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I am not normally a reader of the motoring press - I find their pre-occupation with ludicrously fast and ludicrously expensive exotica somewhat infantile but inevitably, in amongst the chaff there is some wheat to be found. A recent visit to my local hospital's out-patients department necessitated a long wait and to while away the time I had a look at some of the motoring magazines on offer.

I shan't name names - mainly because I can?t remember which magazines I looked at - but a couple of comments were, I think, worthy of repetition.

One magazine made a statement to the effect that most European motor manufacturers, with the exception of Citroën and Nissan, are at last going in for adventurous styling.

Another (or was it the same) magazine did a comparison between three French cars - the Renault Laguna, Peugeot 406 and Citroën Xantia and they observed that the traditional order of merit would be Citroën, Peugeot, Renault but in this instance it was Renault, Peugeot, Citroën. Why was the Xantia last? Stodgy steering, wind noise and engine noise - okay, this last criticism has traditionally been levelled at Citroëns - it was less fun to drive than the other two.

In another or maybe the same magazine, the Xantia was pitted against the Ford Mondeo - and came off second best on the grounds that the Ford had more character and was more rewarding to drive.

Peter Dron writing in his `Backfire' column for the Daily Telegraph observes, "...I reflected on the radical changes that have taken place since I started driving. Modern cars are so much safer. Many drivers under 40 years old have no personal experienceof the treacherous ways in which cars used to behave. They had lousy brakes, their tyres `broke away' without warning, and most had primitive suspension and steering systems which responded untidily to corrections. In the Sixties, even good cars repaid coarse inputs from drivers by spitting them off the road backwards." 

Forty years ago it was 1957. The vast majority of cars at that time were rear wheel drive and employed cart spring suspension at the rear and, in upmarket and sports cars, some form of independent front suspension. Tyres were narrow cross ply affairs with little grip. Steering was usually by worm and roller or worse and outside America, was rarely assisted. Brakes were drums all round. 

Ten years later when flower power was at its peak, not all that much had changed. Independent front suspension was much more common and body styling was more `modern'. Radial tyres had become commonplace on sports and upmarket models as had disc brakes. Rear wheel drive was still the norm although numerous manufacturers had adopted front wheel drive. It was in this era that my generation learned to drive and because we were young and impecunious, we drove old cars - vehicles that were 10 years old or worse.

There was of course one marque that refused to build cars like everyone else. Their cars had independent suspension, front wheel drive, disc brakes, powered rack and pinion steering, radial tyres and aerodynamic bodywork. Not only were their cars different in terms of construction, layout and appearance, they also drove differently. I am of course talking about the Citroën DS which, unlike its contemporaries, offered predictable handling under all conditions as did its stablemate the 2 CV (albeit achieving this objective via a different technical route).

What has changed over the last four decades is that all modern cars offer this predictability, irrespective of whether they are front wheel, rear wheel or four wheel drive, irrespective of whether they employ fully independent suspension, irrespective of whether they employ rack and pinion steering with or without centre point steering geometry. I suspect that what really has made the difference is the tyres. Modern tyres offer incredible levels of grip and, because of their lower profiles, offer more predictable steering and control under hard braking. This has meant that, with the exception of high powered cars, deficiencies in suspension and steering geometry may be overcome by fitting modern tyres.

Now, if the use of "conventional" technology produces results that are largely indiscernable from those produced by employing "unconventional" technology and if that can be done at a lower price too, surely the only people who will object are the purists.

This is undoubtedly the conclusion reached by PSA's management. As an enthusiast, I am saddened by the fact that the Saxo, ZX and Synergie are utterly conventional cars but I suspect that were André Citroën still at the helm, he too would have concluded that in order to compete in the modern market, the `conventional' route would be the only sensible one to take. Having said that, today's "conventional" cars incorporate many ideas that first saw the light of day on vehicles wearing the double chevron.

© 1997 Julian Marsh 

This article was originally published in the Citroënian, the monthly magazine of the Citroën Car Club .