Motoring: Citroen Xantia Estate Road test - Only a light smoker

The French have done their bit to make diesel cars socially acceptable in a market ruled by image and snobbery. Spurred on by the availability of cheap fuel oil in France (but not here), the Peugeot/Citroen (PSA) combine has been at the forefront of the diesel revolution. Without compromising economy - the raison d'etre of the compression-ignition engine invented by Dr Rudolf Diesel at the turn of the century - PSA has helped nurture the diesel to respectability by raising performance and refinement to levels once thought unattainable.

There is, however, no room for complacency. Admirable though its efforts have been, the French giant has seen its stalwart mid-range oil burner slip recently from pacemaker to also-ran. The long-serving eight-valve 1.9 turbo was (and remains) adequate for cars such as the lower-medium Peugeot 306 and Citroen ZX, but something bigger and better was required for the Citroen Xantia and Peugeot 406 if PSA was to retain its competitive edge against super-frugal new rivals like VW's direct-injection Passat TDi. Enter a new 12-valve 2.1 turbo-diesel to supplement (not replace) the 1.9.

Small though it is, the increase in capacity of 183cc makes a big difference when paired with new free-breathing valvegear - the lungs of an engine, petrol or diesel. The more life-giving oxygen goes in, the greater the performance. Power has been increased over the 1.9's by 20 per cent, torque (the muscle behind the turbo-diesel's strong midrange acceleration) by 25 per cent. It shows.

Put your foot down and the 2.1 Xantia leaps forward with a vigour that surprises diesel-despising petrolheads. There is nothing tardy about this car's punchy performance. The 2.0 petrol Xantia is quicker all out to 60 mph from rest, but so what? From, say, 30 to 50mph in third - a typical overtaking burst - the diesel wins hands down.

Cold starting is accompanied by the usual pinky clatter but not the belch of dirty smoke that's evident from the exhaust of my Peugeot 1.9 D Turbo. PSA's new diesel runs cleaner than the old. Once under way, the engine emits a deep drone that is neither intrusive nor unpleasant. Indeed, high gearing gives a long-legged motorway gait that the cheaper petrol 2.0 cannot match. Contrary to popular belief, diesels with a decent turn of speed come into their own on long runs, not bustling around town.

If you want a traditional estate rather than a trendy monospace people carrier, the elegant Xantia is as good as they come at this level. Space and practicality are great strengths. Comfort, too. Self-levelling, gas/oil suspension that, at the pull of a lever, can be raised (for traversing rough tracks) or lowered (to facilitate loading) is ideally suited to a family holdall capable of carrying 600kg. No sagging tail here when the flat, unobstructed cargo deck is heavily laden.Suspension is also very supple, so the car rides smoothly on poor roads.

In its handling, the VSX on test was pleasant rather than uplifting. Delicacy is needed to work the fully powered brakes without jerking heads, though changing gear seamlessly calls for no special skill. To corner with spirit is to expose loll and lurch that the front seats still do little to counter, despite recent improvements. The driving position would suit more people if the cushion could be tilted and the steering wheel pulled out. Nice touches abound, though, including remote audio controls on the steering wheel, and no-nonsense air conditioning which operates when the heater regulator is set to blue.

CITRON XANTIA 2.1 TD VSX ESTATE

Specifications

Citroen Xantia 2.1 TD VSX estate, pounds 20,765 on the road (2.1 TD hatchback from pounds 17,645) Engine: 2088cc, four cylinders, 12 valves, 110bhp at 4300rpm; five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive, performance: top speed 115mph (117 saloon), 0-60mph in 10.8sec (10.4 saloon), combined fuel consumption 39.8mpg.

Rivals

Peugeot 406 2.1 DT GLX estate, pounds l9,005 New 406 holdall of traditional design replaces old 405 estate. Same engine as Citroen Xantia, but extra weight blunts (still lively) performance. Roomy, comfortable and pleasant to drive. Renault Laguna 2.2TD RXE estate,pounds 20,305 Function before beauty. Square-tailed Laguna not so stylish as Citroen but marginally roomier, more versatile. Advantages include split tailgate and optional extra seats. Rides and handles well on conventional suspension, little in it for performance and economy.

Volvo V40 1.9td estate, pounds 19,920 Not Volvo's traditional box-on-wheels estate but an elegant five-door sharing Mitsubishi Carisma underpinnings. Turbo-diesel (same price as much faster five-cylinder 2.0 petrol) is elderly Renault unit. Good economy, indifferent performance. Ride and handling fall short of class benchmarks.

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