Wake up call: Citroën ZX 16v

Wake up call: Citroën ZX 16v

When was the last time you woke up at silly o’clock just to go for a drive? You know, a time when setting the alarm clock isn’t a necessity. An occasion where the journey is more important than the destination. If you’re anything like me it was far too long ago. I worked it out – I certainly haven’t done it this year. But perhaps more shockingly, I reckon it was April last year. April 12th to be precise – the day I took the V60 Polestar on the ‘Three Moors Challenge’ and managed to get through a full tank of V-Power before breakfast. An expensive yet invigorating experience.

So why has it taken me so long to do it again? A combination of things really – time, money, laziness, modern life – that kind of thing. Lame and inexcusable reasons really.

But the fact is, there’s nothing quite like waking up at the crack of dawn to enjoy a drive before the rest of the world raises its weary head. The roads are clear and life’s distractions are put to one side. It’s heaven.

So I had an idea. Why send a card to my Mum for Mother’s Day when I could deliver it by hand? And better still, why not tie it in with a Dawn Raid? Everyone’s a winner.

A properly focused drive in the Citroën ZX 16v was long overdue. I’m ashamed to admit that in the six months that I’ve owned her, I’ve only managed to rack up 2,000 miles. A miserly figure, especially considering that total includes 1,500 of motorway driving and at least 200 by Mrs MajorGav. Actually, the more I think about it, the more ashamed I am. Let’s move on.

I spent a few hours on Saturday prepping for the Dawn Raid. A wash to get rid of the worst of the winter salt and a spruce up for the interior. The spring clean highlighted two things. One – the interior is in exceptional condition, a testament to the low miles and two previous owners. Two – the bodywork needs work. There’s no rust and no major issues, but the red paint needs cutting back and brought back to life. A quick test with T-cut and wax suggests that it needs a FailCar approach, so I’ll need to invest in a rotary polisher and hope for the best. Either that or send it to someone who knows what they’re doing.

But the condition of the paintwork is largely an irrelevance on a Dawn Raid. The majority of the drive would be in the dark and, cutting to the chase, it’s all about the drive. So the alarm was set for 4:13am. Destination – the far western tip of Cornwall for the magnificent B3306 St Just to St Ives coast road. Admittedly travelling 100 miles to drive a further 14 miles for no apparent reason could be considered madness. In which case, send in the men in white coats.

5am fuel stop for Citroën ZX 16v

At 5am I was filling up with fuel at the horrendously exposed Sourton Down service area on the A30. The wind was howling and the rain was freezing. For a moment I wondered what on earth I was doing, a view probably shared by the cashier as I took photos of a mid ’90s Citroën when most sane people were still tucked up in bed. But no matter, there was a coffee sat in the cup holder, a backlog of podcasts to catch up on and the small matter of a 100 mile to journey to complete.

The journey west was undramatic and dare I say a little dull. Miles and miles of dual carriageways with only the occasional sighting of a lorry to liven things up. I passed Bodmin at 5.30am and with the rain refusing to go away and come again another day, my thoughts turned to my warm bed and a Sunday morning coffee.

But a few miles later and everything changed. I’m led to believe that the junction of the A30 and A39 is the first roundabout you’ll meet when travelling down from Scotland. Whatever, for me it signals the end of tedium and the start of playtime. From this point onwards the journey through Cornwall becomes more interesting. The A30 delivers a number of twists and turns in a way that suggests it wants to deliver a few smiles before it disappears off the end at Land’s End.

In truth, things don’t become really interesting until you’re passed Penzance. From here, the A30 turns into what would ordinarily be considered a B-road. The delightfully named village of Drift is immediately followed by the perfectly apt Catchall as the road becomes a veritable string of tight bends interspersed with exhilarating straights. There’s a real sense of heading to nowhere once you’re at the far corner of the country. This is of course true as once the A30 falls over the cliff, the next stop is North America.

Citroën ZX 16v at Sennen Cove, Cornwall

But I wasn’t planning on reaching North America – I wasn’t even considering getting to the horribly over-commercialised Land’s End. My first destination was Sennen Cove for a photo opportunity and a chance to grab some fresh air. And goodness me was it fresh – the ZX doesn’t have a temperature display but the windchill would have put things at well below freezing. Still, it was just the thing to wake me up for the 14 mile blast between St Just and St Ives.

The last time I was here I was at the wheel of a then new Skoda Fabia vRS. It was an epic encounter. Things this time were slightly different. The conditions for a start were less favourable – a strong wind was coming off the coast and bringing with it a fine drizzle. The roads were damp too, making the cattle grids feel like ice rinks. It would be fair to say I had less confidence in the car too. Unsurprisingly the brakes aren’t in the same league as the Fabia vRS, meaning I couldn’t charge into corners with the same level of conviction as I did before.

But no matter, it was finally time to play with the ZX.

Patience is required when coming from the St Just direction. The first few miles consists of a multitude of sleepy villages and speed restrictions. You need to clear Bojewyvan before the magic derestriction sign appears and then the village of Morvah before the fun can really start. You’ll know the exact point – there’s a stack of stones on the left and behind it the majestic view of the Atlantic. Not that you’ll be admiring the scenery.

Citroën ZX 16v on the B3306, Cornwall

The road is technical in the extreme – it requires deep concentration. One minute you’re enjoying a tight left-hander only for it to turn into a tight right-hander with only enough room for a single car. Get it wrong and you’re faced with a harrowing choice – car on the right or granite wall on the left. Then there’s one of the cattle grids which arrives immediately before a glorious left hand bend. Brake before and you lose momentum, brake after and you’ll leave it too late. Break whilst on the cattle grid and, well, expect the worst.

But it remains a truly magical road that simply has to be enjoyed early in the morning. It can be incredibly frustrating to drive it in the summer – far too many motorhomes, cyclists and slow moving vehicles.

So how did the ZX 16v do? Rather well indeed. I swear it’s getting better with every mile that passes. The test drive in London was far from perfect – to the extent that I seriously considered walking away from the deal. The seller kindly praised me for my haggling skills, but I had to confess I wasn’t haggling. I just wasn’t convinced about the car. Fifth gear was crunching, the brakes were squealing and the paintwork was nowhere near as good as I’d hoped. She’d hardly been driven at all over the previous few years.

But looking back now, the £1k I paid seems about right. I will inevitably spend a further £1k perfecting the paint, fitting new tyres and generally making her perfect. And I’m aware that I’m unlikely to get that back. But there are so few of these cars left now that I’m quietly pleased that I’ve got such an honest example in my collection. Fifth gear no longer crunches, the brakes are now quiet and engine is loosening up. The ZX is emerging rather wonderfully from her beauty sleep.

Red Citroën ZX 16v on Cornish B-road

To get the best from it, you really need to work the ZX 16v hard. The fireworks don’t arrive until 4,000rpm, at which point there’s a surge in performance, rather akin to that you’d find with a Honda V-TEC unit. It requires an old-school mentality of selecting the right gear to power out of a corner. By today’s standards 150hp is positively tame, but the ZX provides a degree of involvement that’s simply lost in today’s cars.

Forgive me for drawing faintly ridiculous comparisons, but the only time I’ve felt so connected to the road in the past six months was when driving the Porsche 911 in Austria. Yes, a mad thing to say for which I’m bound to attract ridicule, but I’ll stick by what I say. It’s not that I’m saying the ZX is a rival for the 911, it’s just that genuine involvement is a rare thing these days.

The ZX 16v’s steering is direct and delivers enough feedback for you to know exactly what’s going on at the front wheels. It will also cock a rear wheel at the slightest opportunity. Lift off mid corner and you’ll soon find yourself deploying corrective tactics.

Being critical, the gearbox isn’t the greatest and the engine doesn’t exactly sing sweetly when you’re maximising the 135Nm of available torque. And the leather seats – they may be desirable, but I’d have saved my money if I had bought the car new. There just isn’t enough side support and you’ll invariably be sliding from side to side when cornering hard. I’m already considering hunting down a set of cloth seats.

But I absolutely adore the way the car looks. In 3-door guise the Citroën ZX 16v is up there with the best of the ’90s hot hatches. The side profile is pretty much spot on and I love the tiny F1-style door mirrors. I’m already smitten by this car.

Citroën ZX 16v in St Ives, Cornwall

After a brief photo stop in St Ives I made my way to Mum’s to deliver a card and presents. I now reckon I’ll make a Mother’s Day Dawn Raid an annual event. It strikes me as a far better way to deliver a card than to hand over your cash to the postal service and hope it reaches her in time.

There was still time for the ZX to offer up one last surprise though – it’s a seriously comfortable car. It takes me back to the days when the French could deliver great drivers’ cars that were able to balance ride quality with sharp handling. It’s an excellent all-rounder.

So you can expect more on the ZX 16v over the coming months. Sadly there’s still no movement on the AX GT and I’m beginning to contemplate the (perhaps inevitable) prospect of moving her on…

More on this soon.


Written by Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

The chief waffler and person responsible for getting PetrolBlog off the ground in February 2010. Has a deep fascination of cars from the '80s and '90s, especially if they originate from France. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

20 Comments

  1. Simon Manley (@SimonManley)

    Pity the AX may have to go but by all accounts it sounds like the ZX will over shadow its existence.

    As you pointed out 4000 rpm is where it all happens for the 16V and that engine never gets any quieter either, just a little less refined than what we’re used to today but after having more than my fair share of the BX 16V’s I’d almost guarantee the engine will out live the rest of the car!

    Good read as ever!

    1. Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Cheers Simon.

      It’s not that the AX is overshadowed, it’s just that I can’t see it getting a look in this year. A lack of cash and time will see to that. So leaving it in the garage for another year seems like a waste.

      I think the ZX’s inherent lack of refinement is part of the appeal. Really enjoyed the drive.

  2. Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

    Excellent read, Gav. Makes me miss not having my own car! Nice as it is to knock about in press vehicles, at the end of the day they’re just someone else’s car…

    Intrigued to hear about the AX. I’d offer to buy it myself but it deserves a garage really and mine is full of Beetle.

    1. Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      No decisions on the AX yet… ;)

      Totally agree about press v own cars. There’s nothing like working on or jumping in your own car.

      That said, I’ve been very, very thankful to jump into a press car when faced with a long journey back from the airport. Heated seats + cruise + climate + Bluetooth + sat nav + iPod connectivity = happiness!

      1. Simon Hingston

        Don’t need a garage for that lol. Just warm water to lube the clay (look at Bilt Hamber for a good one) then out of direct sunlight for the rest, that bit should be easy ;). Brought the old Volvo and Xantia back to showroom in a day for both.

  3. Ton D. (@Tonsty)

    Inspiring read. Might have to do the same real soon, as I can’t remember the last ‘proper’ drive I had. Then again, we don’t have (m)any interesting roads over here.

    Sad to here I’m probably going to be right regarding the AX.

  4. Dogknob1 (@Dogknob1)

    Most Excellent piece Gavin,this whole Dawn Raid thing is quite the norm for us bikers! never did work out why more car people don’t do it? As for that bit of road to/from St Ives I know it well and have ridden it many a time,sometimes carrying on down the coast sometimes swinging over towards PZ for a blat back up the other coast. Also the point about felling connected and the Porsche analogy is fine and dandy as I like my car to shimmy & shammy a little just so you have to actually drive them,the family wagon XC70 is often derided over the V70 but a little wallow & wiggle add character if you ask me! Hope said plans with the AX work out for you.
    Cheers D

  5. darrenvleslie

    Driving for drivings sake is a wonderful thing. Hving somewhere(ish) to go and not having to get there by a certain time makes for a nice relaxed atmosphere within the car. Something that can’t be said on a lot of occasions these days. It’s the only reason why I’ll be getting the 80 back on the road this year, as I genuinly have no real reason to keep it. It’s on a SORN, as is the AX, and with no real pressure to get things done, I can see why the AX sits in the garage.

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