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Car reviews - Citroen - Xantia - SX 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Crisp and elegant styling, excellent composure on the road
Room for improvement
Engine requires premium unleaded, laughably large turning circle

Citroen logo9 May 2001

By MALCOLM LIVERMORE

CITROEN has a long and illustrious history in Australia.

From the post-War days of the evocative Traction Avant, the marque has appealed to a small but dedicated market who appreciate the core Citroen values.

Avant-garde design, a magic carpet ride through sophisticated hydro pneumatics and dedication to intended function - as epitomised by the breathtaking DS from 1955-1975 - sum it up.

But one person's brilliant second solution is another's infuriating idiosyncrasy.

Unfortunately for Citroen, the overwhelming number of new car buyers worldwide fall in the latter category.

When the company boldly launched the futuristic but troublesome CX family car in the 1970s there were insufficient numbers sold to amortise the model's vast investment.

Citroen lost its independence to arch-rival Peugeot in 1978 but since then the company has managed to strike a compromise that has seen it prosper.

Witness the 1982-1993 BX series which combined reliable, familiar Peugeot 405 components with distinctive styling and hydro- pneumatic engineering.

The mid-sized Xantia is a development of this philosophy.

Its crisp, elegant styling is more a reflection of the late 1990s design direction than the soft, organic curves of 1993, the year of the Xantia's unveiling.

Arriving here in September, 1994, the Xantia has re-established the brand, selling in small but consistent numbers and even surviving the French Pacific nuclear testing disaster that sunk its Renault compatriot in this country.

Six years on from its release, close to a million Xantias have been sold worldwide, making it the fastest selling Citroen in history.

In mid-1998 a substantially revised Xantia was launched with a new nose, bumpers, tail-lights, dashboard, interior trim and automatic transmissions.

The design changes, though subtle, comprehensively update the Xantia. The fluted bonnet gives the Citroen a purposeful look lacking in the rather bland treatment of the Series I model.

Still, the regular Xantia trademarks remain, keeping it both quintessentially Citroen and yet still accessible to newcomers to the French marque.

Although debate over the inherent benefits of Citroen's hydraulic system compared to a well-sorted coil-sprung suspension continues, the system admirably does the job for which it was intended.

The car maintains perfect composure whether flat out on a straight highway or winding through mountain passes, ensuring all four wheels stay firmly planted on the tarmac and passengers are comfortable in their seats.

Citroen novices may be surprised to hear but not feel the suspension working, as it effortlessly smooths out ridges and bumps.

On the move, there is no indication of the continuously self- levelling effect of the suspension except for the slight raising and lowering motion apparent after hard braking. The company claims to have worked hard at eliminating the suspension pitching of Citroens of old.

Unlike the higher specification Xantias, the entry-level SX lacks the sophisticated "Hydractive II" suspension. This is a computer- controlled hydraulic system that uses computer technology to vary the rate of suspension settings, from soft to firm.

The computer is able to instantly adapt the suspension setting according to the load in the car, road conditions and driver behaviour.

The SX makes do with the regular, tried and true, fluid-filled hydro pneumatic set-up. The Xantia's ride height can be adjusted manually, raising ground clearance by a handy 8mm, while the ultra high and ultra low height settings offer ease of servicing.

Two transmission choices are available. The smooth-as-silk five- speed manual shifter has a solid, well defined feel, making it a pleasure to use.

Yet the four-speed automatic is an even better proposition. A driver-adaptive unit, whereby gear changes depend on the style in which the car is driven, it seems to mate better with the torque characteristics of the 16-valve, twin cam powerplant.

The result is lively performance with power on-hand when you need it, whether the three-mode gearbox is left in Normal or Sport. Plant your foot and away you go.

It is hard to believe this same engine feels like such an under- achiever in the Xantia's 406 cousin. The Peugeot is sluggish by comparison, a legacy of its 200kg weight deficit, as well as the automatic's lack of driver-adaptive technology. It makes a difference.

On the downside, the engine demands a steady diet of the more expensive premium unleaded fuel for maximum performance.

Neutral, but pin sharp, steering is another appealing Xantia trait. The rear axle design has passive self-steering that turns the rear wheels in the same direction as the front to improve cornering.

Responsive, confidence-building brakes complete the picture of what is very much a driver's car.

But the Xantia is also a comfortable family car.

The long wheelbase, another traditional Citroen feature, liberates room for five adults. Even with the driver's seat set at its rear-most position, three adults can easily be accommodated.

The seats are as comfortable as one might expect in a French car, and supportive to boot. The driver's chair is multi-adjustable although taller folk may have a hard time finding the perfect position since the seat is set quite high while the dashboard cowl is low.

The level of standard equipment is quite high with twin airbags, anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, keyless entry, immobiliser, power windows and mirrors, and a CD player all making it into the base model SX.

Although the 1998 update has brought a raft of interior changes, the architecture has basically remained the same -which means disappointingly mundane to regular Citroen fans but stylish nevertheless.

Even motorists raised on a steady diet of homogenised Japanese interiors will soon acclimatise to the relatively normal Xantia's cabin.

Unlike old-school Citroens, the dash feels strong and solid, and is rattle free. It offers logical siting of controls - with the exception of the rear-window demister which is placed on the end of the wiper-operating right-hand stalk.

Only the tell-tale suspension height adjuster located by the handbrake between the seats betrays the Xantia interior's quirky Frenchness. Luckily, it cannot easily be knocked into an inappropriate suspension setting.

The new door trims contain a couple of expertly placed storage compartments, offsetting the glovebox's rather meagre carrying capacity.

There are no such complaints regarding the luggage capacity. The big hatch opens up wide to reveal a station wagon-rivalling carpeted load area, helped by the split/fold rear seats.

The only complaint here is all the luggage must be removed if the spare is to be accessed in the event of a puncture.

Vision is good all-round, helped by the big glass area and lofty seating position, making the Citroen easy to park in tight places. But the turning circle would be laughably large if it was not so damn annoying.

The Xantia does require a little adjustment in the way it is driven to be fully appreciated - but it is not quirky.

With all its mechanical systems - not to mention good accommodation package and a satisfactory level of equipment - coming together as a whole, the Xantia is a classy and distinctive car worthy of consideration on any prestige shopping list.

- Automotive NetWorks, 05/07/1999

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