A quick glance at my test car diary tells me that in the last six months 60 per cent of cars I’ve driven have been a hybrid of some sort. The same proportion of cars in the next four months (lockdown permitting) are also hybrids.
It’s a sign of where the car industry is going that virtually every new model to market offers some form of hybrid drivetrain and plenty of existing cars are being retrofitted with mild, full or plug-in systems to cut CO2 emissions and offer claims of otherworldly economy.
The Citroen C5 Aircross is among the latter. Launched a couple of years ago with a traditional line-up of petrol and diesel engines, its ranks have now been bolstered by the arrival of a plug-in hybrid system shared with various other models in the PSA/Stellantis group.
At the heart of the C5 Aircross PHEV is a 178bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine and an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Between them lies an 80kW electric motor powered by a 13.2kWh battery. This can be charged in around two hours via a 7kW charger or six hours using a domestic three-pin socket. The official range is 31 miles of electric power but that’s dependent on several factors, including the weather. During a cold January week we never saw more than an indicated 20 miles on a full charge. It was at least accurate - matching the estimate pretty much exactly each time.
Citroen C5 Aircross PHEV Flair+
- Price: £36,845 (£39,160 as tested)
- Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol + 80kW electric motor
- Power: 222bhp (combined)
- Torque: 369lb ft
- Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
- Top speed: 140mph
- 0-62mph: 8.7 seconds
- Economy: 157.2–222.3mpg (WLTP)
- CO2 emissions: 32-41g/km
As with any PHEV, the usefulness and effectiveness of the hybrid setup will come down to your individual needs and behaviour. If this is a school run and short commute car that also has to double up for occasional long journeys, it’s pretty good. EV mode works well and the “battery save” with set levels of six or 12 miles or “max” is useful if you want to use zero-emissions running at particular times - in town, for example. If you have regular access to a charger you could go a very long time between fuel stops.
However, if you regularly travel long distances or don’t have access to a charger it’s of limited benefit - as is any PHEV. On longer trips, the best you’re likely to get is low-40s economy if you start with a full charge. With zero per cent battery you’ll be looking at high-30s.
Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll see the official 222mpg. You will, of course, still see the tax benefits which include a £10 first year VED rate and BIK rate of 10 per cent (rising to 11 per cent this April).
In operation the hybrid system is pretty smooth and can usually be left to its own devices although you can flick between electric, hybrid and “sport” drive modes. It starts in electric mode for a fluid and quiet getaway and the petrol cuts in unobtrusively unless you’re particularly heavy with the accelerator. While it’s sprightly off the mark It doesn’t feel particularly lively once you’re going and doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s got a combined 222bhp.
That’s not a big problem because this is not a “sporty” sports utility vehicle. Body lean is pretty evident and the steering is relaxed rather than responsive but that’s a natural outcome of Citroen’s dedication to comfort. The C5 Aircross is intended to cosset and soothe with its soft suspension and Advanced Comfort seats. And it does a pretty good job. We’re not talking Rolls-Royce ride comfort but the Citroen is far more pliant and adept at soaking up road imperfections than rivals like the Ford Kuga or Seat Ateca thanks to the Progressive Hydraulic Cushion suspension.
The seats, too, are as good as their word. The high-density foam construction means the C5’s seats are comfortable and enveloping but still provide plenty of support (and a massage thanks to this car’s fancy spec).
In the back, three independent full-size seats offer plenty of width for passengers and can be individually slid, reclined and folded to give unrivalled flexibility. Unfortunately, while there’s loads of shoulder and head room for rear passengers, legroom isn’t so generous compared with its rivals, taking the shine off what is otherwise a versatile and practical family car.
Our particular test car was upholstered in a brilliantly unusual chocolate brown and black Nappa leather with broad quilting that tied in nicely with the chunky, curvy interior design. The round square and lozenge motif on the exterior features heavily inside on air vents, door cards and even the 12.3-inch digital instrument display. It’s trimmed with slim metallic highlights and supplemented by little touches like the luggage strap effect on the dashboard. It’s uniquely Citroen, slightly reminiscent of its outré interiors of the past and all the better for it in the face of rivals which can often seem a little austere.
It’s a shame, then, that the interior is let down by the infotainment system and controls at its centre. The eight-inch touchscreen is clear and responsive but the software beneath is overly-complicated and unintuitive. Far more of a problem, however, is the lack of physical heater controls. There are at least buttons for shortcuts like defogging the windscreen but there is no quick way to adjust the temperature. Citroen is far from alone in this crime against common sense but having to press a button to launch a menu to stab at a screen to change the temperature is not progress - it’s dangerously distracting.
That issue and the relatively tight rear legroom aside, there’s a lot to like about the C5 Aircross PHEV. It’s more comfortable and refined than key rivals, with more interesting styling, and the versatility of the rear seats claws back some credibility. The hybrid range isn’t the most impressive but for many people it could mean plenty of low-cost zero-emissions journeys backed up by the knowledge that longer journeys can be done on a single tank of fuel. Priced from just over £36,000, it’s hardly cheap but is close to the Ford Kuga PHEV and slightly undercuts the Peugeot 3008 and Vauxhall Grandland X with which it shares its hybrid platform.