A change of job means a company car - "you can have a car up to 18k" - "I'll have a Xantia Activa please" - "Sorry, we didn't make it clear, you'll have to have a car from within the existing pool and it's a Vauxhall Cavalier 2 litre 16 valve" And thus I lose all credibility within the Club. It's an M registered hatchback with 40k on the clock and I've been driving it for a week now. I can get the Xantia once I have done another 40k or in another 2 years, whichever comes sooner.
As I said in a previous Iconoclast, I think it is beholden on us all to periodically try out non-Citroëns in order to confirm our prejudices - and believe me, a week in a Cavalier confirms them. It's not that it is a bad car - it's fast, reasonably comfortable (in fact Citroën could learn a lesson or two about seat design from GM) and it's fitted with plenty of gizmos to while away the hours. Furthermore, it's bolted together properly so there are no squeaks or rattles.
The downside is that it is yet another competent but anodyne car. It is utterly devoid of character.
Leaving that aside, it comes with a number of quite severe design defects; the most noticeable of which is the brake pedal which is higher than the accelerator and feels slushy. The brakes work well enough but you have to lift the right foot up and then over to the left and then start braking, all of which probably takes as long to perform as it does to read. Unlike Citroën powered brakes, pedal travel is about 4.5cm and there is no initial bite with the result that I still tend to overbrake. Now my old BX GTi suffered from a similar lack of bite and I suspect the problem is connected with ABS. Every car I have driven fitted with anti lock brakes suffers from this to a greater or lesser degree.
Another very noticeable problem is the lack of stability when cornering fast on a bend with an undulating or rough road surface. The car rocks diagonally and feels slightly unstable - something that never happens in an oleopneumatic car. Again, every conventionally sprung car I have driven seems to suffer from this.
Worse still are the thick windscreen pillars that obscure the view and render the interior quite gloomy. The BX cabin is far airier than any vehicle this side of an MPV.
And then there's the ventilation system which suffers from a fan that sounds like an hairdryer.
All of these things lead me to try to analyse precisely what it is that makes the Citroën driving experience so different. I used the word "anodyne" to describe the Vauxhall experience. With a 2 litre 16 valve, it is noticeably quicker than my turbo diesel BX and one might therefore have thought it would be more exciting but it isn't. What the Vauxhall does is to insulate the driver from the driving experience - the feedback from the road and the car is all of the wrong type. The suspension leaves you in no doubt of the state of the road surface and of things like road camber to which a Citroën is relatively immune while the steering is dead, lifeless and uncommunicative. I get the feeling that were it not for the fat tyres (195 section) its handling would be pretty poor - certainly there's little bite when you turn into a corner and the steering loads up very quickly, all of which discourages push on motoring. An hydropneumatic Citroën on the other hand insulates the occupants from the discomfort caused by poor road surfaces but provides sufficient information via the steering wheel to ensure that driving is a pleasurable experience. I don't want to feel cat's eyes or ridges between the concrete blocks on motorways but I do want to know what the front wheels are doing.
A colleague suggested some time ago that most motorists aren't interested in driving - it's something they do because they have to and that the bread and butter manufacturers can therefore get away with selling cars that are high on gizmos but low on driver pleasure because driver pleasure cannot readily be quantified. A punter, walking into a car showroom will be impressed by the CD player, sunroof, electric windows, alloy wheels, etc. and seeing as that the majority of purchasers never go for a (decent) test drive, that's what counts. It's all about perceived value and image. That's how Daewoo manage to shift thoroughly mundane cars by the thousand.
Cars like the 2CV had no showroom appeal at all and would therefore not even be considered by a punter wanting cheap, basic motoring. This punter would far rather buy a Nissan Micra - a car which is far inferior to a 2CV - because he/she would be swayed by the stereo and sunroof and the bland anonymous appearance.
Driving pleasure is difficult to define - the motoring press attempt to describe it (well, CAR does) but they are of course preaching to the converted. Our aforementioned punter will probably buy Auto Express or Which and sit there and compare the lists of goodies, the warranty terms, the service intervals and will make his/her choice on that basis without ever driving the thing.
Citroën of course play this game too. The AX and ZX are pitched against the offerings of the bread and butter manufacturers and are very successful. Now I have never driven either of these models but CAR rates them both highly. I would imagine that many an AX/ZX purchaser discovers that driving these cars is far more pleasurable than he/she had anticipated and when the time comes to replace it, another Citroën is ordered. Apparently Citroën in the UK has one of the highest retention rates of any mainstream manufacturer.
Once upon a time, Citroëns were utterly unlike any other car. They looked different which meant that the punter either liked it or dismissed it out of hand. Assuming that the punter's sense of aesthetics was not offended he/she would probably then take a test drive since the muttering rotters motoring writers would have commented on how weird they were. Having come from a conventional car he/she would be faced by a strange steering wheel with only one spoke, a column or dash gearchange, strange instruments and unidentifiable minor controls. I wonder how many prospective purchasers were put off at this stage. Assuming however that the punter was open-minded (or the salesman was particularly forceful) a test drive then ensued. I'm sure we can all remember that heart stopping moment when we first applied the brakes on a DS/GS/SM/CX only to discover that the pedal wasn't where we expected it to be and in a panic, slammed our foot down hard, only to stand the car on its nose. If we were test driving a CX or SM, we probably had great difficulty steering the car too. Only the most determined of punters would proceed beyond this point. Once again, I will make the assumption that notwithstanding the test drive experience, the punter decided to proceed with the purchase and in the fullness of time, took delivery of the car. There then followed a period of acclimatisation which could be anything upward of an hour during which the punter tried to justify his/her purchase but eventually the irrefutable logic of the car's design would sink in and driving pleasure would follow.
We live in an age where we expect instant gratification, we expect user friendliness, immediate acceptance. If we are expected to work for our pleasures, many of us will seek other, more immediate pleasures. Again, I am sure that we all recall our first taste of alcohol, our first curry, our first sexual experience (can I mention the latter in a family magazine?) and the chances are, none of these "first times" was particularly pleasant. One has to work at these things to gain enjoyment out of them. So it used to be with Citroëns... and many were put off.
Nowadays, Citroëns provide that instant gratification - you can leap out of a Cavalier into a Xantia without suffering from culture shock. The pleasure bit still takes a while to manifest itself - I'm still waiting where the Cavalier is concerned..
Finally, a change of topic - a Dutch friend of mine 'phoned me the other night to tell me about a drive he took in the Saxo. He is a Citroën enthusiast whose opinions I rate quite highly. He enthused about the Saxo, saying it drives like a big car. He said the ride quality was on a par with his XM and that the electric power steering was remarkable, being nicely weighted, informative and fast. He added that the build quality was excellent and that the car was refined and quiet. I said I thought that the Saxo was the spiritual successor to the LNA, being little more than a rebadged Peugeot. "Not so" he said, "it sets new standards for small cars in the way that the GS did in 1970." If this is so, will it, I wonder, put off those punters who are used to driving Micras, Fiestas, Metros, et al? Or will it force other manufacturers to improve their products? Certainly the GS had no impact at all on other manufacturers (with the possible exception of the Alfasud) - unfortunately this has been true of all Citroëns. Yes, the styling influence of the GS was picked up by Vauxhall with the last Astra and other manufacturers such as Lancia and even Rover borrowed styling cues from the Pininfarina design that led to the GS and BX but Citroën cannot be said to have influenced the mainstream at all in recent (post war) years. I use this caveat since self evidently, the Traction's front wheel drive layout has been adopted for most small to medium size cars. Most of Citroën's truly innovative ideas have been ignored. "Better" doesn't always equate with success or acceptance in the market place as may be demonstrated by the total domination of the VHS video format over the technically superior Betamax system or the PC over the Mac.
Julian Marsh 1996
|This article was originally published in the Citroënian, the monthly magazine of the Citroën Car Club .|