What’s that man up to, ramming a shopping trolley full of motor batteries into the side of a car?
Is he a vandal? No, he’s a design engineer.
This bizarre scene was a key stage in the development of the long-awaited Citroen Cactus. That’s why the eye-catching Cactus wears a plastic Airbump shield, looking something like giant bubble-wrap, down each side.
It’s the major talking point of the endearingly quirky family hatchback, which arrives here in October.
But there’s far more to be said for it.
Most of us have found our car chipped or scuffed by wandering trolleys or clumsily opened doors in the supermarket car park. That’s why Citroen set out to fit the Cactus with unique body protection that doubles as a fashion accessory.
You will be able to mix and match the colours of your Airbumps to freshen up your car’s appearance. They’re easy to swap but a bolt fastening them from the inside will mean they’re not easy to nick.
Designers reckon the Airbump, made of TPU, or thermoplastic polyurethane, will cut the cost of fixing minor dings and scrapes over the life of the car.
Cutting our motoring costs is a major priority.
The air bump was inspired by bubble wrap and by the cases that protect phones, said Citroen design manager Mark Lloyd.
“There’s nothing else that looks like it,” he said.
“We made the first prototype, stuck panels on a car, filled a shopping trolley with old car batteries and whacked it into the side.”
The rest of the design process was more conventional.
“It’s about simplicity, purity and ease of use. About relaxing, no stress.”
Being Citroen, they bucked the modern trend for sculpted, sharp-edge designs and went for a friendly look: gentle, flowing lines, no ‘blades’ or sharp edges.
Cactus rides high with short overhangs front and rear, rather like a crossover. It brings a fresh look to the crowded C-sector, the family hatchbacks.
Designers decided to simplify the interior, chuck out everything we don’t need and keep costs and weight to a minimum.
The result is an easy-to-use, fuel-efficient car from just over £13,000 when it arrives in October.
Out went the rev counter and temperature gauge, leaving the driver with a simple rectangular info panel dominated by a big digital speedo.
The passenger airbag moved up into the roof, clearing more space and creating a practical flat dashboard housing a big glove box with the lid on top. Neat, tidy and attractive.
The Cactus drives as well as it looks, too.
The ride is smooth and road holding is capable, with plenty of grip and little body roll despite the high stance.
I drove the PureTech 110PS turbo petrol version with a surprisingly quiet and flexible three-cylinder engine, pulling smoothly even in fifth gear.
It’s not mean to be a sports car, but acceleration is competitive for its class.
Performance figures aren’t yet available, but it feels spritely enough and is smooth and unruffled at motorway speed.
There are six engines, four of them petrol, with the most frugal diesel recording an official combined economy of 91mpg - amazing, but don’t expect to achieve that on the road - and emissions of 82g/km, meaning zero road tax.
The PureTech petrol engines are all 1200cc three-cylinder units with 75, 82 or 110PS, with the most powerful using a turbocharger.
The diesels are 1560cc four-cylinder turbo e-Hdi 92PS or blueHDi 100PS.
You can have a light and positive five-speed manual gearbox or the new six-speed ETG automatic.
Prices will range from just over £13,000 for the Puretech75 manual to just over £18,000 for the e-Hdi 92 automatic flair model.
Driving aids will include hill start assist, park assist and a reversing camera.
Engineers ruthlessly pared down the weight to improve efficiency, with innovations like the Magic wash system using tiny jets in the wiper blades, so the washer bottle is smaller and lighter.
The bonnet is of lightweight material and the rear windows ‘pop out’ to do away with the winding mechanism.
The folding rear seat is in one piece.
The result is a car weighing less than 1,000kg – significantly lighter than many key rivals but still as roomy.
Although the Cactus is badged a C4, it uses the same platform as the sporty DS3 and weighs in at 200kg less than the standard C4 hatchback.
And Citroen haven’t cut corners on comfort.
The decluttered cabin has room for five adults with loads of head and leg room.
As well as the big glove box, the door pockets are big enough for two 1.5 litre bottles. Tasteful touches include door handles inspired by leather luggage straps.
Talking of space and comfort, remember the bench seat?
A big, squashy, sofa-like bench featured in the front of USA-inspired British cars of the ’50s and ’60s.
Citroen have revived it. If you opt for the automatic ETG - efficient tronic gearbox - you get wide, sofa-style front seats that meet in the middle.
The gear selector is replaced by a push-button system for drive, neutral or reverse. Simple.
On the road, it’s not the slickest automatic transmission you will find but it is smooth and couldn’t be easier to use.
Folk who can’t manage without their information technology needn’t worry.
There’s a standard seven-inch touch screen controlling vehicle settings, driver aids, media, phone, navigation, heating and ventilation.
An optional large panoramic sunroof, expected to cost just under £400, features advanced heat protection claimed to be the best on the market, with properties similar to category four sunglasses.
That does away with the need for a sun blind, so there goes another 6kg. Another bright idea.
It all adds up to running costs forecast to be up to 20% lower than a typical C-sector hatchback.
That guy with the shopping trolley knew what he was doing
n Future plans
In the petrol line-up, after the PureTech 130 Stop & Start version offered on the Citroën C4 at launch, the PureTech range will be expanded with a 110 Stop & Start version on the C4 Cactus.
This model is the first to be powered by the new BlueHDi 100 engine (91.1mpg and 82g CO2/km).
Citroen is also to launch a new SUV in China, prefigured by the Citroen C-XR concept unveiled at the Beijing motor show last April.