Car reviews - Citroen - Xsara - VTR coupe
Neat styling, enthusiastic behaviour
Room for improvement
Engine struggles a little, darkness of interior
11 Apr 2002
By BRUCE NEWTON
WHAT'S in a name? Quite a lot in the case of the Citroen Xsara VTR Coupe.
Let's dissect it. Citroen, traditionally the most challenging and quirky of the French manufacturers, is very much a bit player in Australia.
Xsara is the name of Citroen's small-medium car, which first appeared here in 1998 as a five-door hatchback. A totally orthodox car which shares much of its underpinnings with the Peugeot 306, it's been a small but consistent seller.
The 1.6-litre VTR was introduced early in 2001 along with its 2.0-litre big brother, the VTS. It's the entry-level Xsara Coupe and, indeed, the cheapest car in the entire Xsara range.
And finally, Coupe. Cheap-ish coupes are a rarity in Australia. There's the Mitsubishi Lancers and the Hyundai Coupe - the latter is actually about to disappear. Trouble is, the Xsara VTR is actually a hatchback - albeit a neatly disguised one.
The dollar proposition probably doesn't shape up quite so well when you consider there are plenty of cheaper three-door hatches around - the Holden Astra City with a bigger 1.8-litre engine undercuts the VTR by thousands of dollars.
And yet, the name of the game when it comes to the VTR isn't all about logical analysis of value and rivals. Being a Citroen, even a thoroughly mainstream one, means it's not so easy to categorise.
People like this car. They point at it, they ask about it. They like it. It's not aggressive, it's not confronting, it's simply nice.
Citroen might prefer the VTR to be regarded with more apprehension, or lust perhaps. But this is a benign car, as easy to drive as it is easy on the eye.
The main reason for that is the 1587cc 16-valve four-cylinder engine, which produces 83kW at 5750rpm and 150Nm of torque at 4000rpm. Perfectly decent numbers for a 1.6, but combine it with an 1134kg kerb weight and any prospect of eye-watering performance is absent.
It's a nice, enthusiastic engine which revs hards without rough patches or excessive noise, but that punch associated with real sports vehicles is missing.
It's not helped by quite tall ratios in the five-speed manual gearbox - there's no automatic option - which means fifth is an overdrive (the engine revs at just 2750rpm at 100km/h) and fourth not snappy enough in a lot of situations, so often you're back to third. Fortunately, the shift is neat and clean and the clutch weighting nice and light.
When it comes to dynamics, this is a solid little car. Its suspension has been tuned to be firm like a sports-oriented vehicle should and transfers some road shock back to the cabin. But it is also well-damped and capable of coping with most surfaces. The steering is quite heavy, but it's accurate and the VTR grips well and behaves with aplomb.
The semi-sports theme continues inside as well. There's splashes of faux carbon-fibre and polished metal-look plastic and nice big sports front seats which do a good job of holding you in place.
But it is very dark in the cabin and there's too much hard plastic, reducing the feeling of quality - a feeling exacerbated by crackly speakers and a buzzing vibration which started in our test vehicle when the engine crested 4000rpm.
Also, where are the cupholders? That's a reflection of a general dirth of decent storage capacity. Your CDs, for instance, will struggle to find an appropriate home.
Access is easy into the back and quite capable of looking after a couple of adults - or three kids - for at least a little while. Happily, it's headrests and lap-sash safety belts all round, while there are also airbags for both front seat passengers. But you'll have to push up to the VTS for standard anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.
The level of comfort features is quite good without being outstanding. Standard air-conditioning, an audio system with a single-slot CD player and without any connection to the rest of the interior in styling presentation terms, remote central locking and power front windows are all standard.
Visibility is a question mark. Looking forward it's fine, but the "shoulder check" by the driver isn't all that valuable because of the proximity of the B-pillar and the slope of the C-pillar, the latter also making it hard for little people to see out when sitting in the back seat.
But that slope and slippery shape also gives the VTR much of its attraction. It looks good, it looks distinctive and thanks to those large headlights and chevrons front and rear it's unmistakably a Citroen.
Which brings us back to the start. The name. That might be misleading - the VTR is not quirky, all that sporty, or even a coupe.
But it is a neat, friendly package that will attract some well-deserved fans.
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