You interact more with a car than you do with either a fridge or a cooker and operating it calls upon a wider repertoire of human skills. It is the most expensive consumer durable that most of us will ever buy. But it is still a manufactured good. For many car buyers, the story ends there. Why else would anyone buy a Daewoo, for example?
Into this marketing mindset is pitched Citroen's new Xsara. It looks presentable, its glovebox contains holders for cups and credit cards, red indicators below the rear side windows tell you if the child locks are activated, and the rear shelf can be stowed behind the rear seats' lockable backrests should you need to carry a high load.
This is all very good. The Xsara, a car of Ford Escort size which replaces the Citroen ZX, also has a particularly flat and comfortable ride, it steers eagerly into corners with minimum lurch and heave, and the 1.8- litre, 16-valve, SX-trim version I drove had a quiet engine which gave lively, big-hearted acceleration and the potential for a top speed of 121mph. Other engines are 1.4 and 1.6-litre petrol units, and a pair of 1.9-litre diesels, one of which is turbocharged and very muscular.
There are some less convenient aspects of the Xsara, however. The interior, whose design motif is curvy but not too aesthetically unsettling, is claimed to be roomier than that of its ZX predecessor, but the flat shape of the driver's seat cushion obliges you to push the seat a long way back so your thighs are properly supported. The steering wheel is adjustable for reach as well as rake, but it reduces foot and knee space for the passenger behind you. The rearward view past the thick rear pillars and through the narrow rear window is poor, too.
Otherwise, there is not much wrong with the Xsara. It's comfortable and it is quite fun to drive. (Did you know that, in the US, "fun to drive" is itself a commodity? "Our 1998 models include some extra fun-to-drive," a marketing executive might say. But the Xsara is, of course, French.)
Yes, of course! French! And it's a Citroen! Just when you were thinking it sounded quite a reasonable prospect, here comes its secret weapon. Citroens are interesting, slightly off the mainstream but enticing to the intelligent, innovation-receptive buyer. Few other manufacturers have such a history of doing things differently. Sometimes the results have failed to find a mass market, but the Xantia, for example, shows that eye-catching looks and technical cleverness need not frighten people away.
It should do the exact opposite, actually. Most cars are pretty good these days, so you can take the functional stuff for granted unless you're a real car nut. What matters is the car's image, the kudos attached to its brand, the messages it sends. This is why Audis exist alongside VWs, for example, and it should be why Citroens exist alongside Peugeots (both are produced by the same manufacturing group, and share many components).
Citroen's brand image has negative connotations, based mainly around technical complexity, but these are fading into distant memory. It also has positive connotations, and in a brand-sensitive world this is to be exploited. Peugeots should be stylish, well-engineered but conventional, as they always have been, while Citroens should be individual, innovative, forward-looking.
Look at the Xsara again. Doesn't quite fit the brief, does it? Were it not for the double-chevron badge, this car could have been built by anyone. It is scarcely believable that Citroen has thrown away its most precious asset. The Xsara is an entirely decent car, but it's not really a Citroen. And that, to anyone who regards a car as more interesting than a fridge, must be a mistake. Even if, as in the 1.8 SX, air conditioning comes as standard.
Citroen Xsara 1.8 SX 16V
Price: pounds 14,500. Engine: 1,761cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 112bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 121mph, 0-60 in 9.7sec. Fuel consumption: 29-34mpg
Fiat Brava 1.8 ELX, pounds 14,687: A fine example of how to make a car look individual without alienating the buyer. Well equipped, lively, good value.
Peugeot 306 1.8 GLX, pounds 14,445: Mechanically similar to Xsara, much stronger marque identity. Feels cheap inside, `GLX' designation sounds glitzy, but great to drive.
Renault Megane 2.0 RXE, pounds 14,965: Bigger engine but no more power, lots of equipment and high comfort. Good car, deserves more modern engines.
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 SE, pounds 14,500 approx: To be launched here in November, fourth-generation Golf builds on strong identity, brings new levels of quality to a family hatch.