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CitroŽn XM a glorious failure?

The XM represented a major failure for PSA. The reasons for this are many and some of them are less than clear. Hopefully this article will go some way towards offering some explanations. Before doing so, it is necessary to place the XM within an historic perspective.

In the beginning

Initially, CitroŽn pitched his products at the bottom end of the market - above the cyclecars that provided basic, mass market transportation but well below the luxury Gran Turismos offered by the likes of Delahaye, Bugatti, Panhard, Hispano Suiza, Bentley, Rolls Royce et al. In the aftermath of World War One, motor car manufacture was a labour intensive, artisanal affair and the products were expensive. Although there were large numbers of manufacturers, thanks to fiscal tariffs, it was not economic to sell one's products abroad. 

Andrť CitroŽn was a great admirer of Henry Ford and sought to emulate his success in Europe by employing mass production techniques. This enabled him to offer more car for the money and charge less money for the car. However, unlike Ford which offered but one model with but one colour (any colour you like as long as it is black), CitroŽn offered a range of cars with a multitude of different body styles (and a bewildering range of colours!). This philosophy stood CitroŽn in good stead as his firm produced a range of dull but worthy cars at prices few of his competitors could match.

C6 – the original haut de gamme

Ever ambitious and ever willing to exploit a niche, CitroŽn saw the need for a competitively priced, high performance, luxury car which would both spearhead an advance into the upper echelons of the market and would also act as an aspirational product whose kudos would reflect on cars lower in the range. 

The result, in 1928 was the haut de gamme (top of the range) AC6 (or C6), equipped with a 6 cylinder engine and every conceivable extra, it offered most of the refinement of a Gran Turismo at a fraction of the price. 

Its 1932 successor, the 15, built on these strengths but it was, in truth, little more than a copy of contemporary American cars.

The 22CV and the 15CV

In 1934, with the launch of the 7CV Traction, CitroŽn no longer had an haut de gamme model. However, it was the intention of the company to offer an entire range of cars all based on the Traction and at the top of the range would be the V8 22CV. For well documented reasons, the 22CV was never launched and the position of haut de gamme fell to the six cylinder 15 Six. The 15 was so far ahead of its competition that the company made very few modifications to it before it was replaced in 1956 by the DS19

In the austere years after World War Two, the French luxury car makers disappeared – with the exception of Panhard who were reduced to making economical, small cars. 

Thus there was little competition for the 15CV – its Renault, Peugeot and Ford peers were smaller and did not offer the same levels of comfort or road behaviour, even if they were more "modern" in their styling.

The DS

The DS offered the kind of hedonistic comfort that few other manufacturers could approach. Not only did it offer unrivalled sybaritic luxury but it managed to do so in a package that was both stunningly beautiful and technologically advanced. If it suffered major problems in its early years, this did not damage its reputation too severely - if anything it added to the mystique. And the clientele in those days was less sophisticated as far as expectations regarding reliability are concerned.

As if the standard DS were not luxurious enough, three new models were launched. The Prestige offered limousine style accommodation in the rear although the chauffeur, thankfully separated by a glass screen from the bloated plutocrats in the rear, endured IDesque seating… And then there was the Pallas for the person who did not want to give up the driving seat to a hired hand but still demanded the luxury of the Prestige. But the haut de gamme undoubtedly was the Dťcapotable built by Henri Chapron. Those with more money than taste could flaunt their extravagance with one of the bespoke Chapron creations.

For a few short years, Facel Metallon hand built cars in the pre War Gran Turismo fashion but sales of these were minuscule in comparison to those of CitroŽn and when the company disappeared in the mid sixties, CitroŽn was free to besport itself without any domestic competition. The foreign competition ? Mercedes, Jaguar, Rover, etc. suffered from high prices as a result of import taxes and the DS reigned supreme. In the France of the early sixties, if you wanted a top of the range luxury car at a sensible price, the choice was between a DS, a DS Prestige or a Chapron DS of one type or another. If the DS suffered from shortcomings in the engine department, this was more than made up by its strengths in other areas. Over the years, the DS was refined and improved. More powerful engines made up the shortfall in straight-line performance and a couple of restyling exercises ensured that it still looked contemporary.

The SM

The SM was intended to be positioned above the DS in the model hierarchy and, had events not conspired against it, might very well, in four-door guise, have supplanted the DS. The SM was designed to accommodate the four cylinder powerplant from the DS as well as the Maserati V6. Sadly, escalating oil prices coupled with the widespread imposition of speed limits and the company's parlous financial state killed the SM and the DS laboured on until 1975.

The CX

At launch, most D owners viewed the CX as a retrograde step. Available only with the DS20 engine, with a manual 4 speed transmission, with reduced interior room and a fairly basic trim level, without the steerable lights of the D, the only obvious advance was the fitting of DIRAVI steering on some models. 

Had the company had more resources, the CX range would have included long wheelbase variants (subsequently introduced with the Prestige and Limousine), a Trirotor Wankel and a V6 Maserati.

The ultimate luxury vehicle would have been the Maserati Quattroporte (below) - equipped with hydropneumatic suspension, fully powered brakes and DIRAVI, this car was pure CitroŽn apart from the engine and styling.

With the gradual fall of fiscal barriers within the EEC, cars began to sell outside their country of origin and the CX faced competition in all its markets, including France. 

The CX was rapidly developed to face up to the likes of Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Rover, Ford, BMC, Vauxhall and Opel. Bigger engines, CMatic semi- automatic transmission (and later fully automatic transmission), Pallas and Prestige trim all followed in fairly short order and helped maintain CitroŽn’s reputation as the "anti-Mercedes" but the Germans were fighting back.

By the early eighties, the CX was beginning to look somewhat dated; the science of aerodynamics had moved on (the Audi 100 in particular showing the way with a CD of 0,30 compared with the 0,36 of the CX) and competitors were offering cars that did most of what the CX did without the attendant complications (be they real or imaginary). Furthermore, the Germans were ahead of CitroŽn in the field of safety – ABS was introduced by Mercedes in 1979 and by Ford in 1985 as a standard fitting in the Scorpio. It was only following widespread criticism of the inadequate brakes of the CX GTi Turbo that CitroŽn offered ABS as a costly option. And where the CX Automatique had a three speed box, the competition offered four speeds. From being at the forefront of technical innovation and active and passive safety, CitroŽn was obliged to play second fiddle to the Germans.

PSA had decided to concentrate its resources on the new, mainstream car that would make or break CitroŽn – the BX. Where the BX employed the very latest, lightweight TU range of engines, the CX laboured on with the Sainturat-based engines from the D or the harsh and unrefined PRV engine found in the Reflex and Athena. The diesel engines used in the CX were basically dieselised versions of the D lump and were less refined than the XUD engines fitted to the BX. Had the money been available, the CX restyle would have been much more than the fitting of new bumpers and interior – the underpan would have been cleaned up, the roof gutters would have disappeared, a flush fitting screen would have been fitted, the roof line would have been raised to provide improved rear headroom and a hatchback would have been fitted. Extensive use of plastics per the BX would have helped reduce weight but PSA said no.

The CX was under threat, not just from the Germans but also from the Renault 25 and its stablemates, the Peugeot 604 and top of the range BXs.

Not the CX replacement

But let us backtrack to 1980. Some five years after Robert Opron had left CitroŽn, the Bureau d'Etudes, under the direction of Jean Giret, turned from the soon to be launched BX and concentrated its energies on working on a replacement for the CX. This task was undertaken without the knowledge or approval of Xavier Karcher and therefore without any formal design brief although those in the know referred to it as Projet E. The basis on which Giret's team operated was a re-dimensioned CX and the car was fitted with a two piece tailgate allowing a classic boot or hatchback configuration as desired. Frontal treatment was not dissimilar to that of the BX. Peugeot had made it clear to CitroŽn that the CX was to be the last "quirky" CitroŽn. When Art Blakeslee discovered this model, he ordered it to be destroyed - and PSA then imposed its personnel in the Bureau at Vťlizy. This meant that any successor to the CX was going to be a far more conventional beast and would make extensive use of components shared with other vehicles in PSA’s range.

The DX?

In late 1984, PSA's Management Board asked three styling centres to submit their proposals for the CX replacement - two of the centres were in-house PSA (Vťlizy and CarriŤres-sous-Poissy) and the third was Bertone. Marcello Gandini, designer of the BX while at Bertone also submitted a pair of models. The design of Projet V even at this early stage required a floorpan that would be shared with Peugeot’s new flagship and with the Saab 9000. The decision was taken to employ the pseudo MacPherson strut front suspension of the BX and the XU range of engines. For the first time since the demise of the SM, a V6 would also be offered.

Eventually, Bertone’s design was accepted but the production version lost the semi-enclosed rear wheels and smooth flanks that were part of the original proposal. Also rejected were head-up instrument displays and a six headlamp set up.

In 1998, CitroŽn showed the Activa prototype at the Paris Salon. Activa was fitted with active suspension and four wheel steer and it was thought inevitable that the DX (as the pundits had named the CX replacement) would feature this technology. In the event, a simplified version of Activa’s suspension was fitted and passive rear steer, originally introduced on the ZX was not fitted until the mid 90s.

Bienvenue ŗ la XM

On 23rd May 1989, the new car went on sale. Christened XM in order to pay homage to the SM which was the last six cylinder CitroŽn, it also featured a kicked up waist line that was reminiscent of the SM. Originally available with a choice of a carburettor XU engine bored out to 2 litres, a fuel injected version of the same or a V6, the considerable extra weight of the XM compared with the BX endowed the 2 litre versions with pedestrian performance and even the V6 was slower than the BX 16 Soupapes. In July 1990, a 170 bhp 24 valve V6 was offered. Virtually all the 176 24 valve cars developed problems with oil flow which led to premature camshaft failure. CitroŽn must have been aware that this engine was stretched beyond its limits but this did not dissuade them from manufacturing such a severely flawed car. Then in 1993, a turbocharged 2 litre XU engine was provided which finally overcame the performance deficit of earlier 2 litre models.

The diesel versions similarly suffered from lack of performance – the XUD was extended to 2,1 litres and offered 110 bhp compared with the 120 bhp of the CX 25 Turbo D which was a lighter vehicle than the XM. Contrast this however with the 143 bhp of the Mercedes 300D. The success of the BMW 325TDs led PSA to drop the 4 cylinder 2,5 litre engine from the C25 van into the XM in 1996. This unit was, at 130 bhp, powerful but it could also be thirsty. Having only four cylinders as opposed to the six cylinder units that powered the Germans which were sold at similar prices and lacking the image of either BMW or Mercedes, its appeal was limited to a small circle of CitroŽn enthusiasts who, in Britain at least, mainly purchased second-hand vehicles since the majority of them were pre-registered by CitroŽn dealers.

Following the restyle of 1995 and the fitting of Hydractive 2 which had been pioneered in the Xantia, the XM was not really developed any further. Activa suspension was not fitted to this haut de gamme model but to the mainstream Xantia. The same held true for the new V6 jointly developed by PSA and Renault which first saw the light of day in 1996 in the Xantia and a year later in the XM and also for the auto-adaptive gearbox. The headlamps which had been a source of much criticism were revamped in 1996 but right hand drive cars continued to be fitted with the original, inadequate units – presumably the sales figures did not justify the development of RHD versions. Similar lamps were fitted to early versions of the Xantia but sales were sufficiently healthy here in Britain to justify developing replacements.

Other mainstream manufacturers had abandoned the large car field to the Germans – Fiat threw in the sponge in 1995 and Ford did likewise in 1997. Apart from the Germans, the only other players are Saab, Volvo and GM with only GM being a volume manufacturer.

In 1989, 46,282 XMs were sold worldwide. In 1990, a total of 96,196 were sold and thereafter, numbers declined rapidly - 49,119 in 1991, 43,487 in 1992, 20,977 in 1993, 20,591 in 1994, 17,799 in 1995, 12,500 in 1996, 9,594 in 1997, 7,500 in 1998 and only a couple of thousand in 1999. More than 45% of total XM production occurred in the first two years of an eleven-year run. From 1996, in its home market of France, the XM was outsold three to one by each of its German competitors. Production ended without any sort of fanfare in June 2000.




UK Sales as a percentage of world sales


46 282




96 169

6 491



49 119

3 781



43 487

3 628



20 977

2 557



20 591

1 891



17 799

1 608



12 500




9 594




7 500




2 000




3 370



329 388

22 475


Approximately ten per cent of all XM production went to the Netherlands where the car continues to be very popular with customers and where values hold up well. Contrary to the position in Britain, most specialist CitroŽn dealers would be happy to have ten low mileage, late model XMs sitting on their forecourts since they have waiting lists. Many former DS and CX specialists are now turning to the XM as their clients have learned to recognise its very real qualities.

In the French ContrŰle Technique (MOT) statistics, the XM came out as the third most reliable luxury car – after the Mercedes 190 and BMW 5 series. In the 1998 EuroNCAP safety tests, the XM was reckoned to be one of the safest cars in its class – not bad for such an old design.

At launch, PSA said that 4 x 4 versions of the XM would follow, together with a classic three box design intended primarily for North America.

The XM fell between two stools – it was not different enough to attract the hardened CitroŽn enthusiast but was too different to appeal to mainstream purchasers. In efforts to attract mainstream purchasers, the feel of the brake pedal was made more conventional thanks to the insertion of a deformable tube in the brake valve to make the pedal feel spongey. DIRAVI was only fitted to left hand drive V6 models and was quietly dropped in 1997. The DIRAVI equipped cars actually had lower geared steering than the lesser XMs. The non-turbocharged XM 2 litre was slower and substantially thirstier than the BX19TRi and furthermore, thanks to its Hydractive suspension did not ride as well.

In some respects, the XM continued in the traditional CitroŽn mould – it was released prematurely – by at least eighteen months – and suffered from considerable teething problems which gave it a reputation from which it never recovered. The use of totally inadequate wiring and connectors was a recipe for disaster and was undoubtedly brought about by the PSA bean counters’ desires to reduce costs wherever possible. Quality control was not all that it might be – many cars suffered from water leaks and an appetite for front tyres and brakes did not help either.

And here in Britain, the majority of dealers hated it. They hated it because it was a slow seller and because of its reputation for unreliability. The result was £10k depreciation in the first year. And for the hapless owner of one of these cars, there was the hostility and ignorance of the dealer network to add to your woes. To an extent, the hostility was understandable – why tie up capital in a vehicle that might sit in your showroom for six months when you could shift a dozen Xantias in the same period? The ignorance is a direct result of the hostility – few dealers ever got to work on an XM so it was terra incognita to them. Diagnosing intermittent suspension faults cost the dealer man-hours that could not easily be passed on to the customer.

And then there is the appearance - a car that looks like a hatchback in a market that eschews them as utilitarian. Unusually styled cars do not normally sell well in this area of the marketplace. Nor do front wheel drive cars.

Yes, the XM was undoubtedly a failure in commercial terms and yet it offers all of the traditional big CitroŽn strengths and virtues; the ability to make light work of long journeys in adverse conditions, unique styling, excellent aerodynamic performance, good economy (V6 aside), superb comfort and luxury; the list goes on. It offers a unique driving experience and in true CitroŽn style, looks like nothing else on the road.

When it was launched, I observed that it looked as if it had been designed by a committee that had never met. Familiarity has led me to modify my views – I think it is a great design which is let down by detailing. The concave flanks do little for the aesthetics and the leading edge of the bonnet should be continued to the line above the headlamps. There are too many panes of glass in the much-vaunted "band of light" while the front quarter lights are so designed that when it is raining, the exterior mirrors are worse than useless thanks to the water running across these panes. I like the exterior door handle design but some people have likened these to RSJs. It is a pity that the rear wheels are fully exposed. The design has not dated because it is essentially right – just like the DS and the CX. I suspect that C5 will look old-fashioned in 2012.

CAR magazine’s acerbic comment was "It will be a great car when it is finished". Unfortunately, it was both never finished and is now finished. It was never finished since development ceased. It is finished because production has ceased.

The future

The XM came to the end of its life without any immediate successor. For the last half of 2000, the haut de gamme was the V6 Xantia. The C5 replaces the Xantia, not the XM (although it does encroach on the XM's territory). C6 will appear, eventually, but for at least 18 months the flagship will be the V6 C5 – just a large-engined version of a mainstream Mondeo competitor. C6 is so different looking from its current competitors (with the exception of the new Renault) that it too may suffer from the conservatism of buyers. On the other hand, it may be that the market is changing; people may be becoming bored with driving ubiquitous BMWs and Mercedes. And all this presupposes that C6 will be reliable from day one, that it will offer a unique driving experience. Certainly Audi has demonstrated that cutting edge technology can be a powerful force in attracting customers, indeed Audi seems to have wrested the technocrown from CitroŽn – it is time to snatch it back.

Working on the premise that one should learn from one’s mistakes, I gain the impression that Peugeot-CitroŽn’s attitude is "We can repeat them without any difficulty" since once again, the marque will have two flagships competing with one another.

My thanks are due to Paul Johnson, Wouter Jansen of CITROExpert and CitroŽn UK Ltd. for their invaluable input into this article. The idea for this article came about as a result of discussions with Nigel Wild of the CitroŽn Car Club who cautioned me against suggesting that the XM is a "real CitroŽn" since, like its forebears, it was launched while still in prototype form. As you will have read, I ignored his warnings since I believe the point is valid. Furthermore, the word is out that a number of C5s issued to dealers have suffered from teething problems – failed power steering – over-light power steering – braking problems – rear suspension sub frame problems - problems with some of the electronics - lack of power in the 2,2HDi. If this is true, then C5 continues in the grande tradition. I rest my case, Nigel.

© 2001 Julian Marsh