profile too, with plenty of details to make you appreciate the shape without being overstyled. The clover leaf alloys on our test car, along with the bold contrasting mirrors and roof lend a cheeky air. We’re not sure why Citroen has chosen to partially wrap the A-pillars in black, but it looks unpleasant and cheap.
You can decide if you like the looks but, for us, it’s pretty challenging to like, with the two completely different shapes that make up the lighting units being completely at odds with the rest of the design – you won’t find a big blob or a concave blade anywhere else on the car. It has the effect of making the front of the car look like Steven Seagal’s face – permanently marked by angry eyebrows.
It looks better in the metal than in photographs, but it’s a bit of design that could cost the C1 dearly. Any kind of conventional lighting units would completely transform the car into probably the best looking vehicle in the sector – so buyers may be pushed into the Peugeot 108 or Toyota Aygo instead as a result.
On the inside, all C1s are dominated by one thing – the centre console display. It’s bright, cheery and easy to use, acting as both a media interface and information centre – we left it in trip computer mode for most of the time, effectively allowing a spot of gaming on the move trying to get the efficiency bars as high as possible…
Our test car didn’t have a reversing camera, though that’s an optional extra, and there’s no provision for satellite navigation which is a pity given the clarity of the screen. For this you’ll need to mirror your mobile phone to the car, which is a nice touch but may lead many owners to having to read the manual. It also means you can access social media – a good thing if you’re waiting in a car park to pick up the children from school, less so if you’re a young driver who simply has to stay connected. Remember kids, don’t Tweet and drive…
The remainder of the dash is pretty typical city car fare, with nice rotary dials for the hot and cold, a big friendly speedo – the LCD rev counter is an optional extra that we’d specify just to have a rev counter, even with the amstrad-style graphics. The entire binnacle moves up and down with the wheel if you choose to adjust it, meaning you always get a good view of the dials regardless of your height. Material quality isn’t spectacular, but it’s pleasant enough and you can brighten it up with optional coloured plastics.
Front seating is pretty good, while the rear seats are more for kids or occasional use. They’re not particularly cramped, but legroom isn’t especially generous and the Airscape roof means that some headroom has been sacrificed to provide suntans for those in the front. If you’re taller than about five foot eight you risk hitting your head on the roof when you go over a bump.
Boot space is unsurprisingly limited, but if you stack strategically you can get a family-of-four shop into the 196-litre space without too much trouble. The rear seats will fold, with a 50:50 split, but they don’t fold flat – leaving a ridge between the boot floor and the seat backs. The exposed metal will get scratched very easily if you’re chucking unfriendly materials in willy-nilly.
Of course the most important part of the Airscape’s interior is the bit that allows the exterior in. The fabric roof operates at pretty much any legal road speed you want to drive the C1 up to, and can be opened or closed either fully or halfway at the press of a button or fine-tuned if you prefer. On the face of it, it’s a costly feature – it’s £1,000 more expensive, like for like, than the hatchback – but you’ll use it every journey, regardless of the weather because it’s just that bit more fun.
There’s a really curious duality to the C1′s drive and it doesn’t quite work out how you think it would. As a city car, it seems obvious that it’d be optimised for urban driving and less cooperative loping between cities, but it’s almost completely the opposite way round.
That’s not to say that it’s bad in the city – it’s not. The Citroen is easy to see out of, easy to park and doesn’t get upset over sleeping policemen. It’s just doesn’t drive as well as the best city cars. We found the front wheels lost grip in sharper turns or on mini roundabouts. It’s also not especially fond of poor road surfaces, which makes quite a din in the cabin.
It gets stranger on the fast, sweeping B-roads so beloved of performance cars. It’s actually perfectly capable at keeping up a good speed, but it feels nervous and doesn’t inspire confidence as you do. Give it a good turn into a fast bend and there’s a moment where the suspension acts like it’s very confused indeed, but it’s quickly gathered up and you’re off to the next one. If you have the confidence to drive through the wayward body control and can cope with the oddly weighted pedals, you’ll have a brilliant time.
Get out onto the motorway and it’s fairly impressive, though we’d hazard a guess that if lorries are overtaking you, you won’t enjoy the buffeting. Nor the road noise or wind noise, though you can at least enjoy a conversation without having to raise the voice too far.
The test car was equipped with the basic VTi 68 engine, a 1.0-litre, three-cylinder unit packing 68hp and 70lb ft. It’s a pretty eager unit but performance is probably best described as present – despite hauling only 855kg, it still takes over 14 seconds to hit 60mph from rest and has a top speed of just 99mph.
It’s actually the same engine you could find in the previous model with a few developmental tweaks – like stop/start – so if you’re trading into the new car from the old you’ll at least know exactly what you’re getting. It’s a bit of a noisy hector and the three-cylinder thrum is fairly divisive – either being engaging or obtrusive depending on your sonic point of view.
In this specification the Airscape returns an average 68.9mpg and 95g/km CO2. We didn’t get close to that, probably because of the time we spent on B-roads, but even so it seems optimistic. It was happy to report mid-to-low 60s most of the time, but largely didn’t touch 50mpg around town. If you’re resigned to a combined average of 55mpg, you may as well opt for the new generation 1.2 PureTech engine which isn’t significantly worse off in the economy stakes but gives better performance figures and more useful, low-down torque.
Value for Money
This is a bit of a skeleton in the Airscape’s closet. The C1 may be one of the UK’s cheaper cars to buy, but once you get that roof on the specification it gets pricey quickly. The basic car we tested – the Airscape Feel VTi 68 5 door – starts at £10,745 and by the time the options are added, we’re at £11,830.
However, aside from the 108 Top which is largely the same car, there’s no cheaper small convertible around at the moment – next cheapest is the FIAT 500C at over £1,500 more. It’s a genuinely tough call though as the Airscape’s roof, for us, adds more value than cost – and we’d suspect that it’ll hold its value better than the regular car too – but we’d prefer the car with the 1.2 engine and if forced into deciding between the engine and the sky, it’d be the engine every time. You may well disagree.
The city car sector is getting mean and, to stand out from the crowd, a car really needs an obvious selling point. There’s not really a more obvious selling point than an orange convertible roof, so Citroen wins that battle with its first shot.
Still, it wouldn’t be of any benefit unless the rest of the car is up to scratch and Citroen has – just – managed to make that brief too. It’s missing a little of the outright refinement offered by the Volkswagen-group triplets Up, Mii and Citigo, but it has a lighter and more stylish feel – it’s a lot of fun to be around.
If you can get over how the headlights look, it’s one that should make even the shortest of city car shortlists.
Rather look at rivals?
Take a look at our reviews of the Peugeot 108 and Toyota Aygo before committing to the Citroen. The Renault Twingo can be had with a similar retractable roof and the Volkswagen Up is arguably still the favourite car from the sector.