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.
Ladies (out of interest, does DTW have any female readers?) and gentlemen, I give you the Citroën 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?
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 Citroëns), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Citroën 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.