History of the Citroën ZX: 30 years of understated brilliance

90s cars Citroën General Bunk
The Citroën ZX is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Here's why the family hatchback deserves to be remembered for its understated brilliance.

The Citroën ZX was on a hiding to nothing. It arrived in 1991, thrust into a market vacated by Citroën in 1986. The exceptional GS presented tough boots for the Citroën ZX to fill.

On the face of it, the ZX was the least interesting Citroën in the range. Designed to slot into the gap between the AX and BX, the Citroën ZX also shared showroom space with the XM. This was Citroën's middleweight fighter; squaring up to the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf.

To the victor go the spoils of a segment representing a third of the total European market in 1990. In Britain, around 635,000 Escort and Escort wannabes were sold in 1990 – around a third of the market. You can hardly blame Citroën for playing it relatively safe.

Four cars dominated the segment in the UK: Ford Escort/Orion (31%), Vauxhall Astra (16%), Rover 200 (10%) and Volkswagen Golf (8%).

In Citroën's domestic market, the Renault 19 and dated Peugeot 309 accounted for 50% of sales in the Escort segment. The potential for the ZX was huge.

From A to Z, via B and X

Citroen UK range 1991

The car that debuted in France on 16 March 1991, and in export markets from 15 May, was the result of an investment programme totalling 5.8 billion francs. Testing began on 14 May 1990, under the codename ‘Matthias’. He was the patron saint of passive rear-steer. Probably.

Citroën went to great lengths to develop a clear understanding of the target market. The result was a new approach to marketing. Citroën called it ‘The Collection’, which divided the market into four, creating a model for each group. Shunning convention, Citroën ditched the range hierarchy and presented each model as a distinct flavour.

Boys' own

There were four options on the ZX menu: Reflex, Avantage, Aura and Volcane. The top lines from the press material reveal everything about the target audiences:

  • Reflex: ‘This is a young, often female public which wants modern styling, cheerful, attractive and dynamic looks, a roomy and practical interior, and a lively engine.’
  • Avantage: ‘This dominant class of customer is that of the classic family with children.’
  • Aura: ‘This older, mainly male customer particularly looks for a more luxurious family car but also values his individual pleasure.’
  • Volcane: ‘Usually young, this kind of customer is extremely active and comes from a higher social group.’

Using the patented ‘Yorkie’ method, the Citroën ZX Reflex was for girls. The Avantage and Aura were for men. Which left the ZX Volcane for the yuppie who had survived the 1980s with his wallet and the bridge of his nose intact.

‘With the Reflex and the Volcane the Citroën ZX will satisfy customers driven primarily by image and appearance considerations, whilst with the Avantage and Aura, the Citroën ZX will appeal to buyers who are primarily motivated by practical and functional considerations,’ said Pierre Boisjoly, managing director of Citroën UK.

The claim that Citroën had ditched the range hierarchy was, in part, a bit of marketing nonsense. A quick look at the price and respective spec of each model confirms that the Reflex was the entry-level ZX. At launch, it cost £8,680, while the Avantage would set you back £9,710. The Aura weighed in at £11,140, leaving the Volcane as the priciest Citroën ZX (£12,670).

The Reflex, flex, flex, flex, flex, flex

This image confirms the key selling points of each Citroën ZX at launch.

Citroen ZX Reflex Avantage Aura Volcane

There were four petrol engines, although the 1.1-litre unit wasn't offered in the UK. This left the Reflex and Avantage to be powered by a 1.4-litre carburettor engine (fuel injection was to follow). The Aura used the same 1.6-litre engine as the Peugeot 205 GTi, while the Volcane used a 1.9-litre unit based on the engine found in the Citroën BX GTi, Peugeot 309 GTi and 205 GTi.

Only the Volcane could hit 60mph in under 10 seconds, completing the meaningless sprint in 7.8 seconds. All versions could hit speeds in excess of 100mph, with the Volcane running out of steam at 127mph. Citroën didn't have a great pedigree in the hot hatch segment, although the success of the Citroën ZX Rallye Raid sprinkled some motorsport dust over the range. Not that the regular ZX would pass a DNA test when linking it to the 1991 Paris-Dakar winner.

Initial reviews were extremely positive. Once beyond the complaints that it wasn't a ‘real Citroën’, road testers were full of praise for the ZX. In reviewing the car for Top Gear, a young Jeremy Clarkson, still speaking ‘BBC English’, was hugely complimentary.

‘Probably the best chassis you can get in a small car,’ he gushed, before praising Citroën for producing ‘one of the best interiors they've ever done’. He labelled the suspension ‘faultless’. Still want that complex Hydropneumatic suspension? The majority of buyers in this market didn't.

Friends reunited

Citroen ZX Aura France 1991

Writing for Car magazine, Brett Fraser called the styling ‘a bit of a let-down’, claiming that it looked like a cross between a Renault 21, Fiat Tipo and a Yugo Sana. As if that's a bad thing...

He named the ZX Aura as the pick of the range, arguing that it offered most of the benefits of the Volcane, albeit without the ‘excellent’ seats and go-faster addenda of the sporty model. As an introduction to the world of junior hot hatches, a ZX Aura 1.6i is up there with the Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec.

Colin Goodwin ran a Citroën ZX Reflex 1.4 for six months. A rarity among motoring journalists, Goodwin said he was ‘the only chap in the office not to have a passion for Citroëns’. This left him free to deliver an objective opinion of the Citroën ZX, which makes his review even more credible.

In his final report, Goodwin said: ‘I always found it a pleasure to get back into the ZX, no matter what I'd driven in its absence. Even after a few days charging around in mid-engined thrusters I was glad to be reunited with the Citroën.

‘And before you suggest I have a torch shone in my ear, to check whether anyone is at home, I'd like to point out that it's very nice to not have to worry too much about radar traps and driving bans, while still enjoying a car with a spirited chassis and sweet engine.’

A sentence in the final paragraph was even more revealing: ‘There's still no car in the ZX's class that can beat it for ride and handling’.

Bringing up the rear

H-reg Citroen Volcane

Key to this was the suspension. Macpherson struts at the front, with the Volcane enjoying a stiffer set-up. Semi-independent suspension with trailing arms at the back. All versions benefited from Citroën's passive rear-wheel steering. The rear axle design allowed the rear wheels to steer slightly in the same direction as the front wheels.

Corner hard, and you'll feel the rear of the ZX following the front like a dog chasing a tail. ZX drivers, particularly those behind the wheel of a sporty variant, could enjoy/endure some classic lift-off oversteer moments.

Only the most partisan of ZX fans would describe the car as beautiful. A touch of elegance in profile, neat at the front, with a mildly dumpy back end, perhaps? Bertone co-designed the Citroën ZX with chief designer Art Blakeslee and his staff. He also designed the Citroën Xsara, which replaced the ZX in 1997.

The three-door ZX arrived in 1992 to inject the range with some much-needed flair. In profile, the three-door looks good, if not better, than its contemporary rivals. The kink in the shoulder line at the B-pillar is a particular highlight, while the wheelarch extensions of the ZX 16v give the car some added muscle.

The kinks

Citroen ZX 16v

On the inside, the Citroën ZX felt as robust as the Volkswagen Golf and a league above the Ford Escort. Citroën worked hard to make even the entry-level model feel special, garnishing the upholstery, dashboard and door panels of the Reflex with coloured pinstripes. It was far from poverty-spec.

Unfortunately, the Reflex missed out on the sliding rear bench. This allowed the seats to slide backwards or forwards, giving the ZX owner the choice of maximum rear legroom or a larger boot. The seats could even be reclined from vertical to 30-degrees.

A new heating and ventilation system was hardly headline news, but the three-zone configuration was an underrated feature. Using the right setting, the air entering the cabin could be split into a hot zone at foot level, a tepid zone along the side windows to prevent misting, and a cool upper face-level zone.

The security-coded stereo radio/cassette was unique to the Citroën ZX and featured a flap to prevent dust from entering the cassette section. In a victory for common sense (and cost saving), the driver's door mirror featured manual adjustment, while the passenger side could be adjusted via a button next to the ignition lock.

Other neat details included a rear washer jet housed in the rear spoiler to prevent freezing, the chance to close the windows and sunroof after the ignition had been turned off, and a wiper blade that parked on a heated section of the rear window to ensure rapid release in a frost.

A Fukang four-door ZX?

Citroen ZX Volcane interior

None of this was going to appease Citroën purists. Many viewed the ZX as an affront to the history of the French firm. A car not fit to wear the badge. An example of where it all went wrong for the company famous for the Traction Avant, 2CV, DS, SM, CX and GS.

The opposing view is that the Citroën ZX was the right car at the right time. Citroën built nearly 1.9 million GS units over a 16-year period. Around 1.45 million DS and ID cars in 20 years. Total production of the Citroën ZX topped 2.1 million in a shorter period of time. A loyal, enthusiastic but relatively small audience is great, but in order to survive, manufacturers need to sell volume cars in huge numbers. Just ask Saab.

The ZX even spawned a four-door saloon variant for the Chinese market. Stick that in your Fukang purist pipe and smoke it.

Following the introduction of new engines, a facelift and practical ZX estate arrived in the mid 90s – the latter remains a common sight on the roads of France. It also wasn't long before Citroën unleashed a series of special editions. Pzazz, Flash, Neon, Dimension, Elation, Temptation and, bizarrely, the Memphis, to name just a few. The latter was promoted alongside an Elvis impersonator. You just couldn't help falling in love with it...

In truth, the special editions were little more than understudies to the stars of the ZX range. The Citroën ZX Volcane TD was a diesel hot hatch before the diesel hot hatch was a thing. The criminally underrated and oft-forgotten ZX 16v was a credible alternative to the Golf GTI. And the ZX Furio was a junior hot hatch for younger viewers.

Into the abyss

Citroen ZX Avantage France

The Citroën ZX's spiral into the abyss was swift and sudden. Ushered out of the door without fanfare, values dropped like a stone, with many owners choosing to use and abuse the cars like cheap runabouts. Electrical and trim issues were left unfixed, so it wasn't long before many examples became uneconomical to repair. Without the love of Citroën purists, the ZX was doomed from the moment it was replaced by the Xsara.

Speak to an owner of a good Citroën ZX and he'll regale you with stories of total reliability, low running costs and superb ride comfort. Owners of tatty and neglected cars will be less enthusiastic, but the negatives are far outweighed by the positives. Non-turbocharged diesel versions were sluggish, but boy they were cheap to run.

A three-door is likely to be the most troublesome. Recalling his days at Carweek, Hilton Holloway said that the magazine received ‘lots of complaints about the Spanish-built three-door ZX’. Good luck finding a three-door ZX in 2021.

The last French Car Critical list update revealed a total of 842 examples on the road and a further 2,046 listed as SORN. Perhaps more telling is the fact that it's rare to see Citroën ZX for sale on Auto Trader, Car & Classic or eBay.

Citroën ZX: Understated and underrated

Citroen ZX Reflex France 1991

It's great to see that the ZX is listed on the Practical Classics price guide. The mag values the car between £250 for a rough one to £2,000 for a concours example. This makes this ZX Furio seem overpriced, but try finding another one. Fortunately, there's always a good selection of cars for sale on Leboncoin. Good examples of the Volcane and 16v fetch good money in France.

The Citroën ZX is unlikely to get the recognition it deserves in its 30th anniversary year. It may not have been fashionable. It might not be a Citroën in the purist sense. And it was upstaged by the platform-sharing and achingly attractive Peugeot 306. The ZX just lacked a little... Pzazz.

The counterargument is that the Citroën ZX was good enough to outclass its contemporary rivals. Short of eccentricity and technological innovation, but capable, credible and relevant. That's the brilliance of the Citroën ZX. An understated and underrated gem. Buy one before it's too late.

[gallery link="file" columns="2" size="medium" ids="eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLVZvbGNhbmUtRnJhbmNlLTE5OTEuanBnIiwidGl0bGUiOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFZvbGNhbmUgRnJhbmNlIDE5OTEiLCJjYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwiYWx0IjoiQ2l0cm9lbiBaWCBWb2xjYW5lIEZyYW5jZSAxOTkxIiwiZGVzY3JpcHRpb24iOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFZvbGNhbmUgRnJhbmNlIDE5OTEifQ==,eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLVJlZmxleC1tb3RoZXItYW5kLWNoaWxkLmpwZyIsInRpdGxlIjoiQ2l0cm9lbiBaWCBSZWZsZXggbW90aGVyIGFuZCBjaGlsZCIsImNhcHRpb24iOiIiLCJhbHQiOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFJlZmxleCBtb3RoZXIgYW5kIGNoaWxkIiwiZGVzY3JpcHRpb24iOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFJlZmxleCBtb3RoZXIgYW5kIGNoaWxkIn0=,eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLUF1cmEtMTk5MS5qcGciLCJ0aXRsZSI6IkNpdHJvZW4gWlggQXVyYSAxOTkxIiwiY2FwdGlvbiI6IiIsImFsdCI6IiIsImRlc2NyaXB0aW9uIjoiIn0=,eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLUF2YW50YWdlLTE5OTEuanBnIiwidGl0bGUiOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIEF2YW50YWdlIDE5OTEiLCJjYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwiYWx0IjoiQ2l0cm9lbiBaWCBBdmFudGFnZSAxOTkxIiwiZGVzY3JpcHRpb24iOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIEF2YW50YWdlIDE5OTEifQ==,eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLVZvbGNhbmUtc2VhdHMuanBnIiwidGl0bGUiOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFZvbGNhbmUgc2VhdHMiLCJjYXB0aW9uIjoiIiwiYWx0IjoiQ2l0cm9lbiBaWCBWb2xjYW5lIHNlYXRzIiwiZGVzY3JpcHRpb24iOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIFZvbGNhbmUgc2VhdHMifQ==,eyJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczpcL1wvcGV0cm9sYmxvZy5jb21cL3dwLWNvbnRlbnRcL3VwbG9hZHNcLzIwMjFcLzAxXC9DaXRyb2VuLVpYLUVzdGF0ZS1BdXJhLmpwZyIsInRpdGxlIjoiQ2l0cm9lbiBaWCBFc3RhdGUgQXVyYSIsImNhcHRpb24iOiIiLCJhbHQiOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIEVzdGF0ZSBBdXJhIiwiZGVzY3JpcHRpb24iOiJDaXRyb2VuIFpYIEVzdGF0ZSBBdXJhIn0="]

Read more from the 90s