2023 Citroen C3 Aircross review - surprisingly good to drive!
"If you see potholes and speed breakers, go flat out. The car will handle it!" Those were some of the many words we heard as the blokes at Citroen gave us a presentation on their newest C3 derivative. Of course, the laws of physics work differently and you should be careful over such harsh stuff unless you are in some sort of a physics-defying rally car. Citroen has a rich rally pedigree too, and they are also known for engineering exceptional ride quality in most of their passenger vehicles - so I understand where they are coming from when they use such words. And pleasantly enough, this new car delivers on what its maker claims.
Apart from the usual drive in the city and on the highway, we had a chance to drive the car on a curated off-road course too and though it wasn't very hardcore, the car left me impressed on the rough stuff even without any fancy AWD of 4x4 helping its cause. The suspension, though not as plush as the C5 Aircross, feels cushy and remains silent through the potholes, rocky terrain and bumpy patches. So bad roads, some leisurely drives on broken roads, mild trails etc. should be just fine. It was precisely for this car that Citroën wanted to save any SUV references and hence they always insisted that the compact C3 that preceded the Aircross is strictly a tall-boy hatchback, even though it has the proportions to pass off as one of the trending micro-SUV form factors.
Forget any references I made to the C3 Aircross in my Suzuki Fronx review, because, unlike the Fronx which has the same footprint as the Baleno, the new Citroën takes on the mid-size SUV segment. Measuring 4.3m in length, it's a fairly large car than its hatchback counterpart. It has an impressive ground clearance of 200mm, some decent approach and departure angles and the choice of five or seven seats which help it take on the likes of both - the Creta and the Carens.
If these basics have caught your attention, let's get to the details. The exterior is unmistakably Citroën with the two chevrons taking centre stage and while the fascia has a lot of resemblance with the C3, the Aircross looks more butch and premium. Especially when you pull up in someone's rearview mirror, they are going to see a more imposing face than the C3 hatch and the flared wheel arches look very aggressive when you see the car head-on.
That said, the front three quarter is the prettiest angle for the car where you can see the contouring of the gloss black grille, the customisable squared appliqués in the bumper, the pronounced creases and the handsome alloy wheels - which remind me of the erstwhile Mercedes-Benz CLA.
They look even better on the move and fill up the wheel arches quite well when standing still. The angular sculpting around the round wheel arches may bother some design nerds, but I quite like this quirky mix - after all, what's French design without some quirks? And though this car is wider, taller and longer than a Creta, it looks a bit MPV-ish in the side profile because of the upright C-pillar and the flat rear end.
Despite the creases on the boot lid and the two-tone bumper, the tail simply doesn't look as handsome as the front and the stubby taillights make it look more hatchback-like in comparison. A horizontal appliqué between the two taillights aims to highlight width and add some sophistication but it ends up looking like an afterthought.
Pop the tailgate and it reveals a Creta trumping 444l boot space on the five-seater variant or a mere 44l with the seven-seater variant. So if you need three rows of seating with a decent boot space you are better off with a Kia Carens. But if you only occasionally need the third row, then removing the third-row seats gives you 511l of boot space. Removing the two lightweight seats is a one-person job and doesn't need any tools. And before you ask, no they cannot be retrofitted in the five-seater variant because it features a flat floor and slightly different mounting points for the second row of seats. Otherwise, it has the same body shell and wheelbase as the three-row variant.
The 2,671mm wheelbase bests the mid-size SUVs but isn't as long as the Carens and that explains the difference in boot space with all rows up. But the C3 Aircross packs ample passenger room!
Upfront, the dashboard and tunnel console follows a similar layout as the C3 hatchback and share most of the components too, save for different textures and colours. I suspect that the cabin width is similar too despite the flared exterior dimensions. It's still roomy nevertheless and the front seats are wide and accommodating. They have a fairly flatter profile compared to the seats in the Creta or the Elevate though.
The second-row seats have a similar cushioning too and our drive from Mahabalipuram to Puducherry and back was quite a comfortable one. I particularly like the height of the backrest - which is one of the tallest in the category and should provide excellent shoulder support even for six-footers. Head and knee room is excellent too even in the three-row variant.
The third row is for those who need it in a crunch though, which is why Citroën is calling this a 5+2 and not a proper seven-seater. Since those seats are slim and directly mounted on the floor, you sit in an extremely knees-up position which won't be comfortable for journeys longer than 30-40km. Only kids might find this space practical, but the high second-row seats and the wallet-sized window might make them feel claustrophobic. The safety of the third row is questionable too.
The third row gets its own cup holders and USB-A chargers and this variant gets roof-mounted AC vents (quite flimsy). The five-seater variant misses out on these but its second row gets a centre armrest with cup holders instead and a roomier arrangement. In my opinion, the 5+2 offers the best versatility and the additional features make it a more compelling buy.
Common features for the two variants include a 10.2-inch connected infotainment screen similar to the C3 hatch and new digital instrumentation inspired by the C5 Aircross, which has a simple, easy-to-read layout and the option of three display modes including the Minimal mode that I appreciated in the C5. There is no sunroof, climate control or ventilated seats on offer and that has me hoping that Citroën will keep the price competitive.
Powertrain, ride and handling
The C3 Aircross goes on sale with a single powertrain option - the turbocharged 1.2l petrol from the C3 hatchback, mated to a manual transmission. An automatic could be introduced later if Citroën sees demand, though I believe that the lack of it at launch is a missed opportunity and could deter a lot of customers from visiting the showrooms.
And Citroën will need a heavy footfall to sell the C3 Aircross in hood numbers because the spec sheet or Citroën's ATAWADAC/e-commerce gateway won't be able to do justice to the Aircross. The car drives a lot better than what the brochure figures suggest and never does this 1.2l engine feel sluggish - even with a full house travelling. I'm fact, it can make the Honda Elevate's naturally aspirated motor feel inadequate and underpowered! The manual transmission is slick and the clutch is conveniently light for city use. The clutch pedal travel and the throws of the shifter are short, and the visibility and seating ergonomics are excellent - so drivers of various sizes should get comfortable with the car with ease.
The suspension, as I highlighted earlier, offers excellent ride comfort and will pip its rivals on most road conditions that India will throw at this bunch. But what's surprising is how well the C3 Aircross handles the bends too. Despite the long length, it feels composed around winding roads and even during high-speed lane changes, and a light or heavy load doesn't seem to change that character much. Sure, it's not a sporty handler like the Elevate or the Taigun, but those looking for the practicality of a three-row SUV will appreciate this composure.
The steering feels a bit vague in comparison though and needs getting used to. The brakes are just as confident as the dynamics though. But the overall safety remains a concern though. The C3 Aircross only offers two airbags for this 5+2 and the overall safety kit looks scanty. The headlights feel inadequate too.
Save for the roomy cabin and the three-row option, the C3 Aircross hardly has anything to boast of. The engine is punchy and the driving dynamics are decent but the scanty list of safety features and creature comforts leaves you wanting. The "no frills" approach may have been acceptable (though it doesn't seem to work) with the C3 hatchback, but the Creta and Carens territory is a fierce one and a barebones car may not find it easy to compete with such stalwarts, unless it's priced extremely well.
Words Rohit Paradkar
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