Motoring: Citroen goes for a round with Golf

Citroen found itself a new market with the ZX, now with the Xsara it's competing with the Volkswagen, says John Fordham

WHEN THE Citroen ZX entered the French company's medium-hatch lists in 1991, much was made of the fact that this dapper and practical little-big car was a betrayal of Citroen family values. It didn't flop itself on to the ground and hide its wheels when parked, like a sleeping beast, only to rise up and stretch when the engine was started. The traitor had conventional suspension, of all bizarre quirks, and the company was rumoured to be attempting to pull the mainstream punter, that nervous, value-for-money stick-in-the-mud so different from the shrugging, arty phlegmatic who had been its ideal customer.

Joe and Joanna Public had previously been put off by the Maigret-transporters' reputation for interesting engineering wackiness that nobody, other than a lifelong Disque Bleu smoker in a beret, could possibly fix when it went wrong. The ZX certainly changed all that because people started buying it in droves.

The Citroen Xsara, now on sale in 16 five-door versions, is the quisling ZX's child and heir, and it's aiming directly at customers preoccupied with the Ford Escort, Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra. In common with many leading manufacturers in an increasingly homogenised market where "added-value" is the button to push, Citroen has realised that it's the bells and whistles that count - and so has fitted half the Xsaras in the range with air-conditioning, and included power steering, adjustable driving position, steering-column radio control, and a variety of other gegaws, on all of them. The result is nevertheless something of a lifeless product, avoiding any hint of the innovative history of Citroen cars. But it's roomy (with a boot that's voluminous for a car this size) and high-performing for its class. Only its relatively high price tells you that Citroen aren't exactly giving you this significantly enhanced family-hatch package for nothing.

Underneath its chic and fluent shell, the Xsara is still a ZX - it sits on the same chassis, with more or less the same suspension, though the old floorpan has been extended by four inches to give the Xsara the longest cabin dimensions in its class. Engines range from 1.4 to 1.8 litres, with top-range models performing equally to anything else in their league that doesn't call itself a GTi.

A great deal of attention has also been paid to rigidity and strength of construction, something of a question-mark over Citroen in recent times, and the new model's brakes are excellent. Coupled with nimble and secure handling, and immense fluency over bad roads, this adds up to a much more impressive package than you might guess from its rather bland appearance (testers were shocked that hardly any of the local citizenry in the Xsara's homeland seemed to notice it), and the makers' intention to build a car that's easy to live with and drive has certainly come good. Fuel economy is reasonable, and outgoings are reduced by substantially lengthened service intervals.

The Citroen Xsara is well enough thought-out and built to challenge strong but ageing rivals like the Escort and the closely-related Peugeot 306, though to give it a real edge Citroen might have thrown in a passenger airbag and anti-lock brakes as standard. Its real enemy is the new VW Golf which exudes quality from every nook and cranny. However, the Xsara's agility and lightness of touch, and an alertness belying its weight, makes it a strong contender nonetheless. !

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

CITRON XSARA 1.6SX: pounds 13,720

GOING PLACES: Very smooth and refined four-cylinder engine, good gear-ratios balancing torque and cruising, 0-60mph and 30-70mph overtaking in approximately 13 seconds.

SAFETY FIRST/HANGING OUT: Much-improved build-quality; firm, progressive brakes (anti-lock optional); nimble handling and cornering; driver's airbag (passenger and side airbags optional).

CREATURE COMFORTS: Supple, absorbent suspension so well-behaved on bad roads; excellent driver's seat positioning, legroom and general cabin space for class; huge boot; front electric windows; remote central locking; height and reach adjustable steering; split-folding rear seat; automatic air-conditioning or sunroof standard in SX models and up.

BANGS PER BUCK: High equipment levels even in basic form, nice touches like gas-operated bonnet struts increase sense of refinement.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Rather dull appearance; unexpectedly cheapskate interior; road noise.

STAR QUALITY: Space, pace, easy to live with.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Ford Escort 1.6LX (pounds 13,695): steadily improved over the years from a bad start, but dated and unsophisticated in contemporary company; Peugeot 306 1.6XS (pounds 13,945): still the one to beat for handling and ride, but not so roomy or well-equipped; VW Golf 1.6SE (pounds 14,820): the all-round class leader, especially in its new edition.

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