Theme of Last Month: Values – Head over heart?

A quick game of word association around the kitchen table with select members of my tribe provided a 100% consistent response: I say, ‘values’ – tribe members respond, ‘family’. Looks like I’ll be writing about our family car, then. 

2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso: source
2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso: source

Ladies (out of interest, does DTW have any female readers?) and gentlemen, I give you the Citroen Xsara Picasso. By the end of this September, we will have owned our Xsara Picasso for 10 years. This is a record for me. It’s almost certainly down to the fact that my wife uses it more than I and she’s perfectly happy with it. My wife appreciates my passion for automobiles, but does not really share in it, so the Picasso is a utility which causes little or no grief and performs its function without fuss – ergo, why get rid?

2006 Citreoen Xsara Picasso interior: source
2006 Citreoen Xsara Picasso interior: source

The car in question is a 56 plate, 1.6L petrol ‘Desire’ (pauses) in a rather nice China Blue (a dark-yet-bright shade of blue). It has manual air-con, electric front windows, 4 airbags (all to the benefit of the front passengers), plastic wheel trims, and the signature piece which is the plastic fold-away wheeled carry-cart that clips into the side of the boot. It now has about 75,000 miles on it and has been and remains pretty remarkably reliable.

From memory, it actually let us down completely once (starter-motor fault, the nature of which seems quite common to Citroens), caused us one major MOT failure (the passenger side seat airbag had failed due to wiring damage) which costed over £1,000 to rectify, and otherwise has just needed fuel and a set of new tyres. Apparently, the more premium C4 Picasso which replaced it is nothing like as dependable. Our Xsara Picasso averages 34 MPG, which is OK as most of the work it does is short, town related trips. Given that we handed over £8k in cash plus a 7 year-old Scenic in order to purchase it new in the first place (which was excellent value), the general sense is that it owes us very little and its market value is even less, so any replacement is going to feel like a major outlay. Hence, there is little incentive for us to swap it for something else.

2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso inteior rear: source
2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso interior rear: source

I am aware that I must be giving the impression that I am keen to get shot of this car – which seems a most ungrateful stance to be taking with a beast of burden which has served my family well. Indeed, my daughter, who has grown up with it, has welded an unyielding emotional attachment to – ahem – “Bessie”, such that any talk of replacement is met with visible and voluble anguish. It’s true, though, that I struggle to feel much warmth towards this car, even though it has some very honest qualities, and, it makes me wonder what this says about my own values.

The chill in my heart probably starts with the styling. The Xsara Picasso was clearly ‘inspired’ by the 1994 Xanae concept, but translation into production somehow lost too much of what made that one of the stars of that year’s Paris Show. The basic form/ silhouette is quite a fun concept – a kind of giant egg on wheels. When depicted as such on the one piece of design wit on the car, that being the egg-like doodle of the car used on the HVAC control panel, it comes to life. However, the execution of the theme externally loses definition. I think there is too much going on in the detailing and body surfacing, and the latter serves to make the car look weak, soft and quite literally, flabby.

I feel a Japanese marque would have made a much more modern and effective fist of it (I guess I am thinking of the S-Cargo when I type that). The Xsara Picasso was released smack in the middle of that Blakeslee era that gave us the Mk1 C5, the Saxo and the Xsara itself. Need I say more? Our car is a facelifted version, and, to my eyes, whomever was responsible made a decent fist of it. It’s made up of minor changes, but the car looks more taut and clean surfaced.

2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso interior (Brazil): source
2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso interior (Brazil): source

The Xsara Picasso is immensely practical. It has what I have increasingly appreciated is an unbeatable and irreplaceable ratio of road footprint to usable internal space, helped, no doubt by fewer safety and ‘luxury’ features than one expects today. In the cabin, there is fair room for three across the back, lots of head and legroom, deep side windows framed by relatively slender pillars, and large door pockets. It’s the same in the front, although the driving position creates a pain in my left hip after a couple of hours. One sits high up, and quite high off the floor.

The boot is huge, box-like and can be turned into a small cave by either folding or removing the rear seats (which are heavy, though, and have some sharp edges that can catch knuckles or clothing). The rear seats themselves are not comfy, though, for longer distances – hard base, shallow back, next to useless head-rest. They are OK for young children, but my two teenagers now suffer – to the extent that they tend to sit on a cushion (and I’m not sure how safe that is?). So, although it’s big inside and airy, it’s not really as comfortable as it should be.

Influential - the 1994 Xanae concept...
Influential – the 1994 Xanae concept…

The perceived quality is pretty terrible – most of the plastics (doors, lower dash) are very thin, flimsy and cheap-looking and they scratch quite easily. But, they don’t break. The carpet is thin (in fact, it’s more felt than carpet) and seems to trap dust and pieces of grit. As mentioned, the predecessor to our Picasso was a facelifted Mk1 Scenic, and it was both much better styled externally and felt a more premium product inside – a Scenic has all the interior features of the Picasso, they are just executed with more quality and care.

There is an upside in that one feels less precious about the Picasso – it’s a real workhorse and it seems to shrug off the general lack of TLC we afford towards it. Scuffed the plastic wheel-trims? Never mind, £50 can replace them, at some distant point in time that has yet to pass. Put a ding in a door panel? It’s OK, it adds to the patina. Just shrug it off … Hence, you tend to just rock up to it, get in, switch on, and drive.

That Citroen Xsara Picasso HVAC control up close.
That Citroen Xsara Picasso HVAC control up close.

Drive is probably the wrong word, actually, it’s more like one operates a Picasso. As such, it makes life easy enough. Controls are light, the gear change long-winded and rather vague, but uncomplicated. The HVAC ‘knobs’ are a model of simplicity and efficacy. The high up and centrally mounted instrumentation is scant, but clear and tells you just what you need to know (like its 2CV forerunner and, indeed, today’s Cactus).

The dashboard in which these features are housed is quite extraordinary and unlike any other of which I can think. It’s a bulbous, curvy, bulky edifice of light and dark grey plastic that fair dominates one’s view of the interior. It’s styling is vaguely late 70’s Sci-Fi (I’m thinking Blake’s 7, or Battle Beyond the Stars, rather than Star Wars). Going back to the original point, one does not get into the driver’s seat and ever think, “this’ll be good/ fun”! The chassis manages to roll quite a lot and feel soft, and yet road imperfections shudder thought the car and seem particularly exaggerated for those sitting in the back. The engine, for all its 16 valves, works in a forgettable way, for good and bad effect. This is transport and the Picasso does not allow one to forget it.

2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso: source
2006 Citroen Xsara Picasso: source

But, I’m missing the plot, which is not an accusation which one can aim at my wife. She really likes the utility of it, the lack of worry attached to using it. As she pointed out the other day, the other Citroen on the drive is an absolute ‘prima donna’ in and repays the love, attention and adoration that I pour on it with the automotive equivalent of a hissy-fit with an alarming regularity whilst its unglamorous Cinderella relative just quietly gets on with all the hard work.

The Picasso takes us camping without complaint, does a tip run without a care, and puts up with a damp border terrier jumping up on seats and the dash knowing that a quick wipe will sort the resultant muddy smears. It’s going to be a case of only appreciating the real value of it when it’s gone. Like I wrote earlier, I’m not keen on what I think that says about me, but I guess I’m only human.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

24 thoughts on “Theme of Last Month: Values – Head over heart?”

  1. Due to an editorial mishap, this piece was originally wrongly assigned. I realise that this will further increase the suspicion that DTW is all the work of one person, myself, and that I am actually a precocious 13 year old from Hawaii, which is of course untrue. My apologies. The appropriate staff members will be severely chastised. Go to go, my Mum’s coming up the stairs …

    1. chrisward1978 commented on the wrongly assigned post:

      Super story. High on petrol fumes, it is easy to dismiss cars such as the Xsara Picasso, and lord knows, I have. Decoupled from any notions of “cool” or “driving pleasure”, they fulfil their remit well. Unlike an estate you can generally fit three child seats across the back, and the footprint is not so huge as to make the car unwieldy in car parks.

      It is just a shame that the Xsara Picasso came at the absolute nadir of Citroen styling; the general concept is sound and subsequent generations of Picasso are, I think, decently turned out. What always brings down MPVs in my eyes is the vast dashboards cab-forward designs necessitate. Invariably the interior subjects us to a sea of nasty plastic that stretches both to the horizon of the windscreen base, and the depths of the floor, which is more plainly visible due to the space around your legs. Better materials would help here, as would the reduction of bulky, cabin-filling forms, two things the Xsara Picasso does not quite manage.

      Still, I am glad that your wife likes the car. To most people cars are mere appliances for the movement of people and stuff, and the Xsara Picasso does that without complaint. Perhaps I would feel a bit less warm towards it if I myself had stumped up a thousand pounds for wiring issues, but perhaps your attitude is a great deal more sanguine than my own. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, a child can explode a tin of Coke in the back seat of a 10 year old Xsara Picasso and you really do not have to care, making it absolutely perfect for the role it serves.

  2. I have long suspected that this web site is the result of an A.I experiment gone wrong. No “man” can produce the sheer amount of written material that “Richard” does. Besides, his high regard for the Opel Astra is surely indicative of some malfunctioning algorithm.

    Frankly, thanks to this episode, I have begun to doubt that any of you actually exist. Like Deckard in Blade Runner, I am even entertaining the possibility that I myself am a Replicant.

    1. You’re almost there Chris. Since out little experiment is now uncovered, it can’t harm to show you a picture of ‘Richard’ and assistant. ‘Richard’ is the one on the right.

  3. An admirable car in many ways – useful, unpretentious and (unless it breaks) low maintenance. I’m not sure what it says about you either, except that you are clearly a better human being than that prick in the SUV next to you 😉

    We’ve got a Honda FRV as our family chariot – it is better than the Picasso is some ways, worse in others. I have no issue with the vast dashboards of cab forward designs but find it hard to forgive instrumentation that is not placed directly ahead of the driver – why on earth not?

    The FRV is also a little uncomfortable over long distances (better back seats though), although none of these cars – save the Ford S Max – are any good to drive. They are a means to an end, not a joy in themselves. A second, more interesting car to use as an alternative is a desirable addition!

  4. Indeed, when I had a series 1 Espace, I always felt that the vast expanse of dash top was wasted and that maybe I should plant a decent herb garden there.

    Centre instruments are certainly an experiment that never needed to be made in the first place, and should have been called off long ago.

  5. Looking at the Xanae, it doesn’t look as though it would have been hard to transfer some of the style to the Xantia. Why the body colour window frames? It’s almost as though it was deliberately designed to look ‘wrong’. Yet it doesn’t look utilitarian. But I can appreciate why Mrs R likes it – it does all that’s expected of it and you don’t feel precious about it. We had a Berlingo at work with the folding shopping trolley. It never got used, but it was still a nice touch.

  6. Quite a few ostensibly boring cars I have known turned out to be quite likeable. This Xsara would be in that class. I also can’t understand what it was in the Xanae that would scare the horses. The worst transgression is the dim move to leave the pillars body coloured. Also, the area under the mirrors is too wide. It’s a rotten bit of styling: flawed, quite distinctivel and methodically odd. The interior is also quite lame. Despite all that it’s evidently a clever package and once you get past the looks that can win you over.

  7. This video of an absurdly unrealistic mid-1990s French family enjoying the Xanae is worth a look. The concept was so much better looking than the production car.

    1. Very nice concept car indeed. Inntroducing the Xsara Picasso, i thoght Citroën was reaching the lowest point of their design history. But the Citroen C5 was still to come….
      On the other hand these Citroen (Xsara, Xsara Picasso, Saxo) were pretty successful. The Xsara Picasso was very reliable, spacious, equipped with a real french comfortable suspension and offers relatively a lot of fun to drive.
      Citroen had the highest market share in 2003 – with cars like the Xsara, Xsara Picasso, C5 etc.

      Maybe we all are underestimating the attraction of the shopping bag….

    2. Marcus, they were all also heavily discounted against the retail price, hence great value if you could live with the dull drive, awkward design and cheap looking plastics.

    3. I actually thought that between all the Xsara, Saxo and C5 blandness, the XsP was one of the better designs. At least it provided an own approach to van shapes and had a nice, long wheelbase. In higher specs and dark colours, it didn’t look too bad. The materials inside probably didn’t improve with that, I guess.

    4. That´s true, huge discounts helped selling Citroen their cars. Concerning the dull drive, the cheap plastics and the boring design – well, these characteristics could be maximized by some competitors:

  8. Can I just say that the now removed initial comment from, I think, Herr Kubrik believing the article to be Richard’s (understandably), had me in a minor fit of mirth in a meeting. To the effect of a mixture of “you kept that quiet!” and “never in a million years would I have expected you to admit to owning a PICASSO!?”, it was like a lovely, harmless April Fool stunt coming off to perfection. I thought I was going to gave to leave the room …

    1. It was me I think. Not a surprise seeing that I’ve been stalking Richard for a long time, here and on the Guardian’s architecture pages. I thought for a minute that I missed a snippet while busy monitoring Sean’s movements around SW London…

  9. Back in the mid-90’s Channel 4 in the UK presented a series called ‘Auto Erotic’, part of their long-running ‘Without Walls’ show. Presented, if memory serves by none other than Journalist, Russell Bulgin and narrated by a pre-Partridge Steve Coogan, it explored car design, its tropes and its personalities. I have one episode on VHS and among the great and good therein is Citroen’s Art Blakeslee giving forth his vision for the Xanae concept.

    Again, if memory serves, the key motif of the Xanae was that of the human eye – in the shape of the headlights, the DLO outline, even the side rubbing strips. This, he said was to suggest the car was looking out for its occupants, who were safely cocooned within; the interior a place of safety in an increasingly dangerous world – or words to that effect. The usual designer twaddle in other words. He was if I recall, a rather unconvincing presence on camera. As were the production cars associated with him…

    1. I remember that, although not to the level of detail of you – that’s impressive! I liked that series – I recall Bulgin discussing what he liked about the Punto whilst wondering around the car in a white back-dropped studio.

      I had thought at one point about researching Blakeslee’s oeuvre whilst at Citroën, but what spare life I have is just too short.

    2. Sadly I only ever saw one episode. I recall Giugiaro also pitched up to discuss ‘his‘ Punto, Peter Stevens critiqued the Miura and Countach and (heaven help us all), Geoff Lawson poked his cigarette into the Series III E-Type – (stones, glass houses?)

      Speaking of Blakeslee, he recounted how one of his old bosses back in Detroit would carry an axe, ambush neophyte stylists by embedding said hatchet into his clay model, exclaiming; ‘Get hot kid’!. He even demonstrated the act on camera for those who couldn’t visualise it.

      Bulgin clearly called in a lot of industry contacts for the show – I thought he came across well. The next Clarkson I remember thinking at the time…

      Of course there’s a argument that the people who presided over failure are often more interesting than the ones we recall for more positive reasons. It’s comparatively easy to fling projectiles Blakeslee’s way – (and heaven knows I’m tempted) – but perhaps someone ought to document the era?

  10. Regarding that lovely picture of “Richard” above, I must say that as my seventh decade draws to a close, her legs remind me that no single vehicle form has ever got close to the perfection shown there. No, not even an E type in 1961 – Yvonne at school was quite a bit better than that and had synchromesh in bottom gear standard in addition to a stellar nought to 60 time. But a few minutes ago my attention was drawn to “Richard” and nothing else for quite some time. The rude buffoonery and wild excresences of styling to which we are nowadays subjected are um, so artificial, particularly new Toyotas.

    Nature generally appears to clothe the rather shockingly ugly working bits of animals’ insides with a very smooth exterior. There must be a lesson there somewhere … styling and design matter and unless there is a total desire to shock for whatever cockeyed reason, all current Lexi should be gathered in one spot and euthanized with extreme prejudice to stop the spread of nasty.

    OTOH, Elon Musk thinks we’re all living in a computer simulation rather than nature, a rather time-worn speculation, which any trip to the loo at night with no lights on resulting in a stubbed toe on a door jamb will quickly dispel as groundless shallow thinking.

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