There isn’t many weirder and more wonderful car in the world than a classic Citroën. Beginning with the “Goddess”, the famous and unique Citroën DS, they combine out-of-the-box technical solutions with quaint but gorgeous design. When the “déesse” arrived in 1955, it looked like something from another galaxy – and drove like that, too. The magnificent SM grand tourer, conceived in cooperation with Maserati added speed and glamour to the formula. And when the big CX replaced the venerable DS, it was still an aerodynamic fastback in a world full of boxy sedans, it still glided over the road like some eerie hovercraft, and with the DIRAVI steering and mushroom brake pedal, it provided a driving experience like nothing else. .
But for now, let’s focus on the redheaded step-child of the Citroën family, the XM. Introduced in 1989, it’s currently in the lowest part of the depreciation curve, loved only by hardcore Citroën enthusiasts. Because of the Citroën’s terrible reputation for reliability, especially when it comes to the unique hydropneumatic suspension, the average examples can be had for €1,000-1,500. And with the proliferation of large hatchbacks in 1980s and 1990s, it doesn’t even look that strange. It’s still unconventional, and it’s the kind of design you love more the more you look at it, but for average person, it’s just an old car.
Which makes it a perfect vehicle for finding out what that whole “Citroën legend” is all about. Were French onto something with their hydropneumatic suspensions, strange power steering systems and other stuff? Was it an engineering dead end, or shall we be sad that automotive world lost something of its diversity, when Citroën started making more “normal” cars?
In the XM, you can see the Citroën’s weirdness without the mythical aura surrounding its predecessors. I had an opportunity to spend some quality time with a nicely preserved example of the most desirable version of the XM – the 3.0 V6 24V with a five-speed manual transmission, in the highest Exclusive spec. This combination should make it almost into a sports sedan in its day and age – 200 horsepower was still a big deal in 1990s, especially in Europe. And with the full leather interior, power everything, AC and other goodies, and especially with the famed hydropneumatic suspension, it should be also supremely comfortable.
But the first thing you notice when you place yourself in sizeable, leather-clad chair, isn’t how comfortable it is – although it really is nice. No, the first impression is of unusually low hipline – it is especially noticeable when you transfer from any kind of modern car, but even most other 1980s-1990s luxurious cars feel decidedly “bunker-like” compared to the XM. You sit quite high, looking down on the dash, and with wonderful view around, thanks to the slim pillars. It really doesn’t feel like a sporty, luxurious sedan usually does, but it’s not a bad thing. It’s just different.
And that’s good, as other stuff is dreadfully conventional. The steering wheel is round, with several spokes. Pedals are in the foot well, and all look and work like, well, car pedals. The shifter is on the center console, you need to depress clutch to shift and the shift pattern is conventional. Even the stalks and buttons are normal. If you hoped for some Citroën craziness, like clutchless manual transmission, or a mushroom instead of a brake pedal you’ll be disappointed. Probably the strangest detail in all the cabin is the anti-theft device keyboard, lidded like it should really be used for launcing ICBMs (or putting up white flags). Not enough, Citroën. Not enough.
But then you start moving, and you instantly realize this car’s got balls. Green balls, all six of them. They serve some function in the hydropneumatic suspension, either being reservoirs for Liquide Hydraulique Minéral, or a mixture of vampire blood, gargoyle sweat and crushed dragon claws. Either way, it should result in a ride that’s compliant when you want to relax, and sporty when the computer recognizes you want to go fast. This is the difference from older Citroëns, which were usually just soft, although eerily stable.
According to the owner’s words, this example had a case of bad balls, with the middle ones not working exactly like they should I was told that if 100% fit, the car would be more compliant, although it still wouldn’t offer that cloud-like ride the older CX can muster.
The suspension was still strangely stable, not leaning into corners or during braking and largely ignoring the road undulations, but the secondary ride quality was a bit lacking – I could still feel the ruts and potholes in the road, although the sound was maybe more intrusive than actual movement. As it was, it rode like a really well-sorted car on a steel-sprung suspension with small wheels and tall tires. For real verdict on the unique comfort of Citroën suspensions, you will have to wait for the CX review later in the series.
But the Hydractiv suspension is about more than just a comfy ride. It can make itself stiff when needed, not allowing the car to lean into turns. At the photo venue, I had to repeatedly go up the hill with some quite slow but flowing corners and nice road surface, before I could turn around and return to the dam. And with each go, I was confident to push a bit faster, eventually going really quick. And the experience is hard to describe – for lack of better words, I would say that XM drives like in a videogame. With the car hunched to the ground, the body lean is almost absent, removing one important impression of speed and cornering. And then there’s the DIRASS power steering – a modernized version of famous DIRAVI. It is speed-sensitive, getting progressively heavier the faster you go, but there’s absolutely no feel in the helm. I suspect that going for the limits of grip could be a rather unpleasant experience, as the only way to tell you’re past the limit is the sound of tires screeching, but up to some 7 or 8 tenths, it’s actually quite good. Not great, not really sporty, but once again, the good kind of strange.
But where the XM really gets to its own is on fast, flowing country roads. It’s too large and classy for backroad fun, but on faster ones, it manages to be very quick without really trying, nicely masking the real speed. You can just imagine yourself as a French industry captain, or maybe some high bureaucrat, in a hurry for some meeting somewhere, or just going to check out his domain.
The XM is truly unlike any other car. Large and comfortable on one hand, quick and even a bit sporty on other. Classy and stylish, used by industry captains, ministers and presidents, yet hugely practical with the hatchback trunk. Understated, yet unique in its design.
Myth or Legend?
Legend. It wasn’t as revolutionary as the DS, or as quirky as the CX, but it was unique, and in many ways, it’s the last of the breed.
Do I need to drive it?
Absolutely, no matter whether you’ve driven a hydropneumatic Citroën before. It can be a good start, or a variation on well-known theme.
Should I buy it?
Well, in US, you can’t, so the question is pointless. But if you can, and if you don’t mind fixing stuff (and have a reliable transportation), go for it. It’s a wonderful car.
Photo by Jiří Klimeš