Motoring: The dream car that's a nightmare to own

Citroen has gained a reputation for its maverick approach: mechanically advanced vehicles, individualistic in style - but often flawed. John Simister asks: does a change of bosses at the French car-maker mean a change in its approach?

I have just been driving a Citroen XM. The car is a rare sight on our roads, so perhaps I should remind you what it is. It's large, wedge-shaped and entirely unlike any other car known to the modern world. And it may surprise you to know that it is still in production.

However, last year's XM sales in the UK failed to reach a three-figure number. It's a vicious circle: the car is both outlandish and intriguing, so you have to be an individualist to want one. Then, when you come to sell, you need to find another individualist to take it off your hands. There aren't many who are prepared to sink large sums of money into the uncertain marshlands of automotive outspokenness, so a second-hand XM is worth little. Knowing this, people don't buy new ones.

It gets worse. XMs are complex cars, with computer-controlled hydropneumatic suspension and lots of electronickery. And there are times, quite a lot of times if the XM is oldish, and has a V6 engine and an automatic gearbox, when full function is by no means guaranteed. "Told you so," people will say to the owner of an early XM (they came out in 1989) so afflicted. Repairs cost more than the car's already depressed value, and that's that.

There's a breaker's yard near me which contains many XMs. Some look to be in good order, but they don't work any more and it's not worth anyone's while to mend them. They're not rusty, not decayed, not even old in normal car-life terms. But they are dead. Casualties of technology versus economics, and the economics have won. It's a shocking waste.

Citroen knows all this, of course. Wilfully wacky cars do not generate solid mass-market sales, which is why recent Citroens are much more mainstream. Take the Saxo and the Xsara. To look at, they could have been made by almost anyone. To drive, they feel like Peugeots (not that there is anything wrong with that). This is because Peugeot owns Citroen and Peugeots, fundamentally, are what they are. In the UK, the Saxo is the fastest-selling Citroen ever.

In the short term, this is all very well. But when a car company has a history of innovation as illustrious as Citroen's, it seems a bad long- term image strategy to throw it all away. Far better, surely, to manage it properly, emphasise the good points, make the cars objects of desire in their own right. And, finally, something is to be done.

It is happening because Jacques Calvet, the charismatic, autocratic, outspoken president of the Peugeot-Citroen group, retired last year and his replacement, Jean-Martin Folz, is rearranging the furniture. Peugeot and Citroen each have a new boss, and from now on the watchwords are to be innovation, growth and profitability. The last two are obvious business goals. But to put innovation at the top of the list is tantamount to a new dawn for Citroen.

So, what can we expect in the future? For Peugeot, it will probably be business as usual. The cars are attractive and well-regarded, and there wasn't much wrong with the product plan anyway, as the next arrival, a small car to be called either 206 or 207, will show later in the year. For Citroen there won't be a wholesale return to admirable oddities like the GS and CX, but we should see a more daring, leading-edge approach of the sort that has served Audi so well.

One rumour suggests a "new 2CV". This wouldn't be a retro-look plaything along the lines of the new Beetle and the new Mini, but a car to recreate the original 2CV's functionality. It wouldn't look like a 2CV, nor would that be its name, but it would fulfil a similar role using modern technology and, probably, a Saxo-based understructure.

For now, though, it's the Xantia that comes closest to how a future mainstream Citroen should be. That means visually recognisable as a Citroen, handsome, technologically upbeat with a modern version of the hydropneumatic suspension pioneered by the DS more than four decades ago, yet free of the needless strangeness that put so many people off earlier Citroens. This is the key car with which to link Citroen's past and its future.

And the XM? Think of it as the last relic of the maverick years. The top version, the one I have been driving, with the new joint-venture Peugeot-Citroen-Renault V6, a 2.9-litre engine with 24 valves, 194bhp and a thrilling growl of a sound, is the quickest XM I have ever driven. That's right; an XM V6 automatic moving under its own power, unlike many of its ancestors. But it's still wilfully odd.

That innovation is once again on the Citroen agenda is great news for anyone who rails against deadening uniformity. This time, though, let's hope the company remembers why people prefer to admire someone else's XM rather than buy one of their own.

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