Car reviews - Citroen - XM - 5-dr hatch
I-N-D-I-V-I-D-U-A-L-I-T-Y, space, equipment, luxury
Room for improvement
Age, resale value
9 May 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
BIG Citroens exist in the Australian consciousness as something from another era of motoring.
Once, in the 1950s and 1960s, the big front-drive French cars with the avant-garde styling were relatively familiar on our roads. One model was even manufactured in Melbourne by Continental and General from completely knocked down parts in the early 1960s.
To those who remember, the mystique of the Citroen revolves around unparalleled aerodynamic and futuristic design, unbelievably absorbent, soft-riding suspension and massive, deeply upholstered interiors.
Look no further than the DS (Goddess) series for the quintessential Citroen.
Maybe to the surprise of some, the flagship of the Citroen range is still to be had in Australia and, depending on your point of view, not at a price that can be considered outrageous.
The current Citroen XM does not figure highly in the numbers game. Only 14 were sold in 1998, one less than in 1997. And it has been like that for a number of years.
There are reasons for this. One of the problems has been the absence of a volume-seller to get buyers into Citroen showrooms until recently - something now addressed with reasonable effectiveness by the Volkswagen Golf-sized Xsara and mid-sized Xantia.
Previous big Citroens have earned a dubious reputation for reliability, especially the space-age design, late 1970s CX series with its power-sapping C-Matic clutchless manual gearbox and over-worked 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine.
No such compromises afflict today's XM.
The XM in its present form was first seen here in 1991, two years after its European launch.
A replacement for the 15-year-old CX series (the car that cost so much to develop it sent the marque into the arms of arch-rival Peugeot after slow sales failed to amortise its huge development costs), the XM was effectively all-new.
It was greeted with much enthusiasm as Citroen fans have always considered the largest models the most faithful to the traditional Citroen character.
A facelift in 1993 heralded some important changes including a new grille, headlights, bumpers, tail-lights and alloy wheels. The interior came in for a total redesign.
The upgrade also added a driver airbag to the specification as well as introducing a few minor appearance changes.
A minor update in 1997 saw the big Cit gain even more equipment including passenger, side and rear airbags, a CD stacker and leather upholstery.
Much more significantly, a more powerful 24-valve V6 engine from the Peugeot 406 range boosted power from 123kW to 140kW.
The essence of the car is basically the same as the wonderfully sleek, low-slung Maserati V6-engined SM of the early 1970s.
It has the classic Citroen stance: very low with a chopped-off look at the rear due to the unusual wheelbase/body length ratio and an overhanging front end that had dispensed with a traditional grille long before the mass market took up the idea.
Suspending this is perhaps the thing that takes the XM right out of the realms of the ordinary - no springs, no shock-absorbers but a complex system comprising a number of oil and gas-filled spheres, various sensors measuring devices for body roll, road speed, steering wheel and accelerator position, and a fast- thinking computer.
The system is called "Hydractive" by Citroen and is used in a slightly different form in the Xantia.
Connected to the road by an independent system comprising trailing links at the rear and a strut-style system at the front, it works to give the XM a unique blend of ride quality and roadholding abilities.
The idea is to reduce the compromises normally faced by a suspension designer trying to make a car handle responsively and securely - which tends to require tighter spring and shock absorber settings - while also keeping the ride smooth and absorbent of road shocks, which requires long-travel, softer springing.
The theory is the Hydractive does both - it rides softly in a straight line but stiffens in advance for a corner via the sensors.
The result is the XM has a ride quality different to anything except another Citroen.
Nosedive under brakes, rear-end squat under acceleration and roll in corners are all very controlled while those road undulations that would unsettle a normally suspended car are experienced merely as a controlled but soft body movement.
However, it is a surprise that smaller bumps and potholes seem to transmit their effects in a manner out of proportion with the rest of the suspension's behaviour.
What all this means for the driver or passenger is that the XM is an uncommonly luxurious automobile experience.
The interior feels very enclosing with relatively low seats and a fairly high side window line, but the fact that the windows wrap virtually around the entire perimeter of the car means visibility from the driver's seat is always excellent.
The long wheelbase means there is no shortage of space for passengers in either front or rear and the cabin is wide, providing plenty of shoulder room.
The only small problem - common to many European cars - is a slight tightness around the floor pedals which can make things a bit fiddly for the driver.
With its hatchback rear end, it is more versatile than the usual luxury car. Just one of the many things unique about the XM is the extra rear window between the boot and the interior that leaves the inside of the car comfortable when the boot is opened.
The controls will be a little daunting to drivers accustomed to Japanese uniformity and simplicity but the only real bother is the need to punch in a code on the centre-console keypad every time the vehicle is started.
Propelling all this is the Peugeot/Citroen/Renault 3.0-litre V6 driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. Smooth and relatively quiet, the 24-valve, twin cam design is not outstretched dealing with the 1510kg body.
The engine's silkiness and laid-back nature suits the XM's luxury demeanour, although driven manually and with the window's down the enthusiast may appreciate the throaty, guttural sounds.
The XM is at home on the open road. National speed limits are approached and dispensed with consummate ease, so quietly potent is the powerplant's delivery. Good aerodynamics help here.
But in the city the three-mode, driver-adaptive, four-speed automatic transmission needs a firm prodding if progress is to be brisk. Better to push the sport-mode button when tackling the traffic lights grand prix.
Australian buyers are unlikely to take more notice of the XM, especially as its replacement is now on the horizon. Meanwhile, the current model remains one of the car industry's most well- kept secrets.
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