Motoring: Time for some tough torque - Roger Bell is impressed by the muscular new Citroen XM 2.5TD Room to move: Citroen's XM 2.5TD / Road Test

THE TORQUE generated by an engine, its twisting power, is not the usual stuff of saloon-bar conversations. It should be. Torque represents the muscle behind snappy acceleration; and Citroen's new XM 2.5TD musters more of it than any rival. Many larger, more powerful petrol engines, including Citroen's own 3.0-litre V6, do not get close. Even BMW's acclaimed six-cylinder turbo diesel is well beaten, although it does develop more horsepower.

The introduction of a new high- torque diesel is among a range of sales-boosting improvements made by Citroen to its flagging flagship, still shunned by the British as a Gallic oddity. With prices starting at pounds 15,995 (down from pounds 17,590) for the petrol 2.0 16v SX, you get a lot of car for your money. The 2.5-litre turbodiesel, which supplements the existing 2.1TD version, is more expensive: pounds 20,525 for the saloon, pounds 20,995 for the estate tested here. But it still undercuts the opposition.

All 15 XM models get improved suspension (already unique, and very effective), restyled facias and new trim and switches. Fears about reliability have been allayed by the introduction of a three-year, unlimited mileage warranty, backed by roadside breakdown recovery. With these moves, Citroen is hoping that some of the success of the ZX and Xantia, the models largely responsible for the company's booming UK sales, will rub off on the XM.

Family holdalls do not come much roomier than the XM estate, which is 10in longer than the saloon and several inches taller. Legroom in the back is sufficient for beanpole passengers, and the extended deck is of camp-bed length, almost as long as the Volvo 940's. Comfort is a strong suit, too. Complementing armchair front seats is suspension, dubbed Hydractive 2, that floats the car over foundation bumps, though it deals less smoothly with surface abrasions.

Gas/oil springs, activated by a central high-pressure hydraulic system that also works the brakes and steering, are the secret. No matter how heavily the boot is loaded, the self-levelling suspension prevents tail droop - ideal for an estate. By pulling a lever, the suspension can be lowered to ease loading or raised to increase ground clearance on rough roads.

Despite its soft ride, the XM handles crisply. Body lean is controlled, so that the car can corner 'flat' despite its supple springs. Steering is sharp to the point of being nervous. As the touch-sensitive brakes require delicacy, too, clumsy drivers should look elsewhere: the XM is an acquired taste that rewards finesse as readily as it punishes errors.

Its new 2.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine is as gentle on the ears as it is on the wallet. When idling, there is no mistaking the offensive diesel clatter. As car speed rises, though, the noise of the engine subsides. (It is fitted with counterbalance shafts, like those used by Porsche and Saab, that smooth away vibration.)

All-out performance of the 120mph 2.5TD estate is nothing special: floor the throttle at 2,000rpm in fourth gear, though, and the big Citroen lunges forward as effortlessly as an elephant rolls logs. To match its energetic overtaking in a petrol rival would mean dropping a gear or two and racing the engine. All this - and 40 miles to the gallon as well.

Citroen is determined to thrust the slow-selling XM back into the limelight through keen pricing. Anyone in the market for a big, roomy, comfortable car that goes well on little fuel would be foolish to ignore it. Apart from being good value, the XM is one of the last true 'characters' left in a market of lookalikes.

SPECIFICATIONS

Citroen XM 2.5TD VSX estate, pounds 20,995. Engine: 2445cc 12- valve four-cylinder turbodiesel, 130bhp at 4,300rpm, 217lb ft of torque at 2,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60m in 11 seconds, top speed 120mph. Fuel consumption: 38-42mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi A6 2.5TDI estate, pounds 23,116. New name (and mild facelift) for the superseded 100. Stylish, roomy car; refined turbodiesel engine. All-galvanised body.

Ford Granada 2.5TD Ghia estate, pounds 18,795. Prices of Ford's handsome estate start at pounds 16,845 for the turbodiesel, pounds 1,000 less than the cheapest XM estate, which it rivals for space and equipment.

BMW 525tds Touring, pounds 23,950. Powered by the world's best diesel engine, virtually indistinguishable from a petrol 'six'. Good driver's car. Not as roomy as the XM.

Renault Espace 2.1TD RXE, pounds 21,175. Best of the van-shaped MPVs: acres of room, versatile seating/luggage arrangement, interesting styling, durable body/chassis unit. Diesel a bit slow and not that economical.

Volvo 940 2.4TD SE, pounds 21,595. The archetypal boxcar estate: big, imposing and ungainly. Roomy, and strong on practicality, safety and space. Six-cylinder engine fairly smooth, but lacks muscle.

(Photograph omitted)

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