You see Citroën DS3s everywhere. This smallest car in the covetable-looking DS range has been a rollicking success, making the right sort of Citroën a cool car to own. Mainstream Citroëns, by contrast, have languished in the grey background of discounts and personality bypasses, a sad outcome for a marque once famed for doing things differently.
This, it seems, is about to change. Regular Citroëns, the ones with the C-prefix, are to regain their flair. The company that until recently turned its back on one of the deepest creative legacies in the industry had, in its backdrop to the press presentation of the new C4 Picasso, pictures of an Ami 6 - a car which looked like a Gerald Scarfe cartoon of Harry Potter's Ford Anglia.
This Picasso, the third incarnation of Citroën's compact MPV, is the first of a new breed of “C-line” cars. It looks futuristic but friendly, it contains much touch-screen gadgetry, and is the first car in the Peugeot-Citroën empire to be built on a modular understructure called Efficient Modular Platform 2. The platform's clever construction helps make this C4 Picasso an impressive 140kg lighter than the last one, as well as slightly smaller outside and roomier inside.
It has a slinky front end with narrow daytime running lights under a chrome strip where you would expect the headlights to be; the latter are mounted lower down. The wheels are pushed towards the corners, reducing the bulbous nose that troubles so many modern cars built around crash-test rules. The tailgate is so wide that it includes the entire complement of rear lights, giving a broad load-space opening, while a vast glass roof panel lights the cabin of grander versions.
The stand-out feature, though, is the way information is displayed on two giant screens. The upper shows the speedometer and other dials as a smartphone-type display. You can, in phone fashion, even load favourite pictures into this display. The screen below handles sat-nav, sounds and the air-conditioning system by means of menus and dabs of the finger. This would be fine except that if you're using the sat-nav and you want to be warmer, cooler or receiving air from a different outlet, it takes several screen stabs to get the right menu, make the change and return to navigation. I'd rather go straight to a physical control knob and not take my eyes off the road.
The three separate rear seats can slide, recline and fold down flat, and in the higher Exclusive models, both rows of seats feature a leather trim whose pattern continues across all three as though, visually, one large sofa. It's part of what Citroën regards as the automotive version of “loft living”; fortunately, the Picasso has brought back another past Citroën speciality in its relaxed ride, which goes well with the notion of a deep-cushioned sofa.
As for the driving pleasure, this is clearly of secondary importance. The version likely to be the most popular, the 1.6-litre, 88kW turbodiesel, might be very economical but it feels feeble on hills. The 116kW turbo petrol is much livelier but thirstier. Both the Picassos I tried had light steering, a slightly lugubrious demeanour in corners and snatchy brakes.
Despite that, I like the C4 Picasso a lot, for its comfort, its good looks, its usefulness and, most of all, for the renaissance it looks set to represent. Welcome back, proper Citroëns.
Citroën SA is currently negotiating the new C4 Picasso’s local release with its parent company in France, but if all goes well it should arrive on South African shores in the second quarter of 2014.
Citroën C4 Picasso 1.6 E-HDi
UK PRICE: £20,255 (R325 900)
ENGINE: 1560cc, four-cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 86kW
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed, front-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE: 188km/h, 0-100km/h in 11.8 sec
-The Independent on Sunday