I will admit to not being up to date with Citroen’s legendary history till the time I visited its museum in Paris back in early 2020, when such things were possible. I’d heard stories about the French analogue to the German Beetle, the 2CV, and how it was designed to be able to carry a basket full of eggs across a field without breaking any. The mental image doesn’t quite do justice to the utterly jelly-like suspension of the 2CV. It literally wallowed like it were floating on water. Citroen has made comfortable suspension a bit of a habit down through its long history. The C5 Aircross promises much in this regard, and the term ‘magic carpet’ has been thrown around liberally.
What is it?
The Citroen C5 Aircross is coming into a sizzling market with competitors such as the Jeep Compass, VW Tiguan, and Hyundai Tucson already established, and cheaper rivals such as the MG Hector Plus, Tata Safari and upcoming Mahindra XUV500 making one question whether the ‘premium’ tag is worth the money. Originally planned for late last year, the COVID-19 pandemic made sure things were delayed to February 2021. Citroen has made huge investments in India and the C5 Aircross is being made here with substantial levels of localisation. We hope this will bode well for pricing and service costs in the future.
In terms of size and spec, the C5 Aircross is in the ballpark of the competition, with the wide track differentiating it physically, apart from the unique, quirky design. It is larger and taller than the competition in many dimensions, and the interior volume is generous. We will get two variants – FEEL (tested) and SHINE, both using a 177 hp / 400 Nm diesel engine mated to an 8-speed torque converter automatic transmission.
A word about tech
We should get this out of the way early on: the Citroen C5 Aircross is going to win no accolades for its tech stack. There are no connected car features to speak of, and the infotainment system feels a bit last-gen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, but only when connected by cable. The lack of a wireless charger has been an obvious lacuna, pointed out by most of us journalists, to which Citroen had an unusually defensive response. It claims wireless chargers don’t work through phone cases (false), heat up the phone (true) and charge slowly (also true).
Having arrived at the press drive in the recently facelifted Jeep Compass that provides a generous wireless charging pad as well as wireless Apple CarPlay, it was difficult not to be churlish when pointing this out. A well-executed wireless smartphone link is – I think – a killer app and encourages the safe use of technology within the car.
What is available is a reasonably-sized infotainment screen with large touch targets and fonts, all legibly laid out. The theme is dark, and bolder, or negative colours may well have been more legible in sunlight. The same goes for the driver binnacle, which is an all-screen affair. However, Citroen has put its own spin on how engine RPM and other stats should be displayed. No dials are visible; the RPM is indicated by a horizontal slide-rule sort of display. This is simply weird. The colour theme carries over here, and I would have preferred something more arresting.
Interior: a breadth of advantages
The wide track of the Citroen makes itself evident in the internal volume of the car. The second row is particularly impressive, with three individual seats that slide fore and aft on rails, recline and fold forward. Three-abreast should be more comfortable in this vehicle than in the competition. The floor pan is flat too, and kneeroom is adequate. There isn’t any space to place your feet below the front seats, however, which is a strange omission.
The seats themselves feel wide, with bolsters laid out to accommodate larger individuals. They’re okay for comfort, but I would have preferred softer leatherette; the square-quilted material on these seats felt a bit rough for this class.
The rest of the interior follows a theme of rounded rectangles, from the steering to the AC vents and the infotainment screen. The dash features leather upholstery, with some plastic peeking through. Materials feel decent, but not particularly luxurious. To compare, the new Compass feels miles ahead. A panoramic sunroof is available on the top variant, as are a hands-free tailgate and LED headlights. However, even the lower FEEL variant we drove is well-equipped, with a powered driver’s seat (no memory function, unfortunately) and terrain modes (no 4×4, unfortunately).
Cargo room is quite practical. A flat and deep 580-litre boot should carry plenty for five occupants. We didn’t have the time to test it completely, but I’m confident the C5 Aircross will easily pass my two Golden Retrievers test for the boot, and comfortably, too.
Design: premium, quirky
The photos should tell you what you need to know about the C5 Aircross. It’s a different design than what we’ve seen from SUVs of this class, for sure. It may not be for everyone. I can say that it looks solid, well-built and pretty attractive in the unique Emerald colour car we drove. It’s unusual, futuristic, but not weird. I’m not going to stretch it by attributing some nebulous French flair to it. It is what it is. Proportions are well-executed, and the volume of the vehicle is not immediately apparent. Wheels are 18-inchers and lend an athletic stance to the vehicle.
On the go: a benchmark drivetrain
The highlight of the Citroen C5 Aircross for me was its drivetrain. The 177 hp / 400 Nm diesel engine mated to the Aisin 8-speed automatic was sublime to drive, especially compared to the competition. The engine is responsive, and the gearbox keeps up, never feeling like it should be in any other gear than it is. The peppy nature of the car belies its weight and soft suspension. I far prefer driving the Aircross to, say, the Compass or the Hector. Paddle shifters are available on the steering column, should you want to take control yourself. I was happy to let Aisin do the work for me. It is the most fun to drive in Sport mode, but not beyond the point where comfort would be compromised. This is well-judged.
Terrain modes are available, despite a front-wheel drive setup. We had the opportunity to take the C5 Aircross down a gnarly off-road single-track, with deep ruts, soft dust and rocks, and did not feel the vehicle lose traction even once. It ably traversed our little detour and kept the passengers comfortable. This is a soft-roader for sure, but it will do more than you might think when the tarmac ends.
Engine noise is also well controlled, as are vibrations and harshness. It’s a quiet cabin unless you’re driving over concrete surfaces or joints in the road, which is when the ‘magic carpet’ suspension isn’t very magical and lets road noise seep in.
Suspension: about that magic carpet…
Perhaps this is me taking a contrarian view due to the hype around Citroen’s ‘magic carpet’ suspension, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s an excellent suspension and absorbs most of what we threw at it – even off-road. However, it is not foolproof. Concrete surfaces and road joints will jar occupants, as is the case with other European makes as well. Citroen uses hydraulic bump-stops for the suspension, allowing for a softer impact at the extremes of suspension travel. It feels softer but does not eliminate the viciousness of our road surfaces.
You may hear that this setup rivals that of luxury cars; it is not so. A good adaptive damping system will outperform this Aircross. To sum it up, the C5’s suspension is good. As good as that of the new Compass, I think. Not better.
Perhaps it was the width of the vehicle that made me feel this, but the C5 Aircross handled quite flat in my drive. There was some pitch under hard braking, but laterally, it felt composed. The authority of the engine and control of the suspension make this a very able and comfortable triple-digit cruiser.
Should you buy the C5 Aircross?
Citroen is new to most car buyers in India, and their sales and service network is only now coming online. The Citroen C5 Aircross is priced from Rs 29.90-31.90 lakh (introductory, ex-showroom, Delhi). For that money, I’m not sure if the value is conclusively proven. Yes, there are premium touches, a unique design and a benchmark drivetrain, but the brand values of Citroen are yet to be effectively communicated and proven to the Indian audience. We would have loved to be surprised by an aggressive introductory price, but at this price point, I think buyers will be inclined to shop around.