Let’s look back at a quarter of a century of disappointment from Citroen. The ZX is 25 years old today.
Such was the let-down of seeing the first photos of the Citroen ZX that I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing at that moment. You don’t normally remember this kind of thing. If you recall that Citroen’s previous big launch had been the XM, then you can understand the shock of the ZX’s all-round ordinariness.
Even if the XM cost three times the price of the ZX, the difference in character was still very marked. There’s almost, but not quite, nothing Citroen about the ZX other than the badge. If you look very carefully you can find
Citroen style watered down to near undetectability. The rear wheel arch is slightly flattened to nod weakly at the XM’s own watered-down wheel arch design. The lamps are a slightly elongated. The rear lamps just about manage to suggest an affinity with the bigger car. The third side glass baffled me then and still does. It doesn’t quite align with the bigger panes yet is not clearly different as to suggest a deliberate design choice.
This feature too can be seen as hinting of the XM’s third, raised pane covering the C/D-pillar. Finally the bonnet line has a whiff of the pointiness one might expect of Citroen yet it’s nothing outstanding. All in all, Citroen applied just enough style to distinguish the outline of the car from an adorned, untreated package envelope.
Clearly in the ZX the design management at PSA wanted a car to compete with the Golf and to provide no chance for customers to reject it for any degree of idiosyncrasy. They didn’t consider that there is a middle ground between weird and anonymous. Fear drove them to muffle the Citroen character to the degree displayed by the ZX which, underneath the dull skin, was a well-packaged, comfortable vehicle with pleasant driving dynamics and a good range of engines.
That the car sold commendably well is not a vindication of Citroen’s design choice. It sold despite the dreariness of its shape, inside and out, not because of it. A car with about 10% more flair would have done even better, a point made apparent by the success of Ford’s Focus which was aimed at exactly the same market. Fiat’s Bravo and Brava pair also demonstrated that customers could cope with something like an imaginative design, even if mechanically and dynamically the cars were still very mundane.
To Citroen’s credit, the ZX still lingers on the public highway in not inconsiderable numbers. They are quite robust. It’s a pity that while throwing out the bathwater of mediocre construction, Citroen also lost the twins of engineering originality and design creativity that had been their hallmark for decades.