IN recent years cubic cars have proved a hit with design-savvy car connoisseurs and have created something of a trend in car design. For a while Nissan’s Cube was the leader in boxy cool – a toy-like, distinctively Japanese design created to be an extension of your home first, your mode of transport second – but it’s been joined by geometric alternatives including the Citroen C3 Picasso, Daihatsu Materia, Fiat Qubo and Kia Soul.
There has been a massive influx of such square cars into the small MPV segment in recent years. But until recently they have not particularly promised great excitement, and indeed many have provided questionable functionality. Sure, you wouldn’t expect F1 performance from a car that looks this hip and urban – these cars are all about looks, comfort and a practical amount of interior space. Yet often the reality is different. While the manufacturers would have you believe that their funky multi-purpose ‘activity’ vehicle is a cross between an MPV and a sport utility vehicle, capable of taking your extended family from your funky urban residence to the countryside for some mountain biking whilst yodelling enthusiastically to the Black Eyed Peas, the reality is that, often, it would be hard to fit more than your baby’s buggy in the boot.
Bearing all of these things in mind, Citroen’s C3 Picasso is the most satisfying of the cars in this group. The car is cube-like and pleasingly plump; it’s a quirky look that won’t suit everyone, although for square car lovers it’s a winning combination. This is the first truly practical and attractive car that I have driven that is “squircular” – boxy with rounded corners. But I have to declare an interest, I have loved cars more deeply but never as instantly as this one.
The exterior is so seductive that you might not expect it to be matched by the interior. But it’s here that Citroen’s “Beautifully useful” marketing slogan shows that it has substance, because despite its exterior charm, the inside is where the car is at its most impressive. The interior really is a very clever piece of car design: it seems to defy the laws of physics, feeling surprisingly spacious for something that looks so compact on the outside. It’s like the automotive equivalent of one of those clever Ikea showrooms that demonstrate how to maximise on storage solutions in your studio flat.
It’s also striking how fantastically light everything is. The windscreen feels massive thanks to its wonderful wraparound quarterlights at either side. The result is a panoramic view that seems devoid of blindspots. Even better, those that want more can have it – Citroen have super-sized the car’s optional sunroof so that the glazing doesn’t stop where the windscreen does. Instead it flows merrily along past the back of your head and beyond. It’s a massive amount of glass. There’s so much glass I wonder if we ought to measure the car for sun blinds. And for this reason alone, I would not consider buying the car without climate control.
This superior visibility is enhanced by the fact that you sit so high up in the C3 Picasso. It’s a delightful place to be. The quirky exterior design continues on the inside with the squircle theme in the aluminium rimmed air vents and instrument display.
The car is practical too – the lights switch on automatically when night falls and there are clever little storage areas hidden under the chairs and carpets, including a three-litre cubby under the passenger seat. Other thoughtful touches include front seats which are raised to allow extra foot room for rear passengers. Furthermore the boot will take up to 500 litres with the rear seats forward, though when folded, there’s a massive 1506 litres available which means you could genuinely go for that exciting weekend of surfing in Cornwall that the boxy brochures all seem to promise.
Disappointingly the engine performance is only slowish, if bearable. The car can feel its weight under acceleration but at speed the ride is comfortable on the motorway, if less pleasing in the corners of Kent. But then again, if you’re going to make that surfing trip, then speed won’t be the primary goal of your driving experience. We took the car on an odyssey from London to Morecambe for a wedding, and driving up the M6 either side of a weekend is enough to test anyone’s tolerance. We found the car turned heads. It fulfilled all of our space needs, was comfortable and surprisingly characterful to drive, and even without masses of oomph it was a very pleasing experience. This car is far from square.