Motoring: Batten down the hatches: Citroen's ZX 16V is a strong GTi contender, but it lacks that charming old zaniness, says Roger Bell

CITROEN is no longer making quirky cars for individualists. The zany model that charms as much as it irritates is a car of the past. In joining the establishment - with great showroom success, judging by recent sales - Citroen has abandoned its heritage in the name of commercialism. It follows that the latest ZX, the car to beat in the big-selling Escort class, is predictably good but well short of memorable.

The ZX 16V 2.0i (insurance group 15) that we tested is top gun in the new eight-model range of three-door ZXs, distinguished by a waistline 'kick' which constitutes a novelty on a car that largely panders to convention. The 16V has all the usual go-faster accoutrements of a performance hatchback, including a feisty engine, plastic-extended wheelarches, aerodynamic add-ons, stiff suspension and wide low-profile tyres. What it palpably lacks is a strong, stirring character.

The three-door ZXs trade a little practicality and convenience for a cash saving of just over pounds 1,300 and rakish good looks, though Citroen's reference to 'flowing lines normally associated with coupes' is a little whimsical. Cabin and boot space, both generous by class standards, are not affected by the loss of rear side doors. But getting in and out is, even though the front doors have been widened and the seats made to tip conveniently; those at the back, split 60/40, fold forward to extend the big boot.

The ZX 16V promises more excitement than it creates. Its two- litre engine launches Citroen's answer to the Ford Escort RS2000 and Vauxhall Astra GSi into slingshot action with an assailing vroom but not quite the intoxicating spirit expected from 155 horsepower. All-out acceleration, bettered by several cheaper rivals, is less impressive than the engine's ability to throw a solid punch without being extended. Although fairly quiet and refined when throttled back, sprint gearing makes it fussily wearing on motorways. For relaxed long-distance cruising, the rangy ZX diesel is superior.

All ZXs with power steering handle with a niftiness that borders on the nervous. The 16V is even sharper, darting into corners with an alacrity that some manufacturers would consider too edgy. Not for them the 16V's knife- edged responses; more stodge in the steering, they argue, means a greater feeling of security.

Not to this driver. I like the 16V's agility, the way it turns as if by telepathy. When cracking on, you do not steer round bends so much as think the car through them. As with the steering, so with the powerful anti-lock brakes and sharp clutch: delicacy is the watchword for fluent progress.

Seats that hug your hips better than most, but not as well as they might, are part of the 16V's sports-

saloon package. So is a ride that feels harsh and wooden on all but the smoothest roads. Sombre interior decor - red piping is the only relief to all-over black - does little to reflect the 16V's elan, although it is not short of equipment. Its competitive pounds 14,995 price includes remote-control, high-security locks (you 'blip' them open when approaching the car), electric windows and sunroof (pretty well de rigueur at this level) and alloy wheels. What a pity you do not also get the delightful radio control fitted to some Citroens and Peugeots.

Although it faces up to the beleagured GTi competition with authority, pound for pound the 16V does not impress quite as much as some cheaper ZXs. It is a good car but not a great one.

(Photograph omitted)

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