Citroën C5 Tourer 2.0 HDi
The Citroën C5 Tourer took me serenely across Europe. But the drive was so stress-free it made me nostalgic for a car with a few rough edges
Price: from £18,595 (test VTR+ model £19,595)
Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 138bhp at 4,000rpm, 236lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual (six-speed auto optional), front-wheel drive
Performance: 124mph, 0-62 in 12.1sec, 46.3mpg official average
This is a road test with a difference. The subject is the Citroën C5 Tourer, the estate car version of the new C5 range, and touring is what I have done with it. Our first test of the C5 was based on brief encounters with left-hand-drive saloons shortly before their details and settings were finalised for production, but this extended test is of a UK-specification Tourer exactly like one you can buy.
The Tourer's tour took me right across the western European motorway network to Slovenia, a green, prosperous and beautiful land fully comfortable with its recently earned EU status. The C5 covered 2,755 miles at an average of 42.7mpg, which may be a lower figure than the "official" average of 46.3mpg but is still a healthy real-world figure for a large, swift and capacious estate car.
So I could get to know the C5 extremely well. While doing so I could examine the fit between cars, humans and roads across Europe, for the fit is changing with surprising and worrying speed. And I concluded that the C5, and others of its kind, have become too good for the world they inhabit.
First the fit between this particular car and this particular human. It's not quite right. The brake pedal is too near the driver and the accelerator pedal is too far away, so you have to bring your knee up close to the steering wheel when moving from go-pedal to stop-pedal. This takes valuable milliseconds and means your right leg is always in a compromised position and eventually aches. This elementary mistake is surprising.
Then there's the broadness of the centre side pillar, which obliterates your over-the-right-shoulder view. And there's the downside of an ostensibly neat trick, the way the indicators always flash a minimum three times for just one touch of the stalk. Great for low-effort signalling of overtaking intentions, not so good if you've just mis-indicated because the road doesn't go where you thought it did. Simpler would be better.
Another problem afflicts several cars in the Peugeot-Citroën group, but only right-hand-drive ones. The glovebox is ludicrously small given the size of its lid, because the space also has to accommodate a chunk of wiring which would be uneconomic to shift to the other side of the dashboard (bear in mind that most cars are conceived with left-hand drive as the priority). However, the glovebox is air-conditioned, which is a major bonus for your chocolate's wellbeing when stuck in a two-hour queue for an autostrada toll point post-Venice.
That's enough downsides. Upsides outnumber them. Chief of these is the serenity with which the C5 devours motorways and smooths over bumps. And this is the mainstream model of the C5 pantheon, the version that fleet managers will favour because it lacks the hydropneumatic suspension hitherto obligatory in a big Citroën.
Does this matter? I hate to say this, because I like the idea of a hydropneumatic Citroën making its lonely, history-soaked statement in an increasingly uniform world, but it doesn't. This coil-sprung, cheaper C5 has that rare commodity in a modern car, a genuinely smooth ride over poor roads marred only by a curious side-shuffle if the bump is a big one. The steering, too, is better; it's still soft and a touch vague, so it wanders on a straight road until you learn the right anticipatory movements, but it's less of a problem here than in the reality-disconnect hydropneumatic C5.
This test car's engine is that mainstay of middle-management motoring, the 2.0-litre, 138bhp HDi turbodiesel used also by Ford. It's smooth and quiet in the way of today's better diesels, but if you catch it off-boost at low engine speeds, such as when negotiating a tight mountain turn in second gear, it can take a while to build up steam again. This is a hefty, 1,655kg car after all.
Attention to the details of door sealing and soundproofing contributes to the C5's serenity, plus the fact that in sixth gear the engine is turning only lazily, 2,000rpm or so, at the legal UK motorway limit. There's a near-German sense of quality to the interior, too, in both a visual and a tactile sense. Those German-lampooning ads ("Très Bonn" etc) are justified, although the idea of a stationary switch console set in the centre of the steering wheel is Citroën's alone. This is wider than that of the C4, the first car to feature it, and sometimes you can catch your digits between spoke and console when twirling the wheel in a brisk manoeuvre.
As an estate car it works well, as you would expect, with a retractable load cover and a very useful rechargeable torch which reverts to the status of boot light when reinstalled. It looks good, too, with its glamorous wraparound tail-lights even if, like most cars in its class, it's bigger than it ought to be with all that entails for parking and passing in tight places. Safety legislation is the reason, obliging carmakers to add space outboard of the occupants to help absorb side impacts (that's also why those centre pillars are so thick), and making noses long and bulbous. Watching cars drive off the P&O ferry at Calais, as we waited to load, brought home just how ungainly most modern cars now look when seen side-on.
How, then, is the C5 too good for the modern world? Driving across Europe, I realised that drivers have now given up trying to enjoy driving. They have caved in under relentless pressure, be it green-tinged or the result of lowest-common-denominator attempts to reduce accidents by lowering speed limits or enforcing them more strictly. Even in Italy, once a hotbed of red-blooded motoring, drivers now amble disconnectedly and uncaringly once away from the motorways, their attention wandering, nothing engaging them.
In the ultra-low-stress, serene C5, this passive outlook and the enforced low speeds make driving dull because there's no stimulus and nothing much to do. So I think we've reached a plateau of progress. The imperative to make cars ever swifter, quieter, more automated, more effortless is no longer relevant, because otherwise we'll disengage from the driving process even more than we have already.
Future cars will be smaller and lighter because that's the obvious way to reduce CO2 output, and such cars will inevitably be noisier in the cabin and more involving to drive. Citroën, arch-innovator in the past, might make its next C5 in that mould. Let's hope so.
Ford Mondeo 2.0 TDCi estate: from £19,795
Capable, sophisticated estate car with keener driving responses but less serenity than the C5. Big, wide and spacious.
Renault Laguna Sport Tourer 2.0 dCi 150: from £19,900
No beauty outside but admirably luxurious feeling inside, and matches C5 for effortless progress.
Volkswagen Passat 2.0 TDi estate: from £19,325
Popular and comfortable, with an excellent ride and now fitted with a quieter engine.
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