It would be fair to say that there’s a lot of love for Citroën here on PetrolBlog. The AX GT is part of the fleet and C6 ownership is growing ever closer. This is not to mention the likes of the Visa GTi, Xsara VTS, CX and GS. But follow PetrolBlog’s chat on twitter and you’d realise that PetrolBlog also has a soft spot for the XM. Now well within Bangernomics territory, the XM must surely be one of the bargains of the new millennium? So why has it taken so long for it to be featured on PetrolBlog?
Allow Loop Withers of Roadwax to set this record straight.
As the last batch of Citroën 2CVs were having their number plates screwed on inside a hangar in Slough, the first 70 Citroën XMs arrived.
Long lines of them were parked across the great dusty floor, nuzzled to within an inch of the walls, their door handles almost touching. The Fleet Manager was livid.
“Greg, why have you parked them so close together? We can’t get inside them!”
“Tell me about it.” Greg shrugged his shoulders. “It’s the only way we can fit them all in here.”
“But…”, the fleet manager’s voice trailed away in frustration, “…we can’t get inside them, Greg!”
“I know. Life’s a bitch, isn’t it?” Greg rolled his eyes to me and walked away.
“You’ve parked them up too close!” The fleet manager shouted after him.
“Tough. They’re simply too big for our little world.” Greg replied without turning back.
The XM was a massive slice of a car. It looked like no other. The steeply raked glass of its vast windscreen made the Jaguar XJ6 look instantly out of date. The shimmering strip of acrylic that spread across its stiff rump made a Ford Granada seem cheap and austere. The sides of the XM seemed to spread out as if they were melting in the sun. The XM commanded attention. It was impossible not to notice.
I discovered this for myself when I made a rather prompt U-turn on Buckingham Palace Road, the following Saturday night. My world suddenly turned into flashing blue lights. I was surrounded.
“Do you know why we’ve stopped you?” The officer from the police Rover 3500 curled his upper lip, ignoring me and peering inside through the acres of glass.
Another police Rover appeared behind me, strobe lights flickering in my mirror. Two officers stared forward blankly, their faces like dead trout.
“This yours..?” The officer stood back as if admiring a painting and nearly went under the wheels of a police Range Rover which now swayed to a halt, blocking the road completely. Tourists were taking photographs.
“No, I’m a driver for Citroën.”
“A driver for Citroën!” The officer made it clear he was deeply unimpressed. He turned to his boss who was coming at me from around the bonnet of the Range Rover, glaring as if enraged by the XM’s impossibly large alloy wheels.
“He says he is a driver for Citroën…!” The officer repeated my words as if presenting evidence in a murder trial to a judge who suffered from hearing difficulties. The Chief remained silent, his eyes raking across the XM’s metallic cherry bodywork, and curved flush glass. He peered in at the cavernous rear seat.
“That was a very sudden U-turn, wasn’t it?” The Chief lowered his head and peered in at the acres of beautifully illuminated symbols and dials that spread across the huge dashboard like the stars in the night sky above us. I remained as silent as a man who was about to receive three points on his license. A middle aged American tourist took a photo and the flashbulb made Hyde Park Corner light up.
“Move. You’re causing an obstruction!” The Chief announced, straightening up and turning away. I reached for the gear selector and was blinded by a second flash bulb.
“Go on – you heard him!” The first officer pointed away towards South London as I struggled to regain my sight. The Range Rover roared in agony next to me and then shot off like a firework, chased by the two SD1 V8s.
The XM was the first of a completely new type of mass-production car. It was the forerunner of the cars we now drive, twenty years later.
In a world where Austin-Rover still offered central locking as if it were a technological breakthrough, the XM included full lock-down and also an immobiliser for the engine. When Ford only provided a plastic handle to wind open your luxury sunroof, the XM offered you a small button to press. A 1989 Vauxhall Carlton offered you sun visors but an XM gave you sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors. A BMW gave you ABS brakes but the XM coupled ABS brakes to electronically adjustable shock absorbers within the hydropneumatic suspension system, which would adjust to both the road conditions and the driver’s behaviour in a fraction of a second.
And the steering wheel was attached to a sensor that monitored how the driver turned it. One sharp move and a computer lowered the car’s ride height in an instant. And the accelerator not only instructed the engine, it spoke to the brakes and the suspension.
The Citroën XM came with a choice of three engines. If you chose the arthritic two litre carburettor version, then you had just made a costly and stupid mistake. You would now spend your life stuck behind trucks on an A- road and rowing like Oxford in the boat race through the manual gearbox, just to keep up with an Austin Allegro.
If you chose the V6 version, you had made an even costlier mistake. For around £30,000 you had bought a car that appeared to be involved in a deeply vindictive matrimonial dispute with its engine. No amount of counselling by the driver could bring peace and reconciliation. The XM V6 SEi was like a showbiz couple who smile for the paparazzi on their porch and then go inside, close the door and hospitalise each other using their wedding gifts.
If you chose the two litre injection version, you had struck gold. Whether you chose the 2.0i or the 2.0 SEi, the car suddenly behaved as its designers had intended. No, you were not going to win any traffic light drag race but the supreme poise and tranquillity of the car’s handling was matched to reasonable fuel figures and…ah…the XM suddenly revealed its greatest secret.
The XM handled like an Audi quattro. You didn’t brake for corners. Instead, you crushed your right foot into the soft carpet and watched as the laws of physics were swept aside by the genius of Citroën’s designers. The car did things that a big car should not be able to do. The XM held the road like nothing else. Even a Ford Granada 2.8 Ghia Injection X-Pack could not do what the XM could, when it came to a twisty, fast country A-road.
So what? Well, back in 1989, if your bank manager drove an Audi quattro or an X-Pack Granada, you might have had trouble sleeping at night. I mean, suppose he also drank lager or skipped church on a Sunday as well? If he drove an XM, you would consider him to be one of these clever, ‘people-person’ types. He probably could have been a British Airways pilot if it wasn’t for the unfortunate squint and the fear of heights.
And the bank managers queued up in droves to drive the XM. In a masterstroke of marketing, Citroën had managed to slip their flagship car on to the corporate leasing lists, alongside the Ford Granada, Vauxhall Carlton and the Rover 820. Bank managers across Britain sat back in their chairs, sucked the ends of their plastic biros and stared at the four little tick-boxes on the sheet of A4 paper which they held in their hand. Well, which would you choose? I mean, it’s not as if you have to pay for the servicing, is it?
So, what went wrong? Why is the XM not worshipped in the same way that the DS is fetishised and kneeled before by those who are regulars at Goodwood Festival of Speed and who watch Top Gear, even though they should be reading a bedtime story to their kids instead?
Well, two things. As usual, Citroën overestimated the intelligence of the people who drove their cars. People don’t check tyre pressures and they don’t check fluid levels. People don’t read the instruction manual that comes with the cars. Bank managers don’t really love engineering; they love people thinking that they do.
Most drivers never understood that you have to drive the XM with gentle movements for the many different sensors to ‘unlock’ the suspension and deliver that silky-smooth Citroën ride. One tweak on the steering wheel or one jerk on the accelerator and the car’s suspension would be instantly switched to ‘sport’ mode, even if you hadn’t pressed the button beside the gear selector. I should imagine that at least 75% of XM drivers simply never realised why their car seemed to lack suppleness and sophistication: it was because they – as drivers – were failing to relax behind the wheel and drive to a high enough standard with smooth arm and leg movements. ‘Sympathique’, as the French would say.
The second reason? Well, a nasty rumour started going round. The dealers didn’t want to buy secondhand XMs. The resale value plummeted like a fridge off a multi-storey car park. Some say it was because Citroën were less than ‘sympathique’ when it came to service charges and the price of spare parts. Others say that a horrendously unfortunate error in mixing the metal for the engine blocks at the foundry had resulted in the entire two litre range being randomly prone to terminal failure.
Would I buy one? Yes. For £500, the XM is an absolute snip. The surviving ones are bound to be those that do not have a problem with their engine blocks. The consumable parts are average in price. I’d buy one that has a full service history, probably a Dutch or German left hand drive automatic, with the SEi specification.
And, with a twenty year old car, I would proceed to scare the hell out of every BMW that dared to follow me into a bend.
Loop Withers is the chap behind Roadwax.com