Citroën’s latest model shuffle responds to our contradiction regarding innovation
The midsize lineup had products which offered what we claim to want, but had to be drastically changed because we don’t actually buy that
People love to talk about innovation. Companies boast about their abilities to think outside the box and their courage to break paradigms so as to deliver the so-called best possible product. Consumers, in turn, enjoy the idea of reinvention and of eventually having something different from what others have. Everyone talks about achieving new goals and working towards them in new ways, but when look into reality… do they actually do as much as they say?
Automobiles can display innovation in many ways. You can see it in a simple design feature, such as the Ford EcoSport’s fifth-door handle (disguised as a part of the right tail light), in the improvement of a mechanical part, such as Audi’s stratified fuel injection (reduces consumption in low-speed driving more than usual), or in the entire concept of a model, like the BMW i8’s (as a hybrid sports car, it offers both high performance and low fuel consumption).
While every innovation reaches the production line because it brings benefits of some kind, most of them have drawbacks as well. Ford’s idea forces the EcoSport to have only one reverse light, while Audi’s makes maintenance rather expensive for some models. Over the years, the industry learned that innovation might be good per se, but can only be commercially good if it offers an attractive balance between the positive and negative consequences of its use.
Three years ago, Citroën dusted off its innovative skills by releasing the C4 Cactus. The simple fact of being a crossover was enough to make it good, because that segment was already thriving then, but it had more to offer: it was a crossover for non-mainstream people. The cabin, for instance, had innovations such as a lower-than-usual dashboard with most commands accessed on a large touchscreen, and front seats connected like the one-piece benches of the 1960s.
The exterior, on the other hand, filled the rather conventional silhouette with C-pillars which resemble shark fins, windows with high base line, headlights with detached direction lamps, and the first-ever Airbumps. Those were zones of the sheetmetal covered with thick rubber forming several air chambers. They were placed on the front, sides and rear on specific regions as to protect the car from everyday accidental collisions, such as with pillars or shopping carts.
That was the first product of the new design language Citroën developed for its latest phase, where it would focus on compact cars with a quirky touch in order not to compete with Peugeot and the newly-emancipated DS brands within the PSA group. Since the company decided to make it affordable, it ended costing as much as the second-generation C4, which turns out to be a good symbol of the outgoing Citroën: modern-day design with a hint of conservative elegance.
The French automaker ended with two opposite products at roughly the same price range, so it was supposedly able to attract customers of many kinds. The passage of time, however, showed once again that the public doesn’t always react according to companies’ estimates. The C4 lost sales mostly because of cousin Peugeot 308, which is more refined, but the C4 Cactus suffered as well for being too innovative. That is, for bringing novelties which people didn’t quite appreciate.
In a few words, the model shuffle mentioned in this post’s title consisted of phasing out the C4 while facelifting the Cactus. In other words, Citroën will put its eggs in only one basket from now on. The plot twist is that the previous statement is not entirely accurate: the survivor had its overall quirkiness clearly toned down. That is a clear sign of Citroën’s intention to transform it into an intermediate option between those two rather than enhancing what made it famous.
The press pictures released so far feature conventional scenarios, show it in much more conventional colors, and give a general idea of discretion: the front seats were separated, the front turning lights now complement the upper grille’s design, the rear design looks more refined… and the Airbumps are no longer a key element of the external design. They are fewer, placed on the lower borders of the body, and no longer painted in colors which contrast with the main one.
Does the result look good? Many people will say yes — some might add that it’s better than the old one. The thing is, “good” and “better” mean, in this context, that the car is more inclined towards the current design standards. And that automatically strips it of the innovative character with which it came to the market. If you park the new C4 Cactus next to its direct competitors, which form an enormous variety, you certainly won’t distinguish it as easily as before.
To be fair, it’s necessary to state that Citroën is still committed to its latest design strategy: in nowadays, you can also see it on the C3 and C5 Aircross, the new C3 and, to some extent, the remaining Picasso minivans (C4 and C4 Grand). That strategy is much more obvious on those, especially the first three, but it’s also combined to more regular body styles, which makes the overall level of visual innovation end up roughly the same as that of the new Cactus.
When we search the reasons for such behavior, we are quick to remember what this post says about the balance of the practical consequences of innovation. But we will also converge to sayings like “companies always tend to offer what sells well”. If we assume that they’re true, we’re also affirming that we only buy cars of some particular kinds, regardless of what companies offer us. As a result, we’re ultimately blaming both the industry and ourselves.
The first part is easily justified. We want our products to be good, more than different. We embrace innovation as a path towards improvement, so it’s understandable that we reject novelties which give us more problems than solve. However, the second part is also true: we do tend to resist to novelties in general more than we should, whether small and simple or big and complex. Especially considering that most of us love to say how much we embrace innovation.
Dealing with that can be quite simple: if you like a certain car model and can afford it, buy it. Don’t worry with maintenance costs and resale value to the point of giving up on something you truly want. Factors like those are largely regulated by the sales volume, so the more people in your situation buy it, the smaller those problems will become. In the end, both you and the industry will benefit from that case of innovation and, later, feel motivated to keep buying and producing it.
Once people begin to do that in large quantity, cases like Citroën’s will have very different solutions. Manufacturers will be motivated to offer models like the C4 and the C4 Cactus — and probably others — instead of choosing only one simply because there will be demand for all of them. And consumers will be able to choose car models which meet their emotional desires, not only their rational needs. The second generation of the Cactus, for instance, could become even quirkier than the original one.