“Citroën is calling it [the Xsara Coupe] the fastest sub-£18,000 coupe you can buy. A statement which worries me… rather a lot.”
The ellipsis doesn’t do justice to the dramatic pause so beloved of Top Gear presenters of the era, but it’s fair to say that Quentin Willson – that’s two Ls in Willson – wasn’t about to unleash high praise on the Citroën Xsara VTS.
In fact, he was rather scathing. “This car is ditchwater dull,” he proclaimed. “You look at it and you think, oh dear.’’, he trumpeted.
The fanboy in me wants to defend the Citroën Xsara Coupe. I feel I should mount a case for the defence of the only two-door coupe desirable enough to encourage a German supermodel to get her kit off.
But the fact is, Quentin was right about some aspects of the Citroën Xsara Coupe …
… and here’s why. (Dramatic pause added for full Top Gear effect).
Cattle auctions and crockery
“The engine booms so much it sounds like a cattle auction,” he decried, but he was wrong. Pushing the needle above 5,000rpm gets the best from the 167hp 2.0-litre 16v engine, but while it’s loud, it’s certainly not bovine. In fact, the exhaust note is so sweet, it positively encourages you to behave like a bull in a china shop.
“Unless it’s a bowling green surface it rides like a tin tray of crockery,” he moaned. Once again, he was wrong, although I’ve never ridden a tin tray of crockery, so I’m not particularly well placed to make this call.
The Xsara VTS is certainly firm, but it’s no worse than my old Ford Puma and only slightly less agile. The quick and direct steering helps, as does the passive rear steering, which gives the Xsara near rear-wheel-drive qualities when cornering hard.
“On the plus side, it does handle quite neatly,” he confessed, so that’s something we agree on.
“The inside is as dull as the outside. It is a relentless vista of grey plastic. No lovely design flourishes at all,” he continued, like a schoolmaster taking a pair of crestfallen parents through their child’s end-of-year report.
Knobs and knockers
The interior is undoubtedly the most disappointing aspect of the Citroën Xsara VTS. Aside from the excellent seats – something Mr Willson failed to mention – the cabin has been lifted entirely from the five-door Xsara.
Even a bespoke gear knob would have helped. As the Ford Puma proved, a good knob can go a long way.
“The Xsara’s greatest offence is that it’s a Citroën. These days it seems that modern Citroëns must be sanitised – purged of every atom of eccentricity. Which is why I can think of only one name to think of one word to describe the Xsara Coupe, and that is ‘dreary’.”
In the context of the DS, Traction Avant, SM and other eccentric Citroëns of the past, the Citroën Xsara Coupe does feel overshadowed and out of place. But to criticise the Xsara Coupe for not being as good as its illustrious forebears is akin to having a go at the Rolling Stones for The Last Time not being up to the standards of Gimme Shelter, Paint It, Black and Brown Sugar.
I’ve lived with a Xsara VTS for three and a half years, so I’ve come to appreciate its strengths… [Top Gear pause]... and its weaknesses.
It’s big – almost too big for a two-door coupe. The boot offers a massive 408 litres of space, and there’s enough room in the rear for two adults. Quentin would probably argue, with some justification, that such matters are of little importance to coupe owners. Still, at least it’s practical enough to carry a tin tray of crockery.
It’s also very quick, something Quentin Willson was forced to concede. Let the revs drop and the 2.0-litre engine feels as spritely as a Nissan Serena, but maintain the sweet spot and it feels like a French Type R. It’s properly good fun.
For me, the car’s biggest crime isn’t its ‘dreary’ demeanour or ‘ditchwater dull’ persona, it’s that it requires the right road and the right conditions to fulfil its potential. It must have been a hard sell when new, because around town the ride is too firm and the engine is too boomy. That’s if a would-be Citroën Xsara Coupe owner could look beyond the relentless grey vista in the cabin.
On a motorway, the short gearing makes the Xsara VTS about as pleasurable as spending the day listening to Sam Smith recite a newspaper column by Katie Hopkins. In this respect, the contemporary Volkswagen Golf GTI would have made more sense.
Compare and contrast with the Ford Puma 1.7, which was more fun around town, blessed with one of the best gearboxes I’ve ever experienced, and considerably cheaper. Sure, it was also considerably smaller and less practical, but back at the turn of the millennium, it was the only small coupe to be seen in.
Personally, I adore the styling of the Xsara Coupe. In profile, it looks particularly alluring, although it’s not a patch on the Peugeot 406 Coupe, obviously. I like the way the rear arches hide the top of the wheels, as if the svelte Citroën is doing its best Dita Von Teese act.
It has rain-sensing wipers and air conditioning, which both work, along with a CD autochanger, which doesn’t. It also has a matching set of Falken ZIEX ZE310 EcoRun tyres, which have improved the handling, although the car does seem a little more unsettled in the wet. I also think that they’re a tad noisier than the old Pirellis, but the sound isn’t enough to register on the patented ‘cattle auction’ noise-o-meter.
Look, I like the Xsara VTS. I know the 306 GTI-6 is a more authentic hot hatch. I also believe that the Citroën ZX 16v edges it in terms of sharpness and raw appeal. Was Quentin Willson overly critical? Perhaps, but it’s hard to disagree with a lot of what he had to say.
If nothing else, it’s thanks to Quentin’s review of the Xsara VTS – and the wonders of YouTube – that I know the Polish word for ‘dreary’.
It’s… ‘smutny’. And on that bombshell...