Good: cracking engine, economical, comfy, stylish, well-made
Not so good: dreadful steering, so-so chassis
I can remember a few years ago, I managed to sprain a joint in my back. It was hell, turning me from upright Homo sapiens into a writhing morass of pain and agony, sucking down ibuprofen capsules as if they were Skittles.
There is a point to this unpleasant anecdote. Driving at that time was such a painful operation as to be almost impossible, especially if I had to extend my left leg to operate a manual clutch. But almost the only car I could tolerate driving in, in fact the only car in which I felt almost no pain at all, was the original Citroen C3. So incredibly comfy was its squishy, velour-covered driver's seat that my agony subsided to the level of a mere ache.
If that was a (personal) highlight of the first generation C3 then the rest was almost all lowlight. Inert handling, poor rear seat space and a terribly fragile cabin was the summing up of the rest of the C3 experience. There was little, then, that the subsequent and current version could do wrong and a raft of recent updates has done little other than to reinforce the impression that the C3 is actually a pretty decent little hatchback.
It looks good, and the cabin, which is lifted almost entirely from the ever-impressive Citroen DS3, is nicely laid out and very well screwed together. And yes, it's comfy too; it lacks perhaps the last edge of pure mobile sofa comfort that rescued my battered back, but otherwise the seats are entirely pleasant things upon which to sit. Our test car came festooned with options, including a panoramic windscreen, satnav, Bluetooth and cruise control, lifting its price into the stratospheric (for a C3 anyway) levels of a Focus, Golf or Auris. (And, for that matter, Citroen's own C4 - a car I always feel gets rather unfairly ignored.)
The highlight of the updated C3 is its new 1.2-litre VTi petrol engine, which we're trying here in 82hp form. There is a 68hp version that sneaks under the significant 100g/km of CO2 barrier (it emits an - impressive for a petrol car - 99g/km) but our 82hp version pegs in at a still-decent 107g/km. Even more impressively, it's neither wheezy nor underpowered. In fact, it feels properly peppy, something you cannot say about Volkswagen's rival 1.2 fitted to the Polo. OK, foot down in fifth at 100km/h on the motorway elicits a less than electric response. A less than steam-powered response, come to that. But around town or on lesser roads, the VTi engine taps into a pleasantly broad stream of torque and pushes the C3 along really rather nicely. It's also very economical. Or at least I think it is. Citroen claims 4.6 litres per 100km; I got 6.0 litres/100km. Not so good then, but in fairness, I wasn't hanging around and there was a good bit of motorway work in that effort - not the C3's natural environment. At least it compensates with a pleasant little three-cylinder rasp when you extend it. In fact, you could accuse it of being quite the little junior enthusiast's engine.
A shame then that the C3 can't keep up in the dynamic department. The ride comfort is good, just as it should be on any French car (yes, even the small ones), but the steering leaves you all at sea. There just seems to be no connection between the wheel in your hands and the wheels on the tarmac, so each corner is dispatched in a series of rather undignified lurches. Quite how Citroen has arrived at this setup for the steering is beyond me. After all, sister firm Peugeot, using the same box of bits, makes its 208 entirely terrific to steer and thoroughly enjoyable to drive. OK, so clearly Citroen has to do something different in order to be, well, different, but different doesn't have to mean worse.
For all that, the C3's not a bad little car. It is still comfy, it is spacious, it seems well put together and I really like that little petrol engine. It's also well equipped, if a bit too pricey at the bottom end of the range. The problem is that 'not bad' just isn't good enough in a class that encompasses such out-and-out stars as the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo, Honda Jazz, Mazda2 and Skoda Fabia.
And let's not forget the bargain-bucket Dacia Sandero, which undercuts the C3's price by a not-inconsiderable €5,000. The ritzier (and yes, more expensive, DS3) proves that Citroen can do more with the C3 and I think it might be about to. I couldn't quite gel the traditional Citroen image of funky practicality with the C3's smooth shape and our test car's luxurious cabin appointments. And it seems Citroen can't do so either, which is why the next C3 will be simpler, more practical, more leaning towards a bit of the magic of the old 2CV (without the hopeless power levels or rampant rust...). A car for someone who prices usability and clever ideas above all. Now that's a C3 I think we can start to get properly excited about, and the first concept of this idea should appear at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Wonder if the seats will be comfy.