Citroen's edgier Grand C4 Picasso offers space, pace and refinement
A Picasso masterpiece The Grand C4 Picasso now comes with a traditional autobox.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

It took Citroen dealer Cycle & Carriage more than a year to deliver the Grand C4 Picasso to me for a test-drive.

The reason, although not uttered explicitly, was that the French MPV was available only with a robotised manual gearbox, which I am known to loathe.

Well, the variant with a traditional autobox is here. And even though the C4 Picasso is already more than a year old, it still looks futuristic.

If there is something that Citroen does better than its rivals, it is making MPVs that look sexy. It's no minor feat, mind you. It is almost akin to making a hippopotamus look svelte.

The latest car is styled a tad more aggressively than before, with a hard-edged profile and low-profile headlights arranged below LED daytime-running "eyebrows". The rear also appears chunkier and more cuboid than its predecessor's. On the whole, the older version has a more fluid and aerodynamic appearance.

Nevertheless, the new model is still a looker. Its side silhouette is especially delectable, with boomerang C-pillars juxtaposed with a rear spoiler to evoke dynamism. Its closest competitor in the looks department is the Opel Zafira. But the Citroen gets more points for having more bling and a better finish.

Inside and out, the French manufacturer applies chrome like it was the only acceptable trim. In the cabin, surfaces which are not wrapped in leather are strong well-moulded plastics - not the thin and hollow panels you often find in other cars.

Its solid and flawless build quality is matched by an equally impressive specs list. Its 2,840mm wheelbase is the longest among compact MPVs - and it shows.

It is the first compact seven-seater to have a height-adjustable motorised tailgate and a panoramic glass roof. The glass area in front is so expansive that you feel like you are in a bubble helicopter.

As a result, driver visibility is unrivalled, which in turn makes piloting this French carrier really quite effortless. And thanks to its six-speed automatic, progress is also relatively effortless.

You get none ofthe jerkiness of robotised manuals and yet do not lose out much on efficiency. This variant with a 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine covers 100km on 5.6 litres of fuel - not far from the stated 4 litres of the turbodiesel robotised manual.

It is also cleaner, with less noxious fumes and particulates than the diesel. But because Singapore's vehicular taxes have a carbon component, it is the diesel that enjoys bigger rebates. Diesels typically produce less CO2.

Although the six-speed automatic is obviously programmed for comfort and efficiency, it does not take much to persuade the C4 to pick up its pace. Flicking the slim steering-mounted gear lever down to "Manual" makes the car an eager puppy that clocks the century sprint in 10 seconds (it actually feels quicker) - compared with the leisurely 12.3 seconds of the diesel.

So, you can understand my preference for this set-up. You get better performance, better driveability, more refinement and an overall cleaner exhaust. All that at very little expense to efficiency.

The French people mover treats other occupants pretty decently too. The ride is quite cushy (reminiscent of the time when Citroens had delicious hydraulic suspension), there is a creditable amount of stretching room, plenty of storage spaces and a bright and airy ambience kept chilly by its powerful airconditioning. There is even a ceiling-mounted blower for the third row.

Noise insulation is above-par, and you get conveniences such as keyless access and ignition, electronic parking brake with self- release, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel and seats which fold completely flat with just one easy tug.

There are even flip-down picnic tables attached to the rear of the front seats. Like everything else in the car, these are sturdy and rattle-free.

The only shortcoming is the touchscreen master monitor. It is versatile and visually pleasing, but it is not very sensitive to the touch. Also, the reverse camera should project the rear view onto the entire screen - and not just one corner of it.

The dashboard is quite deep, so make sure you have a Cashcard in the ERP in-vehicle unit before you set off. It is impossible to insert it while you are on the go.

All said, this is a very competent MPV - comfortable, refined, well- equipped and good-looking. It is almost $20,000 costlier than a Japanese equivalent, though. Then again, it is a lot more luxurious, more suave and more enjoyable.