(Pocket-lint) - For a number of years if you were looking for a family Citroen then you'd find yourself in something with 'Picasso' written across the back. And what great family cars these were.
It's a testament to the practicality and affordability of the name that there's still a lot of Picasso MPVs on the UK's roads - such as the C4 Picasso - despite the market shifting towards SUVs.
Which brings us to the Citroen C5 Aircross, a mid-sized SUV that continues with much of what the C4 Picasso had offered previously in new-fangled form.
A refreshing change in design
Citroen design is unlike anything else on the road. When the C4 Cactus moved into the crossover space and added plastic air cushions to the doors - something that rippled through to the C3 too - it was a bold move. Perhaps too bold.
The C5 Aircross doesn't quite go that far, although there's a hint of it thanks to slightly larger-than-life bumper strips running across the bottom of the doors. That offers immediate bash protection while also making the car look like it's riding a little higher than it is in reality. There's interesting sculpting in the bonnet, stylised roof rails and a nose that makes this SUV look very different to others on the road. And that's a good thing.
There's a wide range of VW Group models - across Volkswagen Tiguan, Seat Ateca, Skoda and, to some extent, the Audi Q3 - that basically replicate the size and proposition of car, each with a different badge. But Citroen feels different. It's uncommon in the UK, but we saw a lot in France in summer 2019 and were drawn to it: it has poise and elegance; it's large without being ungainly.
There are many cars in the crossover space that are just a little too compact for a family of four, but the C5 Aircross fits into a great space - especially because it's relatively affordable too. One of the things we like is how high the boot lid extends - you can stand under it when it's raining, another practical reason why SUVs are so popular.
Slip into the interior and you're gifted comfortable seats that, again, look a little different to the usual. Citroen is good at using different design touches to make things stand out.
At the same time, it's hard to avoid that some of the affordability comes thanks to the heavy use of harder plastics in the interior. With a car this size there are a lot more hard surfaces which aren't quite as premium as you'll find in some of those German rivals, but these surfaces do have the advantage of being easy to clean - not to be overlooked if you're packing kids into the car.
The important touch-points get the leather treatment, however, so it's hard to complain, plus the switchgear all feels solid enough. We love that there's a huge stowage bin concealed between the two front seats. It's not just big enough for your phone or wallet, it would probably take a bottle of champagne. Oh la la.
The cabin also has plenty of space - both in the back and the front - as well as offering a generous boot (at 580 litres), although you can easily expand that with the sliding seats (to 720 litres). Those rear seats will individually slide or recline, again meaning that it's a flexible and comfortable space - and this is standard on all models of the C5 Aircross.
Talking of seats, the standard ones come in grey cloth, but an upgrade to partial leather on the Feel (lowest level of trim) is only £290, so it's not an unreasonable option, and does give a premium lift to the cabin. Those seats come as standard on the Flair trim.
Thanks to the high roofline and the panoramic sunroof (a £990 option on Flair, standard on Flair Plus) there's a sense of tranquillity and spaciousness too.
While the three trim levels - Feel, Flair, Flair Plus - gradually add features, there's an options list to add extras too. But one of the big factors in defining the trim you might choose could come down to the fact that Feel only offers the manual PureTech 130 petrol engine - whereas other trims offer you a wider selection.
There's also a good deal of tech available in the cabin and to support the drive. As standard you get an 8-inch touchscreen display in the centre of the dash, which is a respectable size. Major functions have capacitive buttons in the bar below the screen for instant access.
However, it's not the most intuitive system out there. Some of the tech seems to hide from access, while much of what you do access via the display is menus or controls, with some functions - like the reversing camera - only appearing when you put it in reverse. If you've got a camera, sometimes it's nice to get access to it via the press of a button, too.
That aside, the central display is standard, as is the provision for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which, once you've connected your smartphone via the USB socket lower down, will allow those systems to slave that display and bring all that goodness over from those systems. That includes Siri, Google Assistant, Waze, Spotify, and so on.
Citroen will offer its own connected services, as well as satnav with TomTom Live Services (which comes in at the Flair level), along with a whole range of other attractive features like Citroen's ConnectedCAM, reversing camera and a lot more.
Aside from what's happening in the centre of the car, the driver display is also digital. It offers a range of different views, from a minimalised one that shows your speed and little else, to dials or a navigation-leaning display. It's nice to have this easy personalisation, although there's a lot of design and not huge amounts of information.
We've levelled some criticism at this display before - we said similar when we've encountered it in DS and Peugeot models - so while it's great that it's standard here, we feel it could be working much harder to provide you with a better experience, as Audi's Virtual Cockpit does.
Behind the wheel and on the road
Things come together when you climb into the driving seat though. We say 'climb' deliberately because the C5 Aircross is a little larger than many crossover-type SUVs that have launched recently. That adds to the appeal from a looks point of view - it's big and you'll never have anyone say "it's just a big hatchback".
But there's also a negative point of differentiation from some other SUVs: there's no option for all-wheel drive (AWD). While many will never need it, the C5 Aircross looks like a 4x4, so it's almost a surprise when you discover that it's not. It's front-wheel drive only, but you can opt to have Citroen's fancy Grip Control system as a £400 option.
If you're planning to venture off-road then the C5 Aircross has a fairly generous ground clearance. This helps the car feel more like driving an off-roader. Some of that comes from the impressive ride height - you'll be locking eyes with those in a Land Rover Discovery - but the suspension isn't too hard either. Unlike some rivals wanting to give you a sporty ride, the C5 Aircross is softer and more comfortable - and much more forgiving on some uneven surfaces as a result - but there's also some wallow that comes with that. We'll take it, as we'd rather than the comfort.
With that said, it's not the quietest cabin out there, because there's a fair amount of engine noise, especially on our test diesel model. You'll have to remind yourself that you're not in a van at times, as it feels like it could have benefitted from a little more sound dampening.
There is a choice of engines - the 1.2-litre PureTech 130 or 1.6-litre PureTech 180 petrol; or 1.5-litre BlueHDi 130 or 2.0-litre BlueHDi 180 diesel - as well as six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. The automatic is pretty slick through the changes, but we're not sold on the automatic start/stop system when driving in town. You'll stop and the engine will stop - and that pause when you lift off the brake to pull away and the engine hasn't quite fired up again can make for a rocky drive. You can just turn it off, but it could also be a little smarter.
Choosing the automatic elevates the price but makes for an easier drive in urban environments, while the small petrol will probably give you all the power you need for urban jaunts. Those looking to cruise longer range will likely be drawn to the diesel options, but all these engines are pretty efficient. We found ourselves averaging around 45mpg on the 180 diesel, which is pretty good from mostly suburban driving.
There is due to be a plug-in hybrid version of the C5 Aircross in 2020 too, which will pair the PureTech 180 petrol with an 80kW motor (and an additional range of around 30 miles), although we don't know what sort of premium that will attract.
The steering on the C5 Aircross is typically light so it does veritably breeze around town; the sports mode will weight it up a bit for those who want something a little heavier, although when underway things just settle into a nice and comfortable drive.
One of the most appealing things about the Citroen C5 Aircross is that it's different. It's distinctive in its appearance and styling, it drives well and it's comfortable. For those craving the bigger car lifestyle, there's certainly a lot of appeal - especially as the sniff-over-£24k asking price is rather reasonable.
But there are some downsides to that: the cabin can be a little noisy from the engine (so it's worth testing the engines to see how you feel about that), while Citroen's fancy displays could offer a better experience with just a few design tweaks.
Overall, things really do fall on the positive side, with the C5 Aircross making for a great, practical, family choice.
Alternatives to consider
The Honda CR-V offers plenty of sophistication in a similar sort of position to the C5 Aircross, with a comfortable ride, quality interior and a plug-in hybrid option that you can buy right away.
It's a little smaller than the C5 Aircross, but for many the Qashqai is the defacto choice for those wanting a family SUV. Sporty looks, plenty of tech and an increasingly quality interior mean there are lots of choices.