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Why I Love French Cars, Part 2: The Citroen Xantia

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author photo by Aaron Gold December 2016

Not long ago, I told you about the Peugeot 306, a French rival to the Volkswagen Golf and the Honda Civic that introduced me to the wonderful world of French cars. The U.K. magazine for which I interned had a 306 on the long-term fleet, and I drove it whenever I could -- but I'd always pass it up in favor of a drive in our Citroen Xantia.

I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with the Princess, the Citroen DS. I think most people know that it goes up and down, but fewer have a sense of how its hydropneumatic suspension works. Don't worry -- neither do the people who designed it. Basically, the system has fluid- and gas-filled spheres at every corner, which allow on-the-fly height adjustment. The rear brakes are tied into the suspension system, which provides automatic rear-brake proportioning and reduced dive under braking.

At the time I was at the U.K. mag, the early '90s, there were still two hydropneumatique Citroens: the XM (which features prominently in the first car chase in 1998's "Ronin") and the midsize Xantia. (Smaller Citroens, the uniwipered ZX and the AX, shared mechanical bits with the Peugeot 306 and 106, respectively.)

The hydropneumatic suspension had several party tricks, including a lever that allowed you to raise or lower the ride height. Among other things, this allowed tire changing without a jack: Set the suspension to full extension, prop up the corner of the car with bad tire, then drop the suspension to its lowest height. Three corners of the car would drop, the affected wheel would lift up, and hey presto, you could change your tire. (See it done, in German and on a CX, in this video.)

The system also allowed you to drive on three wheels. This being several decades before YouTube, it never occurred to me to try this with the Xantia, but here's a clip of a DS from the U.S. TV series CHiPs (dubbed into Spanish, because why not?).

I did once try raising the suspension to full height and driving off a curb, just to see what happened. Turns out full travel allows no movement -- the car bounced like a basketball. I wasn't expecting that.

Back at the office, we argued about the best way to park the Xantia. Some said to set it at full extension for easy step-out height. I went for full compression, because I loved feeling the car "get up" when you started it.

I also discovered that if, just as you came to a stop, you popped the car into neutral and floored the brake pedal, the rear suspension would squat, and the car would "sit." Slip it into gear, start moving, and it would get up again.

My colleagues praised the Xantia's "pillow-soft" ride -- although, being an American, I had to wonder if their pillows weren't made of stone over there. No one who remembers GM's full-size rear-drivers of the 1980s will say the Xantia rode softly, but it was a darn sight more comfortable than other midsized cars (the Vauxhall Cavalier and the Ford Mondeo -- our Contour -- being the best-sellers).

Oh, and did I mention it had a 1.9-liter turbodiesel? Did I mention it had a manual transmission? Did I mention that the instrument panel said "Controle Citroen", which I know meant nothing exciting but thrilled me anyway?

I tried to drive it at least once a week, much to the chagrin of Chris, the news editor to whom the car was assigned. He was 6-foot-5, and I was 5-foot-6, so every time he drove the car after me, he'd bruise his knees. I have since learned to always slide the seat back when I am done driving -- everyone is taller than me -- but that didn't help Chris or his knees. Oh well. At least he had socialized medicine.

I drove two other Xantias during my time in the U.K., one a stripped-down model with an 8-valve 1.6-liter gasoline engine and the other a non-turbocharged diesel. Both were ridiculously slow, but they had a hydropneumatique suspension to play with, and I really didn't care. Let the Londoners behind me wait.

And what about build quality? In all the time I was there, we never had a single thing go wrong with the Xantia. Do I believe they were well-built cars? Not on your life. We used to keep files of customer complaints -- the Brits love to write and gripe -- and although Citroen only had about 10 percent market share, they had the biggest file of any manufacturer. That said, I once perused the letters, and in fairness to the Xantia, most of them dealt with the little AX's plastic rear window, which had a disconcerting habit of imploding at highway speeds. I would never accuse Citroen of fiddling with their press cars, but if la chaussure fits...

I left England in the spring of '94, but the Xantia stayed in production until 2002. On my last trip to Europe, I saw lots of them, enough that I'm tempted to look into importing one -- except goodness knows who I could find to fix it. (I guess the best thing to do would be to import three or four of them... surely I could make one working car.) Regardless, what the Peugoet 306 started, the Citroen Xantia all but sealed: my notion that French cars are the coolest in the universe.

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Why I Love French Cars, Part 2: The Citroen Xantia - Autotrader