A Quarter Century of the Unexceptional – Citroen ZX

Let’s look back at a quarter of a century of disappointment from Citroen. The ZX is 25 years old today.

1991 Citroen ZX: motorstown.com
1991 Citroen ZX: motorstown.com

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

1991 Citroen ZX interior: autoevoltion.com
1991 Citroen ZX interior: autoevoltion.com

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

25 thoughts on “A Quarter Century of the Unexceptional – Citroen ZX”

  1. “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.”

    You made a similar comment about the Pontiac Aztec recently. In both cases the third glass is flush, when the others are slightly recessed, which means they don’t relate and end up looking misaligned. I take it the treatment is seamless on the XM?

    1. I hope the subsequent post explained the allignment problem was to do with the cars as seen in profile rather than being related to flushness.

  2. The thing is, at least the ZX was only unexceptional, what came next (Xsara) was plain awful. I borrowed one recently and it rates as one of the worst cars I have ever driven.

  3. While the 5-door-ZX was a little bit nicer Yugo Florida – and the Yugo Florida is pretty ugly – the 3-door version with the characteristic B-pillar was much more convincing – it adds a slightly sporty touch to the ZX – especially to the versions with the rounded rear wheel-arch.

    Compared with the other french compact cars at that time – the 306 and the Renault 19 – the ZX was the least attractive one for sure. Especially in white with black plastic bumpers – those cheap versions were coming without slideable rear-seats but with a very ugly two-spoke steering wheel…

    1. There really isn´t much there, is there. At the time the bump over the door handle alarmed me. It seemed so exaggerated. Now it´s much less noticeable. One gets used to things over time. Is it possible the designers saw the car in a more “intense” way than we do today? We are confronted with some very pronounced features on most models. In 1991 design was quieter and that´s why the door handle bump stood out so much then.

    2. I think you’re referring to the Reflex version, the entry-level one, which also was only available with the least powerful engines (1,1i, 1.4i and 1.9D); if you wanted it in any other colour, a little more good-looking and also more equipped and available with almost any of the engines in the range (except the 1.1i and 1.9i ones), you could go for the Avantage or Aura versions; finally, if you wanted a sporty look and feel, you could choose the Volcane version, which was attached to the most powerful engines (1.9i and 1.9 TD).
      I’m talking about the launch versions, forget about other versions and limited series that came later.
      And I’ll also tell you that it has been one of my favourite cars of my childhood, and at that time my mum had the ZX’s “smaller sibling”, the AX, which has NEVER let us down! (congrats to Citroën for making such reliable cars, both the AX and the ZX, no wonder they’re still somewhat common in roads and streets of my country, Spain)

    3. Hello Daniel:
      Thanks for stopping by. The ZX had its merits. Did they have to come at the expense of Citroen style? In making the ZX so banal PSA now had two mainstream cars on sale for similar money. The 306 looked better and whereas I see these all the time here, I never see a ZX. It could also be a matter of market preference. The same goes for the AX whereas I see 106s often here. I am glad you were happy with the ZX. A Citroen friend of mine had one and he liked it for its reliable service and smooth ride. So, the ZX was far from a bad car but a long way from being a nice Citroen.

  4. Let’s not forget that the ZX is probably the car that saved PSA twice.

    Firstly by providing a platform for the Xsara Picasso – I’m not a fan , but it was a massive sales success and profit earner.

    Secondly by way of the Dongfeng Fukang and Elysée. If the door hadn’t been opened in 1992, would Dongfeng have stepped in in 2014 to underpin the PSA rescue plan?

  5. I think Citroen got the ZX about right for the time and market sector. The early ’90s were grim years for C-segment hatches, and the ZX is better proportioned and detailed than anything from the era except – arguably – the Rover R8 200/400 and the Peugeot 306 (I prefer the ZX).

    The Golf / Astra / Focus market segment is also the one which has the highest proportion of customers who have no interest whatever in cars. Such people invariably go for something visually inoffensive, reliable and cheap to buy and run, from a trusted brand. The ZX fitted the bill well, adding class-leading engines and chassis competence to the mix. That said, at the other end of the ’90s, Ford stormed the C segment with the downright wacky looking Focus.

    The ZX was also one of the three Citroens Britain loved, the others being the Traction Avant and the BX.

    None of which quite explains the ZX’s purpose; Too big to be a Visa replacement, uncomfortably close to the BX in size (and a damn sight heavier). Was it a toe in the water before the make-or-break, mechanically near-identical Peugeot 306, or possibly the basis of a PSA ‘world car’?

    I’m thinking probably both…

    1. I have two words and a letter in response to your generous assessment of the ZX:

      Opel Astra F.

      Others are welcome to smile bemusedly at my regard for this car. I say it was subtly surfaced, intelligently resolved and even today looks fundamentally correct. About the only “problem” was that it was merely an appliance to drive. The fact so many are around while the Escorts, Golfs and ZXs are few and far between in comparison says alot about the ruggedness of the construction.

      If I had to choose an alternative to the Astra F, it would be the Peugeot 306 which is crisply classical. I couldn´t change one detail on that car (ditto the Astra). Having driven one I can vouch for its excellent driving quality. They also seem to last.

      Alas, I can´t find a lot to like about the ZX which is not better looking than an Astra (not much is) and not much nicer to drive than a 306. At least it´s not a Golf. We can agree on that.

      That said, it´s interesting to hear someone defend the ZX and I must admit the more I stared at the photo today the more I noticed the subliminal Citroen touches. The rear side glass is still dire though.

    2. The size of the ZX was perfectly alright. Before Citroën didn’t have an entry in the Golf class. The BX was smaller than most cars in the class above (at least on the outside), but bigger than a Golf, Escort or Astra. Yes, the size difference of BX and ZX was minimal, but this was corrected once the Xantia entered the scene.

      It seems to me that from the mid-eighties to the early nineties Citroën readjusted their whole offer to be more in line with the German / international (?) car classes. Before, there was a large gap between GS and CX.

  6. Also Simon and Robertas there is a general tendency for a model to increase in size from generation to generation. The BX was a smallish car from 1983 and the ZX was launched for 1991 and, I suppose had to be large enough to accomodate the expected growth of its peers during its sales life (eight years or so). During that time the Astra was launched, which Citroen expected. The Fiat Tipo was replaced in 1995; the Alfa Romeo 33 stopped in 1995, the Nissan Sunny stopped in 1995, the Golf Mk2 stopped in 1992, The Toyota Corolla E90 stopped in 1992. There were two generations of Civic (one ending in 1991 and another 1995). And so on and so on. As Simon notes, the old Citroen range was quite heterogenous: AX, Visa, 2CV, BX, XM. By the time PSA was done it was Saxo, ZX, Xantia, Berlingo (?) and XM not to mention the fantastic Evasion.

    1. The Evasion – poor man’s Zeta / Phaedra! (unless you’re thinking of the Heuliez fetted CX wagon)

      Sevel-love turns up in the strangest places – long before he embarked on his new career as a tramp, Bayley expressed an enthusiasm bordering on improper lust for the Fiat Ulysse in his CAR column.

      I suspect he was being deliberately controversial. Then again, I have an entirely inexplicable notion for a Fiat Freemont, a re-branded Dodge Journey denied to the British Islanders, but, bizarrely, available with RHD in Australia.

  7. As nothing compared with the 1957-1970 gap between the 2CV/Ami/Dyane and the DS…

    What’s strange is that Citroën never really replaced the Traction Avant, which was, despite its enormously long wheelbase and wide tracks, a smaller and cheaper car than the DS.

    As the four cylinder TA had an engine size range of 1.3-1.9 litres, perhaps the BX, also inordinately long of wheelbase, was its true successor, 25 years too late.

    1. Perceptions are odd. If you asked me I´d say the TA was a bigger car. The interior of some versions is like a removals van with a bench in the back. The DS in turn asked a lot of customers with the price. Wasn´t it S-Class expensive in its day?

  8. And what one remembers: at the time Bayley raving about the Ulysse struck me. He ranges wildly from one extreme to the other. One minute it´s gilt-edged aestheticism and then he might admit liking something as ordinary as a Renault Trafic.
    Nobody likes the 807/Ulysse/Zeta cars. Goodness: a car I have forgotten all about, the Lancia Zeta. A trim designation, a brougham for Europe. You can get one for €650 in Bergkamen, Germany. Oh goodness.

  9. I can’t comment on how expensive the DS was when it arrived in an astonished world in 1955, but in the pre-Common Market UK in 1965 a DS19 saloon (pre-Opron facelift and the new engine) cost £1636. A 300SE was £3890. £1708 got you a Rover 3 litre saloon. Post 1972, UK DS prices were comparable to the Rover and Triumph 2000s, or the Volvo 144.

    I’ve also pulled up some numbers:

    1955 DS19 compared with TA11:

    Wheelbase: 214mm longer
    Front Track: 160mm wider
    Rear Track: 40mm narrower
    Length: 174mm longer
    Width: 171mm wdier
    Height: 56mm lower
    Weight: 200kg heavier

    1983 BX16TRS compared with TA11:

    Wheelbase: 256mm shorter
    Front Track: 60mm wider
    Rear Track: 14mm wider
    Length: 221mm shorter
    Width: 39mm wider
    Height: 153mm lower
    Weight: 80kg lighter

    Some of these surprise me. Seen in the metal, the TA looks very low and wide of track. I’ve never driven one, but I can well believe that the handling is extraordinarily good, by any standards.

  10. According to my Daily Express Cars of the Late 60s (best five quid I ever spent), a Benz 220 saloon cost £2439.and a DS Pallas cost £2,122. I grant you there´s a few month´s wages in the difference. And yes, a 280 SE cost £3,324.
    A Ford Zephyr cost £1,054 with a six cylinder.
    I wonder where I got that idea from about the price of the DS being so high. All I can say is, it´s a fair cop.
    About the TA: yes, it does seem wide and low. It´s hard to judge because of the separate wings and boxy body. You have to see them right next to the car being compared. Scale is tricky. I still think my XM is big but it´s not. It´s now an Astra-sized toy.

  11. Be careful abot the TA – it came in two sizes! The Légère was a smallish car and was never really replaced. It had 1.3 and 1.5 litre engines in the beginning, while the much larger “Normale” was only ever available with the 1.9 litre and of course the 2.7 litre 6 cylinder engine. This car was of about equal size as the DS.

    I remember reading that Citroën was struggling to keep some TA customers, as it was more complicated, futuristic and also expensive. That’s why they soon came up with the ID, a much simplified and lower-priced version of the DS, and available in ridiculously low trim levels.

    Regarding the Eurovans: For a joint development they are exceptionally good. No comparison to the flabby looks of Sharan/Galaxy. They were comfortable and spacious, and with the Zeta, very luxurious trim could be have. The second, blown up generation looks less convincing to me, but it was quite popular, and for a reason, as I hear from their owners.

  12. Some more figures about the cars in question:

    There is a 20 cm difference in length and over 10 cm in width between the small and the standard Tractions. The Légère is slightly bigger than the BX, but I remember that inside it’s really narrow. The BX is much wider and has ample boot space, which is something that the Traction lacks entirely. In turn, it has much more rear legroom, even the Légère.

    The six cylinder 15CV is lengthened by about 10 cm in the front, compared with the 11CV. Both also existed as longer versions (add another 20 cm in wheelbase and length, respectively). Thus, the car approached 5 metres in length – or even went beyond when they added a boot in 1952.

    All in all, it’s safe to say that the DS was rather a successor of the bigger models, while the Légère effectively went unreplaced until 1982.

    1. That´s a nice bit of research. I was not very clear on the different types of TA cars. I take that all cars had the same front but a different body from the bulkhead back?

    2. I’m not sure about how much of their bodies they have in common. I suspect that the whole Légère body is narrower, as there are almost 15 cm difference in their widths, and I don’t think that’s coming only from the wings. The shape of grilles and bonnets seem different, too.

      The rear body is easiest to distinguish. The C-pillar of the big models seems of about equal width as the side windows; the small models have a slim pillar. Likewise, the rear wheel of the big body is clearly rear of the door, with the latter showing only a slight cut-out at the lower corner. The Légère rear door is very clearly cut out for the wing.

      All in all, the two have a very different stance. While the Normale seems wide and low, the Légère looks narrow and upright. It also has more conservative proportions in profile, with the comparatively long bonnet and short rear cabin reminding more of a RWD car.

      Let me check if I find some evidence about shared parts in my ultimate reference, a book I hold very dear since the time I learned to read: “Toutes les Citroën” by René Bellu. The figures (except BX) also come from there.

  13. The CX was also a ‘two-wheelbase’ Citroën, and the difference was 145mm, almost exactly the same as the Traction. Even the CX wagon and Prestige had a shorter wheelbase than the DS, by 30mm.

    I had a notion that the DS also had two wheelbases, but having detoured to the archive this afternoon to retrieve my Citroën porn, it seems that it was 3125mm across the board, coachbuilt oddities, SM development hacks, and rally brutes excepted.

  14. Having worked on Citroen since 1984 at dealerships then owning my own specialist garage, I owe the marque quite a lot of thanks. I actually like the ZX, particularly in the XUD 1.9 non-turbo form. Here’s why:

    Resistance to corrosion is excellent, easy to service and repair, even the fairly common rear axle bearing failure is easily dealt with as you can get a completely rebuilt unit for the price of a set of tyres. New old stock parts plentiful and bought for pennines.

    You can do an extensive full car rebuild for under £700 in parts: I’ve just rebuilt one with every part imaginable replaced for £680 after lots of online searches. Also, remember that parts such as brakes/suspension can be upgraded using bits from the Volcane. Treat ownership of any older Citroen as a relaxing pastime.

    You end up with a car that can be insured for £220, will do another 150k mls and easliy achieve an overall 55mpg. Much better than spending £250/mnth forever, as many people do?

    They were the first Citroen not to lose the company a fortune in warranty work. The XUD will run on veg oil if you really want to run on a shoestring and ownership will make you happy. We live in mediocre times. Why not own a mediocre car?

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