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Car reviews - Citroen - C5 - V6 Exclusive sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Stately ride, surprising agility, well equipped, versatility
Room for improvement
Indecisive automatic, rear seat can be cramped

Citroen logo2 Sep 2001

CITROEN in Australia is ecstatic about overseas acceptance of its new C5 model. According to the company's effusive PR, the latest Citroen has brought new life into a fading market segment and captured massive sales so far ahead of its nearest competitor that it's laughable.

That's not about to happen here, as Citroen is still a minor player - albeit a long-term one - with yearly sales still below the 1000-vehicle mark. But the C5 stands a chance of attracting a lot more attention to the brand.

With its slightly slabby combination of MPV, hatchback and sedan looks, the C5 tends to polarise aesthetic opinions, but the packaging can't really be argued with and the Citroen comfort factor is certainly there.

Other aspects measure up too: the pricing puts it smack in the middle of the entry-level prestige class, the equipment is right on the mark and the availability of powerplants covers all bases.

The torquey and economical turbo diesel adds an extra something that can only be matched by one other entrant (Peugeot's 406 HDI sedan, which uses the same engine as the Citroen).

All C5s get essentially the same basic gear, which means all have "Hydractive" automatically adjusting hydraulic suspension, anti-lock brakes, a nearly-full complement of airbags, air-conditioning, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, trip computer, cooled glovebox and, just to throw some confusion into the category, a five-door hatchback body.

Nobody thinks that's a good idea in the prestige class any more, which either means everybody else is wrong, or that Citroen is working to a different agenda. Certainly, the way things work out with the C5, there are few disadvantages to take note of - and it even looks much like a sedan.

Automatic stability control doesn't find its way into the Citroen, like it does in an increasing number of prestige competitors, so buyers need to be convinced that Hydractive gives compensating benefits.

A dimensional comparison with the Xantia shows the C5 to be the bigger car, with a few millimetres of advantage in all directions - particularly height, where it towers over the outgoing car by 7.6 centimetres.

In fact, it does much the same to most of its prestige competitors even though other dimensions are roughly in the same ballpark - length, width and track dimensions are pretty normal although it does have a substantial wheelbase compared to the rest.

This explains why the C5 feels quite large on the inside, while the tall stance tends to create proportions that make it appear quite small from the outside until parked next to another prestige competitor. The reality, from the driver's seat, is that the Citroen feels airy, almost MPV-like.

Its A-pillars swoop towards the front of the cabin and the back seat looks commodious and quite distant, promising good legroom. That impression tends to fade away should you try to add tall front-seat passengers into the mix, but with a bit of compromise the C5 can be a very comfortable four-seater and a reasonably acceptable short-distance five-seater.

Like most Citroens, there's a lot to get your head around when you first approach the C5. Once you've dealt with the looks, and you've explored and fiddled with the interior, jumped in and out of all seats and examined the numerous bins and cubbies (the lidded door bins are handy, as is the slide-out drawer under the front passenger's seat) it's time to confront the business of driving it and here a few challenges are presented.

The first thing you notice is the feeling of being located low and snug in the cabin. Driver and front passenger are able to set their seats to the appropriate height, but there's still the definite feeling of being inside, rather than on top of the car.

Up front, driver and passenger are located on well-shaped and supportive seats with, as part of an option pack, leather trim and power adjustment on both sides. Each seat is also fitted with a fold-down inboard armrest, a standard feature, and in the back there's a comfortable split-fold bench arrangement with a fold-down ski port/centre armrest.

There's no question this is a car designed to pamper although as we said a little earlier, rear seat legroom is entirely dependent on the greediness of those sitting in the front. With just a little compromise, everybody is happy - even if everybody happens to be more than 180 centimetres tall.

A minor negative is that for some, the amount of cushion angle adjustment available in the front leaves the passenger with a feeling of wanting a little more. The driver is presented with a sweeping, stylised instrument panel - nothing particularly unusual these days - but down on the centre console sit three buttons that are the key to the distinctive character of this car.

These are the controls that allow the C5 to be lifted high enough to elegantly clear rocks or bumps that may be in its path, or to lower it into a ground hugging position for sweeping along at freeway speeds. Selecting an extra-high position causes the C5 to elevate itself enough for easy changing of tyres.

The outer two buttons do the raising or lowering, while the centre button allows selection of a "sport" mode that alters the characteristics of the system accordingly.

But even in regular mode, the Hydractive suspension reacts to existing circumstances, firming up if the car is being hounded along on a winding road, then reverting to soft and cushy when a more relaxing pace is resumed.

This is the third iteration of Citroen's Hydractive suspension and is a simplified, low-maintenance yet more feature-loaded system than before. In V6 and petrol four-cylinder models, the selectable sport/comfort modes allow the driver to choose between two different types of ride/handling characteristics.

The system, as in the Xantia, uses a central hydraulic fluid reservoir that feeds four suspension spheres - one for each wheel - that operate as the springing medium and also allow variations in ride height.

The difference in Hydractive 3 is the adoption of two extra spheres - one front and back - that also vary the overall stiffness of the system.

This is what allows the selectable sport and comfort modes. Hydractive also uses electronics to give a certain degree of "active" suspension control.

In order to allow the system to react quickly to changing circumstances, it measures variations in ride and height and suspension movement, steering wheel angle and the speed at which it is turning, activity at the accelerator pedal, engine speed, brake pedal pressure and road speed.

The pure mechanics of the suspension are much the sane as the Xantia, with MacPherson struts at the front and an aluminium cross beam at the back using cast-iron trailing arms and self-steering geometry.

On the road, all this gives the C5 its distinctive Citroen character - although it must be said the characteristics are not wildly different in many ways to some more conventionally suspended cars, particularly French ones.

The car proceeds with an easy, floating style that beautifully dispenses with undulating surfaces yet tends to make it feel a little unsure on some high-speed bends. The surprise comes when, even if left in comfort mode, the C5 is thrown at a tight corner.

Remembering how it felt on those wide-open sweepers, it might be reasonable to expect the Citroen to lose itself in a mess of wallowing, lurching, scrubbing understeer, but no, the C5 merely has a quick think, then swaps to the firm suspension setting and swiftly and surely swoops its way through. No understeer to speak of, very little bodyroll and no loading up of the steering.

That's in comfort mode if you want that sort of tied-down feeling at all times, then a quick press of the sport button does the trick.

Then, of course, there's the way the car automatically drops to its lowest ride height at speed, although in most parts of Australia this will have little relevance because it happens above 110km/h.

Only Northern Territory drivers will be able to appreciate the fact that it lowers at the front by 15mm, and the rear by 11mm, assisting aerodynamics (which are strangely nothing special with a coefficient of drag of 0.30) and straight-line stability.

More useful are the assured constancy of ride height regardless of load, the 13mm increase in ride height available at speeds up to 70km/h for traversing rough roads - where the suspension thrums and drums in a muted sort of way - and the ultra-high setting which can only be used when the car is stationary and is handy for changing wheels.

At night, V6 drivers will be fascinated watching the automatically trimming (Xenon) headlights redirecting themselves as the car pulls up behind another vehicle in traffic, while there's also a Saab-style night panel that dims all but vital illumination at the flick of a switch.

The automatic windscreen wipers are a bonus too, as are the sensors in the rear bumper which measure the distance to the vehicle/wall behind the C5 in parking situations.

And what about the engine/gearbox combination? How is the C5's superlative suspension behaviour supported by the all-important considerations such as the ability to accelerate swiftly, and to cruise silently and comfortably? And how about the ability of the braking system to bring all this to a stop swiftly and surely?

With a power lift from 140kW to 157kW, and a slight jump in torque from 267Nm to 279Nm, it's a pretty effective 3.0-litre and does a generally smooth, competent job of propelling the 1520kg C5 body (about 200kg more than the 2.0-litre petrol version).

The extra power comes from things like the adoption of variable timing for the inlet valves, separate ignition coils for all six cylinders and a general weight and friction reduction programme.

The V6 is mated to a four-speed ZF sequential automatic transmission with the usual array of clever electronics designed to counter things like "hunting" between ratios on hills and creeping forward on idle at the traffic lights. And, in general, it's an effective combination with notable smoothness, silence and power.

The weird thing is the style of power delivery. It's difficult to figure why, but the engine at times almost seems to operate independently of the accelerator position, especially in the mid-rpm range where an inexplicable and unexpected power surge lifts the car along impressively.

No down change occurs, but the engine seems to find a sweet spot resulting in a noticeable increase in the rate of acceleration. Maybe it's the two-stage variable camshaft timing kicking in, or maybe it's connected to the action of the torque converter, but it's something we've not experienced before.

The other side of the coin is a transmission that tries to be clever but merely ends up being unpredictable and often less than smooth in shifting between ratios. At times it will steadfastly refuse a downshift even though the engine is clearly getting into difficulties, while at others it will hold a lower gear until ridiculously high rpm before upshifting.

Like many sequential autos, it's more often than not best to simply use the manual shift.

The other important aspect of the C5 - bringing the whole thing to a stop - is adequately catered for by an all-disc system with antri-lock, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist - which boosts pressure to help stop the vehicle more quickly in emergency situations.

The system certainly adds a secure dimension to the way the C5 feels on the road, although the pedal is too sensitive to light applications and requires some acclimatisation.

The steering, road-speed sensitive in V6 models, has that feeling of disconnectedness that often accompanies such systems and, while it feels solid and secure on the open road, tends towards over-assistance when negotiating bends. This is something the driver becomes accustomed to after a little while at the wheel of course.

All this works together well enough in the C5, however, creating a car that imbues feelings of confidence and security (front and side airbags are provided for front-seat passengers, and there's a full-length curtain airbag to assist in side impacts) while it is also comfortable and practical.

The unique flavour is being progressively diluted, but at least there is still something different about the latest Citroen, both in its eclectic design themes and its dynamic behaviour, that will resonate with buyers requiring something a little above the ordinary.

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