MOTORING / A tale of two Citroens: John Fordham drives the stylishly eccentric XM giant and a new version of the economical AX supermini

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The Independent Culture
SINCE the 1980s, Citroen has been at pains to establish that its products are aimed at regular Joes and Joannas, not automotive weirdos who aren't happy unless their cars have the suspension and handling of hovercraft and the carrying capacity of hearses.

The superb ZX series began this significant shift towards the Ford Escort-dominated middle ground and, having made the breakthrough, Citroen wasn't going back to the wacky old days. The company will make the news this year because of the Xantia, its stylish but conventional compromise in the mid-range market, aimed at the new Ford Mondeo.

The Xantia goes into the showrooms next month, and its impending arrival diverts attention from two other spring enterprises. One is Citroen's rescue job on its least successful model in terms of British sales, the stylishly eccentric but never fully resolved XM. The other is a substantial revision of its fuel-saving record-breaker at the bottom end, the supermini-sized AX Echo diesel, which has entered the Guinness Book of Records for being capable of doing 112 miles on just one gallon of fuel. The AX now looks a great deal smarter, rides a lot better and feels classier inside. To all intents and purposes, it has become a new addition to a range that is already doing expanding business in Britain.

The XM (priced at pounds 19,245) has gained a new engine, and consequently a more relaxed pace. It was always a car for old-guard Citroen fans - perhaps even including buyers who were once childhood occupants of the charismatic DS cars of the Fifties, with their big, broad, nose-down bonnets, racing-boat body lines and floating suspension. The XM's record seems to show that tastes have indeed grown more conservative over the past 15 years. British sales in 1992, for example, were modest to say the least - an eighth of the worldwide ZX figure, according to an Autocar & Motor report.

Has the problem been an outdated 'car of the future' image? Or was it that the XM just didn't go as well as the opposition? Market research suggests the latter, and that's the conclusion Citroen came to. All the 2.0-litre versions in the series have been fitted with a low- pressure turbocharger of the kind found on some Saabs, a device intended to provide extra horses and a much more flexible response. The aim is to deliver maximum power lower down, and sustain it over a wider rev-range - but without the fuel gauge visibly wilting as the throttle pedal goes down. The company has also brought one XM model on to the market at under pounds 20,000. Now, corporate buyers might well consider this big, original luxury car.

The difference in performance is certainly noticeable, though this newspaper had to arrange two shots at it to discover just how different; the first model of the turbo Si we tested had a misfire that significantly reduced its smoothness and low-speed acceleration. But in a fully functioning model, the improved performance transformed the car.

The XM always reminds the driver of its bulk, particularly in the estate version - a far- horizons bonnet before you, railway-carriage length behind, and the flat, boxy facia and aircraft-like seating emphasising the width. But the revised engine largely cancels out the downside of a big car, as well as the traditional cut-in delay in old-style turbos, and knocks three seconds or so off the 0-60mph time.

In motorway use particularly, it's a refined and untiring car - the four-speed automatic gearbox maximises its relaxing personality - and its interior space is massive. In town use, though the bulk affects its parking practicality a little, the suspension becomes only marginally more fidgety. The floating suspension makes a car like this vaguer and more inclined to pitching than a strut-and-springs model, and the steering sensations are a little remote. I also disliked the pedal positioning, and the left-foot parking brake arrangement drives you nuts, even if it is a Mercedes feature.

At the other end of the scale is the little AX diesel (priced at pounds 7,775). The AX has long been a popular small car with a neat, chic design (making good use of its space for the overall size), an easygoing ride (if not quite in the Metro or Nissan Micra class) and good, responsive steering and handling. On a slow incline on a motorway with a full complement of passengers, you certainly notice the need for some substantial extra pressure on the throttle, or maybe even a down-change, and on the flat you shouldn't expect a fast standing-start - even unladen. But the AX diesel makes a fine urban second car, and it isn't unthinkable as a first one. At motorway speeds in fifth, it's quiet and civilised - and it's only a little tractor-like at idle. The Peugeot-Citroen engine is very clean by the usual diesel standards. Boot space is also good for the class. A split rear seat, sunroof, central locking and electric front windows are fitted as standard.-

(Photograph omitted)

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