MOTORING / Auto Biography: The Citroen Xantia in 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
FOR all the entirely appropriate praise heaped on the Citroen ZX, the company's smartest move of recent times, it has left traditional Citroen fans drumming their fingers. The ZX is clever, agile, chic and practical. But although better than most of the Escort-class cars it's aimed at, it's better at the same game. Whatever happened to the company's legendary habit of making up its own rules?

The Citroen Xantia, launched last month and currently swirling through the TV ads to the theme of Chariots of Fire, lets Citroen traditionalists relax. Its diving bonnet line, projecting nose, big glass areas and rear wheels pushed to the corners are reminiscent of many classics of the marque. It also retains the hydro-pneumatic suspension system of its forerunner, the BX - which makes the car rise like a flying saucer when you start the engine, and copes with battered inner-city tarmac as few others can. In its more expensive versions, the Xantia uses a 'smart' suspension design managed by computer, which counteracts the cornering-roll and faintly nausea-inducing pitching that used to be the price of this kind of comfort.

It isn't simply that Citroen has uprated an earlier model; the BX was never a stylish car, and the newcomer - priced at pounds 13,950 - certainly is. Its main virtue is a very strong impression of luxury at a mid-market price, with comfortable furniture, soft but not sloppy suspension, and improved quality of construction. Almost all the mechanisms operate quietly - including the handbrake (which makes a noise like someone gently punching a sandbag) and the door catches. The only exception is the engine, an adapted four-cylinder design from the Peugeot/Citroen stable that makes a much more intrusive noise than most of the Japanese competition. The Xantia's interior isn't anything to write home about either, lacking the traditional Citroen flair. But this is a well-assembled and imaginative car - and in its higher-powered versions, with their computer-run suspension systems, it has all the potential to be an exceptional one. Non-shift drivers will have to wait two months for the automatic versions.

GOING PLACES: Lively, if unremarkable four-cylinder engines adapted from ZX and Peugeot; 0-60mph in 9.4 sec (2.0i version); flexible and with good pulling power at low speeds, but not exceptionally quiet. Gearshift good, clutch effortless, easy car to drive. Automatics available later in year.

STAYING ALIVE: Improved crash protection compared to earlier Citroens, with redesigned side-impact beams and subframe. No pre-tensioned seatbelts or airbag provision (to be introduced in 1994). Anti-lock braking standard on SX and VSX models. Excellent ride, particularly at low speeds. Safe and predictable cornering on standard models, adjustable in tautness and resistance to pitching on top-range models equipped with Hydractive II. Superb visibility.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Rather dull rep-car interior, but very plush upholstery. Split folding rear seat, good headroom and boot-room. Rear legroom well up to standard for the class. Good driving position with height-adjustable steering.

BANGS PER BUCK: Anti- lock brakes, power steering, remote central locking, electric mirrors, windows and tilt / slide sunroof all standard on SX and VSX models. Average to good fuel consumption, around 24mpg in town, 36mpg at constant motorway speeds. Price: pounds 13,950.

STAR QUALITY: Distinctive, safe, stylish, comfortable and better-built and more orthodox in handling than earlier hydro-pneumatic Citroens. Good spec and performance.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Engines noisy in contrast to generally luxurious feel. Interior styling boring and un-Citroen-like. Gear ratios generate noise at high speed.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Cavalier 2.0 GLS (pounds 13,185): reliable, economical, but not comparable in originality, character or ride. Nissan Primera 2.0 SLX (pounds 13,100): strong competitor in terms of quality, performance and road-manners, but blander.

(Photograph omitted)