Friday 20 March 2009

Not quite a chip off the old block

In 1936, Pierre-Jules Boulanger asked his engineers to design him a 'toute petite voiture', and they responded in style. They were French, and it showed. They designed a car with flair, with elan, with chic, and with a certain joi de vivre. They designed so well that their little car was still in production fifty-four years later, and won the hearts of millions of people across Europe and Africa. The Deux Chevaux was not only an enormously practical, reliable, adaptable and economical vehicle, it was also the world's most underrated sportscar - more fun to drive than anything else I have driven with the sole exception of a Lotus Elise. I loved mine. It was my favourite car ever.

Which is why the petite voiture which sits outside my house now is another Citroen: a C3 Pluriel, a car whose design pays conscious homage to the Tin Snail. Less characterful, perhaps, blander, the curves rounded off into something closer to a child's toy aesthetic, but echoing the high-arched roofline and the bulbous curving bonnet. And echoing the original in other ways, too - in it's folding canvas roof, in its claimed versatility.

I've lived with mine for nine months now, for ten thousand miles. I like it very much. But it has to be said that as a replacement for the Deux Chevaux, it fails.


Let's start with the roof, since it's such a significant part of what makes both cars outstanding. In the 2CV, there are four positions for the roof. The first is, obviously, closed. Release two latches - which can be done from the driver's seat, but ideally not when the car is in motion - and the front half of the roof folds back. With it back the aerodynamics are reasonable - there's no significant buffeting. To get to the next position, one must stop, get out, unclip the roof from the front frame, and roll it up manually. It then clips in a neat bundle above the rear window, leaving the car essentially roofless. Again, the aerodynamics are OK - there aren't any real problems with harmonics. To get the roof right back, one needs tools: four bolts, and the whole roof and boot lid can be removed. It doesn't normally leak, there's virtually nothing to break, and one can still buy a complete roof assembly for £150. In the words of another French engineer of the interwar years, 'c'est brutal, mais ca marche'.

Contrast the Pluriel. Superficially it's better. The roof has six positions, and all the first five can be selected electrically with the car in motion. The last involves stopping the car, opening the boot, and swinging the neatly folded roof and rear window assembly down under the boot floor. This is easy enough - it's nicely counterweighted and needs no strength. Furthermore, with the roof folded away, the side arches can be removed resulting in a completely open car - something I very much appreciate and which wasn't possible with the 2CV. Removing the side arches is a matter of undoing four latches and lifting them away from the car. With the arches removed, the car is remarkably neat. No tools are needed.

But. But.

With the roof opened to the second position there's quite intense buffeting above about 50 mph, and in the fourth position there's a harmonic that's so intense above that speed that I worry about the structural integrity of the roof. With the roof in the fifth position - neatly folded on the rear window - there's buffeting, but it isn't extreme and the car can be comfortably driven in that state. And with the roof in its sixth position, below the boot floor, there's no more buffeting than you'd expect in any open car. But rather than six usable roof positions you really have only four, the same number as the Deux Chevaux.

Of course, you can still select between three of these when on the move. But the electric mechanisms which make that possible, and which control the latching and unlatching of the rear window, are clear weak points. If the electrics fail, you cannot close the roof, whatever the weather. There is no manual override. What in the 2CV was a simple sheet of waterproofed canvas has grown in the Pluriel into a minor miracle of engineering; and with that complexity has come cost. Where a new roof for a 2CV costs £150, a new roof for a Pluriel costs £2400.

And, it leaks. I'm not really complaining, I'd read the reviews and knew leaks were a feature of the design before I bought it. Mine leaks into the boot - things left there over a rainy night come out extremely damp. It's not a big problem, and I think the virtues of the design outweigh it; but I can't help thinking that the pivoting rear window contributes to this. Furthermore, the mechanism for swinging the rear window down takes up quite a lot of room in what is already a small car.

Which brings us to the next point. The Tin Snail was a genuine four seater car (it even had four doors). It could seat four adults without their being unduly cramped. Boulanger was a very tall man, and insisted on being able to sit comfortably in the car. The Pluriel claims to be a four seater, but in truth it's a four seater only if the driver is a midget, or if the rear seat passengers have had both legs amputated above the knee. With me in the driving, there is 40mm between the back of the driving seat and the front of the back seat; and I'm a lot shorter than Boulanger.

There's another issue with those rear seats. They have reinforced, non-adjustable head restraints, which form part of the car's roll over protection. Both the 2CV and the Pluriel present themselves as adaptable, utility cars. In the 2CV, the rear seat unclipped and could be removed easily leaving a large load floor. This would easily take a pair of race bikes with only the front wheels removed. The rear seats of the Pluriel don't remove; instead, they're meant to fold. But they're too big. When folded, the reinforced head restraint prevents the drivers seat being moved into a position that is comfortable for me to drive in. This means that only the passenger side rear seat can be folded flat if I'm to drive. It is still possible to fit one race bike in with both wheels off, but it's a squeeze.

Of course, like the 2CV before it, the Pluriel is designed with mountings for a roof rack - it's the only convertible currently for sale in Britain with mountings for a roof rack. So in theory one ought to be able to put the bikes on the roof... Except that my local Citroen dealer tells me the roofrack has been discontinued, and I haven't been able to locate one.

And then, of course, the Pluriel is much heavier, and consequently much less economical, than its ancestor. The 2CV weighed 560Kg, just over half a ton; with the benefits of modern advances in materials science, the Pluriel weighs 1158Kg. Of course, Citroen are not the only marque to fall into this trap; Issigonis' Mini weighed 617Kg against its modern successor's 1132Kg. A little of that extra weight is going into 'safety'; a little, more questionably, into 'comfort' and 'refinement'. But none of these cars major in refinement or comfort. The Citroens major in fun and adaptability, and the 2CV could legitimately add to that, 'economy'. The extra weight, sadly, means that the Pluriel cannot.

So what's my conclusion, after living with the Pluriel for nine months and ten thousand miles? Well, I like it very much; I find it hard to imagine another modern car that would suit me nearly as well. But if I could have brought a brand new 2CV instead, there would have been no competition. I do appreciate the removable side arches; they're (for me) a real improvement. The Pluriel is slightly more refined. The build quality does seem to be a bit better. But for the rest, it's much less engaging to drive, much less economical, and much, much less practical.

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