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C5 versus XM

I acquired my first XM eleven years ago. It was a dark green 1996 CT Turbo VSX automatic with 14,000 miles under its belt. I had started a new job which came with a company car and was offered a choice between a 5 series BMW or the XM. The fleet manager was surprised when I opted for the latter. I bought the car a year later and ran it until October 2000 when it was replaced with an identical (albeit black rather than green) 1998 model which I ran until the beginning of 2008 when I replaced it with a 2004 C5 2.2 HDi Exclusive automatic bought from Wyatt of Winchester.
Back in 2001 when the C5 was launched, I wrote a less than glowing report on a C5 2.0i 16v SX.
I wrote: “There is something about the appearance of the C5 that does not come across in photos that makes it look bulky and dumpy simultaneously. In the metal, it is far less unattractive although I do not like the C pillar treatment and consider the frontal treatment to look too similar to that of the Picasso.

While I accept that many manufacturers believe that it is desirable to adopt a consistent approach to brand identity, I believe this can be done without resorting to a common style - witness the CitroŽn range in the early sixties which comprised the 2CV, Ami 6 and D series - none of which looked like each other - or like anything else on the road. Or the current Mercedes range - no-one could mistake the A Klasse for the E Klasse and yet they are both unmistakably Mercedes. But in the final analysis, whether one likes a particular shape is an entirely subjective and aesthetic judgement. However, it must be said that C5 is different from other manufacturers’ offerings (although it does bear certain resemblances to the American Ford Taurus and certain Hondas) and the enormous chevrons front and rear ensure that it cannot be mistaken for anything else. The cynic in me observes that the size of the chevrons seems to be directly related to the anonymity of the designs. On the standard 15 inch wheels, the wheel arches look too large - fortunately 16 inch wheels are an optional extra. ”
Familiarity with the shape over the last seven years has perhaps softened my dislike but I still think it is ugly. It is not ugly in the way that the Ami 6 berline is ugly. The Ami is so extreme in its ugliness that it becomes beautiful – at least to this beholder. The C5 still looks ugly from most angles – far uglier than most of its peers and one might therefore think that it would stand out from the crowd – but several times, while waiting to pick my children up from the bus station they have strolled past the car without noticing it – something that never happened with the XM – or with my wife’s Picasso. So it manages to be both bland and anonymous despite its ugliness. Quite an achievement really… And it doesn't possess anything like the “presence” of the XM either. That pernicious snout looked quite aggressive and most slower motorists would pull over when they saw it looming up in their rear view mirror. At least my C5 has sixteen inch wheels so my criticism of empty wheel arches is overcome.

Another criticism that I made concerned visibility. The A pillars are too thick and too far forward and create enormous blind spots especially when pulling out of side roads. I know this offers good structural rigidity and helps make the car safer in accidents but cynically I wonder how many of those accidents might have been avoidable had the driver, (not just of the C5 since most modern cars suffer similarly) had better visibility. It’s all a long way from the positioning of the DS’s windscreen pillars which were shown in brochures as contributing to safety with “all round panoramic vision”.
Rearward visibility on the C5 is awful and parking by ear is de rigeur – thanks to parking assistance. The children always want the patient to die – it sounds like a hospital heartbeat monitor with increasingly fast beeps until one hears a continuous tone which means STOP.

Many of the other criticisms in my 2001 test are not applicable since the car I tested had a lower trim level than my Exclusive has. My car is equipped with what in the motoring trade is called “levver” but surprisingly is not equipped with a “bidet” which means the rear screen requires regular cleaning. The only C5s I have seen fitted with a rear wash/wipe have had foreign number plates so perhaps it was not an option here in the UK. An unforeseen consequence of that ugly shape is that it gets dirty very quickly.

The combination of fawn leather and light-coloured carpets is very attractive but not very practical when one picks children up from rugby when they haven’t changed out of their kit. The first thing I did was to go and buy some rubber mats from my local CitroŽn service and parts agent. The outlet is but a couple of miles from home – much closer than Wyatt. The place was filthy dirty – oil and grease marks on the walls and counter and cobwebs everywhere. I had plenty of time to observe this since the malodorous person on the other side of the counter ignored me for ten minutes. When he did finally acknowledge my existence, he then spent twenty minutes trying to locate mats on the system. Eventually he demanded to know the car’s VIN and then input that into the system, grunted to himself, wrote a number on the back of his hand and disappeared for ten minutes. When he returned, he had a set of Xsara Picasso mats. I pointed out that the car is a C5. “They’re the same for the Picasso and C5. ” “No they’re not. ” More looking at the screen. “Your car comes up as a Picasso. ” “You must have written the number down wrongly. ” So out he goes to the car and returns with the VIN written on his hand. “We ain't got none in stock. Only fer the series 2. ” “They will fit. ” “No they won’t. Diff’rent car altogether. ” “The restyle only involved a new nose and tail job. The floorpan was left unchanged. ” “They won’t fit. If you buy ‘em and they don’t fit, don’t expect me to take ‘em back. ” Deciding that there was no point in discussing the Sale Of Goods Act with this Neanderthal, I completed the transaction and left. Needless to say, the mats were a perfect fit. I mention all of this since if CitroŽn UK really want the marque to move upmarket as is their avowed intention, they really cannot afford to have outlets like this one.

The contrast with Wyatts could not be greater. The over-speed indicator appeared not to be working when I took delivery so the car went back to them to have this fixed. The service area was clean, well lit and had comfortable chairs and plenty of reading matter. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable and the receptionist noticed that I was reading “The Essential Buyer’s Guide CitroŽn DS & ID” by Rudy A Heilig which I had been sent to review. She told me that one of the mechanics was “so old he used to work on those cars” and went off and got him. This led to a discussion on the D series and subsequent models.

Continuing in the negative vein for a while longer, I don’t like the hand-operated parking brake. I far prefer the XM’s foot operated device; although I suspect that I might have a different opinion had I owned a manual XM. The parking brake is awkward to reach, especially when the armrest is lowered. As an aside, the PARK position on the automatic selector gate is illustrated with a foot pressing a pedal.
I also dislike the un-illuminated ignition lock. Trying to insert the key in the dark is a hit and miss affair – mainly miss. The footwells are illuminated when you unlock the doors but I don’t really need to look at the pedals when I get in.
But the major gripe is with the plip. I am left-handed and therefore naturally hold the device in my left hand. When I press the button that releases the spring-loaded key blade, it does not open because the base of my thumb is in the way. It feels very awkward trying to use the device with my right hand. Furthermore, in the dark one has a fifty-fifty chance of pressing the wrong button when locking or unlocking the car.

The stereo system is definitely a step backwards in terms of sound quality from that fitted to the XM. It sounds very “hi fi” and not very musical. Deep bass is missing and turning up the wick makes it sound shrill and aggressive. On the plus side, the radio and CD multichanger controls are excellent.
I must confess that I like the gimmicks – the folding door mirrors; the ability to open or close the windows with the plip (although this device is not without its faults) ; the “here I am” lighting; the cruise control; the automatic wipers and lights. I haven’t managed to trigger any of the safety-related add-ons like the ESP (electronic stability program) ; EBA (emergency brake assist) ; ASR (acceleration slip reduction) or any other TLAs (three letter acronyms) I may have missed.

I was less than totally impressed by the driving experience back in 2001 although I did concede that the ride quality afforded by Hydractive 3+ was more consistent than that in the XM. One was always aware in the XM when the suspension switched modes and this resulted in both inconsistent ride quality and perhaps more worryingly, inconsistent handling. To be fair, this only happened when pushing on at speeds disliked by the do-gooders and nannies and was fairly easy to adapt to. The C5’s suspension is unobtrusive most of the time although some surfaces upset it and the low speed ride can be a bit jiggly.
Its handling is consistently good. There is a slip road off a dual carriageway near where I live, which turns through 270 degrees with a variable radius and I was never happy pushing the XM much faster than 60 mph. The C5 will happily run along this section of 70 mph-limited road at about that speed with very little body roll and if I were not such a goody two shoes, I might even suggest it might be possible to drive a tiny bit faster than that.
The autoadaptive suspension does what it says on the box. Start driving briskly and it becomes quite taut without transmitting shocks into the cabin. This makes me wonder why there is a so-called Sport option for the suspension since all this seems to do is to make the car feel like something German. Maybe that was the raison d’Ítre. Maybe the company’s obsession with beating the Germans goes back to before 2001 when the C5 was still in its development stage. More road and wind noise is transmitted into the cabin than in the XM.
Likewise the autoadaptive gearbox is impressive, even if the changes are less smooth than those in the XM. It adapts itself so well to one’s driving style that I can see little point in using the sequential controls.
The 2.2 diesel is thirstier than I thought it would be, averaging out at 34 mpg as opposed to the 28 mpg of the XM although on a recent 250 miles drive it managed 39.8 mpg. It is also noticeable when the turbocharger kicks in and this, coupled with the less than smooth gearchanges when driving fast results in progress that is less seamless than the XM. Drive it gently however and these effects are ameliorated no end.
The seats are very comfortable indeed; at least as comfortable as those in the XM. The heating and ventilation are almost beyond reproach although I would like to be able to direct cold air through the vents and have warm air in the footwells – something the 2CV, Dyane and GS all managed.
The headlights are superb. Those who have driven an XM at night will know all too well that the same cannot be said for that car’s lights.
It is still early days and I am trying desperately to overcome eleven years of XM conditioning. The C5 does represent a considerable improvement over the XM in most of the important areas (aesthetics aside) and even runs the C6 very close in terms of the driving experience.

© Julian Marsh 2008