Road Test: A dedicated follower of fashion: These days Citroen eschews idiosyncracy in favour of accomplishment. The Xantia saloon brings new standards to fleet customers, reports Roger Bell

CITROEN describes its Xantia as 'the car to eclipse all others'. Can France's new middleweight really be that good?

Not the top 2.0 16V, which disappoints as much as it dazzles. Handling and roadholding are brilliant, the roomy interior free from the tattiness that once marred French cars. Refinement and performance are short of expectations. It falls to a lesser model, the test 1.8SX, to justify the advertising hyperbole.

The Xantia, one size up from the highly successful ZX, replaces the BX that lifted Citroen from bit player to stardom in Britain. Ten years ago, Citroens were seen as quirky and untrustworthy. By turning its attention to accomplished cars rather than idiosyncratic ones, under Peugeot's wing, Citroen has since dramatically increased its share of the UK market (first-quarter sales were a record 22,490). It looks set to do even better with the Xantia, aimed at the heart of the lucrative fleet market, which accounts for 70 per cent of all sales in the upper-medium sector.

By July, there will be 15 models on offer, six of them diesels, costing from pounds 13,000 to pounds 17,000. Engines, all with four cylinders (and all bar one with eight valves when 16 is de rigueur), range in output from 71bhp to 155. Some models are available with automatic transmission. All reflect Citroen's endeavour to please throughout Europe, not just in France.

Without its give-away chevrons, the Bertone-shaped Xantia is not as distinctive as Citroen make out, though its hatchback tail, profiled to look like a saloon's, is an interesting feature. The styling follows rather than leads fashion. It is in the suspension department that the newcomer bucks convention - and eclipses its peers. Top models have a computer-controlled system, developed from the luxury XM's, which automatically adjusts between firm and supple. The 1.8SX has a simpler self-levelling set-up, using gas/oil 'springs' inherited from the BX. It works brilliantly, like a magic carpet. No class rival smooths away bumps so well as the fluent 1.8 Xantia.

Comfort of such quality is usually achieved at the expense of sharp handling. Not here. The 1.8SX's nifty assisted steering is aided by ZX-like rear suspension that 'points' the wheels into corners to improve response and stability. You get the best of both worlds - comfort and agility - at the wheel of this car. Brakes that respond too sharply for indelicate feet are a legacy of Citroen's old habits.

Performance is indifferent, as the Xantia's safety-first weight stops it being too lively. The 1.8's engine is impressive for being quiet, rather than potent. Nor is economy anything special: its two main rivals - 1.8 versions of the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Cavalier - give better mileage, according to official figures. Neither provides as much passenger space, however, the Xantia's exceptionally long wheelbase stretching rear leg- room. Boot space is adequate.

Soft furnishings and smart decor make for pleasant cabin ambience, with thoughtful detailing. The radio, for instance, can be controlled by buttons on the steering wheel - other manufacturers please copy. Although there is no air bag, the solid, rattle-free 1.8SX is comprehensively equipped, nicely finished and well protected against theft: entering a PIN number on a keypad immobilises the engine. In a class of high achievers, the 1.8SX certainly shines.

SPECIFICATIONS

Citroen Xantia 1.8SX, pounds 13,295. Engine: 1761cc, four cylinders, eight valves. Power: 103bhp at 6000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 116mph, 0-60mph in 10.2 seconds. Fuel consumption: 25.9mpg (urban), 46.3mpg (56mph), 37.2mpg (75mph).

COMPARISONS

Ford Mondeo 1.8GLX, pounds 13,155. The best new Ford in ages, available as four-door saloon and same-price five-door hatchback. Anonymous styling but well made, comfortable, pleasant to drive. Lacks Xantia's modest flair.

Mitsubishi Galant 1.8GLSi five-door, pounds 13,150. Smart, roomy and comfortable. Performance and economy of 16-valve engine better than Xantia's.

Nissan Primera 2.0SLX, pounds 13,100. Good driver's car with strong Xantia-beating performance from 16-valve engine. Crisp handling, beautifully made.

Peugeot 405 1.8GR, pounds 13,085. Still competitive despite its age. Smarter inside roomy cabin after recent facelift. Same engine as Xantia, so performance and economy indifferent. Crisp handling, comfortable ride.

Rover 620i, pounds 13,995. A Honda Accord attractively dressed and well assembled by Rover. Looks and feels classy, even as base 2.0. Up-range models more powerful, faster. Cabin design and decor excellent.

(Photograph omitted)

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