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Road Test 1

The Xsara Picasso went on sale in the UK on 1st June 2000, some six months after the rest of Europe. On 2nd June I went to Slough to pick up the car that is the subject of this test, a mint green 1.8i SX. Coincidentally we have been playing host once again to Arthur and Ellen Fryling from the Netherlands who arrived in a blue HDi Picasso instead of their normal XM CT Turbo . At Slough we were told that there are a number of equipment differences between vehicles intended for different markets but these seemed to be confined to carpets in the Dutch car (an accessory), arm rests in the UK car and an SX badge at the rear of the British car - all important in establishing the hierarchy in the company car car park. Strangely the Picasso badge only appears on the front flanks; at the rear it is badged CitroŽn Xsara. The front fog lamps fitted as standard to the UK car are also an accessory in the Netherlands.

First impressions were very good - an inspection of the bodywork in CitroŽn UK's car park revealed no flaws at all. An inspection of the interior revealed five full size seats that looked very comfortable indeed. A huge boot (bigger, at 550 litres than that of a Xantia saloon) with luggage hooks and an ingenious but probably not very robust folding shopping trolley (called a CitroŽn Modubox ģ), stowage spaces under the rear floor just aft of the front seats, door pockets capable of carrying a one and a half litre bottle, a large glove box and additional storage areas showed careful attention to the needs of the occupants. The boot can be extended to an astonishing 2000 litres with the seats folded flat. A width of 1.16 metres between wheel arches means that a pushchair can fit across the car rather than diagonally.

While inspecting the boot, I cracked my head on the tailgate catch. As I exercised my Anglo Saxon vocabulary, Arthur pointed out that the tailgate has two open positions; a low one for the vertically challenged and in car parks or garages with limited headroom and a high one for lofty Anglo Saxons.

Climbing (the verb is appropriate since one ascends into the vehicle)) behind the wheel revealed a commanding driving position and Xantia/Xsara switchgear and steering wheel although for some reason, the volume control has been moved to the left as it has in the Xsara saloon and coupť. With the seat adjusted so that the pedals and wheel were within reach, I discovered that the parking brake is a long stretch down. My wife, Christina who is shorter than I and with shorter arms found it even more of a stretch. 

Turning the key in the ignition brought the electronic instrument panel to life. The instruments are located in the middle of the dash with the digital speedo offset to the left - just as it is in the LHD car. In the RHD car, checking your speed requires a deliberate eye movement away from the road - perhaps this is why the "overspeed warning" is fitted. This is an audible warning that sounds if you exceed a pre-set speed as I discovered when I accidentally set the speed at zero mph and thought my mobile 'phone was ringing as I moved away from some traffic lights. I do not like digital displays for engine or road speed. They do not indicate trends very well; determining whether there is an increase or decrease in speed requires you to observe the instrument for a few seconds and the Picasso?s speedo (there is no tacho) jumps by 2 mph increments. Furthermore, a conventional analogue instrument is far easier to read - one retains a mental image of the instrument and its calibrations and one need only look at the position of the needle in relation to the mental image, one does not have to read the calibrations. On the plus side, the display can be switched between mph and kph (and concomitantly between mpg and litres per 100 km). Another problem with the instrument panel is the sheer quantity of information displayed - road speed, status of the central locking system, child locks, date, time, exterior temperature, radio station or CD track, miles remaining until the next service, average and instantaneous fuel consumption, average speed, distance remaining before you need to refuel, total and trip odometers, fuel gauge, etc. although to be fair, not all this information is displayed simultaneously and the display, with the exception of the speedo, can be switched off when your lights are on. The language in which the information is displayed can also be altered.

The dash mounted gearchange falls readily to hand and gripping the part of the lever that is concealed by the leatheroid gaiter reveals an umbrella-shaped handle that would appear to have been inspired by the 2CV gear lever. The shift on my car was a little stiff but Arthur's car was fine which would suggest that it will improve after a while. Pedals were nicely weighted and there is a footrest for the left foot that is perfectly positioned. The steering wheel is smaller than that fitted to the Xantia and the steering (with variable assistance) is ideally weighted while the steering itself is precise and informative. On both cars, what I thought was the electro-hydraulic pump was audible but I have been told that the steering is not electro-hydraulic and what I was hearing was pump that pumps air into the exhaust system in order to further reduce emissions.

In traffic, the commanding driving position gives one a feeling of authority. Visibility is good apart from the three-quarters view to the right where the thick screen pillars create a blind spot. On the M4 heading towards Newbury, there was sufficient power not to feel embarrassed by forays into the overtaking lane. Even when extended in the gears, the engine was quiet and smooth. CitroŽn's new lightweight 1.8i 16V petrol engine offers excellent refinement and driveability and compared with its predecessor offers better fuel economy and lower emissions while also being quieter - so quiet in fact that I thought it had stalled when it was idling - noise vibration and harshness has been reduced by 15%. This is the first application of this new engine and it will undoubtedly find its way into other models over the next few months.

With a maximum power of 117 HP at 5500 rpm and maximum torque of 120 lb.ft at 4,000rpm it can accelerate the car from 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds and on to a top speed of 118 mph and yet it achieves as much as 36.7 mpg on the official fuel consumption combined cycle.

Gear ratios matched the power characteristics of the engine and the good low end torque allows it to be trundled along at 30 mph in top. Wind noise was very low although opening any of the windows (electric at the front, manual at the rear) resulted in buffeting and lots of noise.

Air-conditioning was effective but noisy and, given my comments about the noise when the windows are open, an essential rather than a luxury.

Off the motorway, the Picasso revealed its CitroŽn heritage - pin sharp handling (just like the Xsara saloon and coupť) and a good ride, albeit not quite up to hydropneumatic standards. Body roll was very well controlled and after a few miles, this inspires confidence which in turn leads to higher cornering speeds than one might consider prudent in such a tall vehicle. Yes, a compact MPV with hot hatch levels of grip and handling! The ride is clearly better than the class norm with mid-corner bumps being handled with equanimity. The seat damping, as one has come to expect in a CitroŽn, was exemplary, with the seats damping out those irregularities that manage to get past the suspension.

© Julian Marsh 2000