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Motoring: The Independent Road Test - Some top notes, but none exactly floral: Are diesel engines desirable? Phil Llewellin is impressed after 10,000 miles in the Citroen ZX Aura. But, below, the view on the species is less than rosy

THE AVERAGE British motorist clocks about 10,000 miles a year. My wife and I have just completed that distance in only three months, driving a comfortable, well-equipped Citroen ZX Aura powered by the increasingly successful French manufacturer's 1.9-litre turbocharged diesel engine. Citroen's name is no longer synonymous with the eccentric styling and engineering that made the 2CV and the DS such fascinating cars. But even the marque's most fanatical devotees admit that today's more conventional approach makes commercial sense.

There have been a few minor problems, such as a slight but irritating noise and judder from the front brakes. The only real hiccup was due to human error. Three gallons of petrol were pumped into the tank one Friday lunchtime, during a stop at a rural filling station where we-serve-

you is the name of the game.

Looking on the bright side, this was a good opportunity to check the efficiency of the Citroen Assist scheme. Operated by National Breakdown, it provides a year's round-the-

clock assistance and recovery service when you buy a new Citroen. The ZX was collected within an hour, taken to the nearest dealer and returned the following Monday afternoon. We were offered a replacement to keep us mobile while the fuel system was being drained.

Self-service filling stations make it impossible to blame anyone other than yourself for putting the wrong stuff in the tank. They also focus attention on the fact that diesel is a smelly, sticky, frothy fuel that tends to spew from the filler unless you are careful and patient.

Diesels have always been associated with economy. The turbocharged ZX combines that essential quality with quite sporting performance characteristics. The engine is a little sluggish at low revs, but delivers strong, smooth, mid-range acceleration for wafting up hills and overtaking in safety when the turbo starts doing its power-boosting stuff.

Fuel consumption figures ranging from 32mpg to 48mpg reflect just about everything from long, hard drives to more sedate local motoring. The average of 40.6mpg is excellent for such a lively car. The case for the fuel-efficient diesel engine would be even more compelling if the Government changed the tax structure that makes the fuel almost as expensive as 95-octane unleaded petrol. In France, where diesels account for well over a third of all new-car sales, diesel costs 30 per cent less than petrol.

At the end of 10,000 miles, the biggest single item in the logbook is pounds 66.22 for the 6,000-mile service. 'Dust on the pads' was the explanation for the complaint about the front brakes. They were cleaned, but that noise-cum-judder problem soon returned.

Unexpected costs have amounted to nothing more serious than the pounds 5 charged to repair a puncture. Changing the wheel was a filthy chore, even on a dry day, because the spare and the jack are stowed under the boot and exposed to all the muck on the road.

Although legal, the spare was not the same type or size as the other four tyres. The handbook does urge you to put the punctured tyre back on the car as soon as it has been repaired, but does not spell out Citroen's cheapskate policy of fitting a 'universal spare' right across the range.

Performance and economy go hand-in-glove with qualities that make the ZX a delight to drive on roads that put a premium on ride and handling characteristics. The diesel feels a little less crisp than the lighter, petrol-engined ZX, but good power-

assisted steering and very efficient suspension - which includes rear wheels that provide a slight element of steering input - make this a beautifully balanced car. It soaks up bumps and flows from corner to corner with outstanding fluency, composure and agility.

This is not the roomiest hatchback in its class, but the rear seat can be slid backwards and forwards to increase passenger or luggage space. The standard specification also includes central locking, alloy wheels and an adjustable steering wheel.

Diesels used to be notoriously noisy and dirty. This one rattles and puffs smoke when started cold, and is not exactly silent at tickover, but it could be mistaken for a petrol engine on the open road.

In my judgement, the main drawback after 10,000 enjoyable and almost trouble-free miles is the risk of coming into contact with the fuel. My nose is still trying to detect the 'floral topnotes' claimed for Esso's new diesel fuel. The blurb makes it sound fragrant enough to be dabbed behind the ears]

(Photograph omitted)