Act of Contrition – Citroën C6 (part one)

Making amends for past indiscretions, Driven to Write takes a long look at the last true Citroën.

Image: Autotitre
Image: Autotitre via Net Car Show

Despite its premier position in Citroën’s iconography, the incomparable Déese never really represented the double chevron’s stylistic North Star. That position is occupied by its less well loved successor, the 1974 CX. Despite being viewed by some ardent Citroënists as the lesser vehicle, the CX’s silhouette remains not only the one best associated with the marque, but also one which most aficionados would welcome a return to.

When Citroën launched the C6 saloon in late-2005, we couldn’t have known that it would be their last haut de gamme saloon in the classic idiom. At the time, (for me at least) it represented a disappointingly clumsy visual interpretation of a more alluring concept and because of this I never quite forgave the C6 for not being the flagship Citroën it had promised to be.

Sometimes it’s useful to know when to keep quiet, a lesson I really ought to have learned by now. In conversation with engineer, Steve Randle last year the subject turned to Citroën, a marque very close to his heart. Randle doesn’t simply pay lip service to his passion for Quai de Javel’s finest, five classic examples of the breed currently making up part of his collection of orphans.

Pointing out my ambivalence to the C6, he replied with a knowing smile, “I’ve got one of those as well…” At this point a wise man would have changed tack or at the very least backtracked, but I’m an idiot. Ploughing fruitlessly into the hole I was assiduously digging, I went on to expound at length as to why I considered it a pale shadow of big Citroëns past.

Steve was remarkably sanguine about this, replying good naturedly, “Not many people were [enamoured], you’ve seen how few were sold… but it’s an Art Deco car, what’s not to love?” Later that evening, I listened back to the interview transcript and winced. There was only one thing for it…

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. By the tail-end of the 1990s, PSA was going through profound cultural change. At Citroën’s Vélizy studios, the stultifying era of design chief Art Blakeslee was drawing to a close. 1999 saw the appointment of Jean-Pierre Ploué with a remit to inject a little formal joie de vivre to proceedings.

It’s probably unlikely the abortive third-series facelift for the XM was carried out under Ploué’s tutelage, but either way the result was staggeringly poor. It’s conceivable that the intention had been to give the existing car a slightly longer lifespan to allow for its replacement to be readied. However, wiser councils prevailed and the unsullied XM was discontinued in 2000. Expedient perhaps, but possibly decisive as events would subsequently illustrate.

Image: Citroenet
1999 C6 Lignage concept. Image: Citroenet

1999 also saw a concept readied for the motor show circuit intended to preview Citroën’s bolder styling direction under Ploué’s leadership. Shown that autumn at London’s Earls Court motor show, the Lignage concept was, (for me at least), the undoubted show star.

With smooth largely unadorned lines and a retro-futurist aesthetic, Lignage promised a return to the confident, wilfully different ‘third way’ that once characterised the marque but had been suffocated under PSA’s repressive (mis)-rule. I attended the show that year and couldn’t tear myself away from it. Although even I could see it would never make production in this form, the message was clear. Anticipation ran high.

Anticipation which soon turned to frustration as years passed. Throughout this period, with the XM discontinued in 2000, Citroën was unrepresented in the luxury saloon market – one that was coming under unprecedented pressure from so called prestige marques. During that hiatus, existing XM owners had nowhere to turn but into the arms of rivals.

Some may have given Peugeot’s 607 a punt, others Renault’s more outré Vel Satis, but perhaps the obvious choice for orphaned Citroënistes was Lancia’s under-regarded Thesis. Either way, by the time Vélizy had readied the C6 in late 2005, much of their core market had melted away.

Image: Parkers
Image: Parkers

Amongst the sea of material contained in the excellent Citroënet website is the UK press release for the C6, extracts of which I quote here. In this section, its styling lineage is made plain.  “The original design of [the] C6 combines Citroën styling cues with those of an executive car. The proportions and profile immediately identify it as a member of the Citroën family. [The] new C6 features a long front overhang and short rear overhang which along with the design lines, brings powerful coupés to mind. The design and shape reflect the emotional appeal of an elegant, dynamic coupé with the proportions and features of an executive limousine. The attractive, imposing profile is showcased by its generous dimensions — 1.86 m wide, 1.46 m high and 4.91 m long.”

It then goes on to examine who Citroën had identified as the C6’s key UK rivals. No great surprises here. “The segment is dominated by the three German brands: Mercedes, BMW and Audi, taking 48% of the total segment sales in the UK. The C6 will compete in the 4- door saloon sub-segment which totalled 158,000 registrations in 2004 – 44% of the total H segment. Within the 4 door saloon sub-segment C6 has 7 major competitors: BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E- Class, Jaguar S-Type, Audi A6, Volvo S80, Saab 9-5 and Peugeot 607.”

Here it gets interesting as Citroën drilled further down into the sector, identifying two sub groups: purchasers of German prestige cars and those of non German rivals, both ‘prestige’ and ‘semi-premium’ – these being Jaguar, Saab and Volvo. (Note the absence of Peugeot).  “Buyers of German cars (Group 1) tend to be middle-aged and slightly younger than the buyers in Group 2. As a consequence, 80% of them are in employment (as opposed to being in retirement) and when buying a car, mainly” focus on style and performance. Purchasers of non—German cars (Group 2), are older on average and 30% of them are retired. They have no children at home and have more time to simply enjoy life. They are looking for a car providing an outstanding level of comfort as well as excellent general durability. Criteria such as style and performance come lower down on their list of priorities.”

C6 rear compartment. Image: Auto Express
Spacious. C6 rear compartment. Image: Auto Express

Despite being derived from elements of the mid-sized PSA PF3 architecture, the C6 bodyshell offered a vast interior compartment with an emphasis on space and comfort, offering a wheelbase of 2.9 m – the longest in its sector. The rear floorpan was also completely flat giving a heightened impression of space, while improving rear access. Citroën’s press release stated the creative aim was to create a ‘lounge on wheels’.

Launched with a full and technically ambitious specification with included features such as fully computer controlled Hydractive suspension, a head-up display, optional TGV rear seats, lane departure warning, xenon directional headlamps, an electronic parking brake and an automatically deployed tail spoiler, the C6 was a technology leader. The car’s (AMVAR) variable damping system allowed drivers to alter the damping parameters for comfort or dynamics, controlled via 16 different modes by the car’s computer.

Initially powered by either a 3.0 litre PSA petrol V6 unit or a jointly developed PSA/Ford 2.7 litre V6 twin turbo diesel, the range was joined in the autumn of 2006 by the PSA/Ford 2.2 HDi four cylinder unit. In 2009, a revised 3.0 litre version of the V6 turbo diesel was also offered.

A car to return to. Image:

The C6 was neither a commercial nor critical success. The UK motor press condescended to its perceived oddness, sneered at its ability to lure customers from the Germanic hegemony and then damned those who chose one to the prospect of ruinous depreciation. But set aside the posturing and those who drove one were largely effusive about its capabilities.

But it probably didn’t matter. Citroën was late to market, one which had moved on and in their absence, matters such as ride comfort and lounge-like interiors played a decisive second (or third) fiddle to outright cornering and high speed handling. By mid-decade, everyone wanted a sports car.

Sales of the petrol-powered model were derisory and likely affected by the initial lack of a smaller capacity powerplant. Of the diesel powered models, the 2.2 and 3.0 litre versions have a better reputation for durability, but in the UK market at least were sold in tiny numbers.

From 2005 to late 2012, total production for the C6 totalled (an unsubstantiated) 23,384 cars. In its absence a large gap now exists at the top of the Citroën range, one the current regime under the fragrant Linda Jackson seem broadly uninterested in filling.

If last year’s CXperience concept demonstrated anything, it’s the widening gulf that exists around PSA management’s grasp of how a full sized Citroën should look (and feel), but their blithe abandonment of the unique oleopneumatic suspension speaks more eloquently of their intentions than any vapid pronouncement from their ‘marketing as God’ CEO.

They'll slap a pair of chevrons on anything nowadays and call it a Citroen. Image Leftlane News
Citroen’s mercifully China-only Passandeo. Image: Leftlane News

Part two here…

Further reading:
Citroën C6 design review
More on Jean-Pierre Ploué
This really should have been a Citroën
Steve Randle talks flying cars.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

20 thoughts on “Act of Contrition – Citroën C6 (part one)”

  1. Enjoying this courageous retrospective – I completely agree with your sentiment about the Lignage concept and how it cast a shadow over the production car when it finally arrived. But, if you’d never seen the concept before, the C6 was quite a showstopper in its own right and looks better with age. Looking forward to part 2 ….

  2. Interesting piece, thank you. An interesting and likeable car.

    However, describing it as ‘the last true Citroen’ begs the question: what is a true Citroen?

    The DS and CX are referenced in the story, and I get that. But the 2CV surely defines the company for many, and that is a world away from these large, hushed saloons.

    How about these – real or not? AX, BX, GS, C4 Cactus, XM?

    1. I suppose ingenuity links ‘true Citroens’ and, subjective though the term is, an endearing quirkiness. I don’t feel that Airbumps are really left-field thinking. I’ve owned both a Dyane and an SM from the early 70s and, massively different though their intended functions were, I’d contend that there is a surprising similarity to them. They both make comfort a priority and, if you know how to drive a 2CV, then once you learn to be less physical, a big hydraulic Citroen handles (and rolls) just the same.

    2. I can see why you might ask that Jacomo and the short answer is itself by way of a question. Has there been any Citroen branded car since the C6 that offers a convincing alternative to the ‘struts and a twist beam’ orthodoxy?

      Attempting to define what constitutes a proper Citroen is both difficult and wildly subjective, but I suppose what United the best examples of the breed was a rational wilfulness. Defiantly different, yes, but behind the perceived oddness was an essential rightness and fitness for the purpose.

      The AX, while a perfectly good little car (and a commendably light one) was too generically PSA for my taste. The C4 I drove steered with a vagueness that was quite alarming and the Cactus is just a bit ‘Jackson’ for me.

    3. Thanks for the responses.

      I am aware of Citroen’s contribution to the advancement of the car, but I’ve never owned one and I am far from an expert.

      I can see why air bumps don’t quite make the grade, but Linda Jackson has said that they are working on an ‘innovative’ new suspension arrangement. I don’t know what or when, though.

      For me, the C4 Cactus was a genuine attempt to rethink the family car, challenging ideas considered sacrosanct. I like the fact that it is light and not at all sporty, and it is at least different. The SUV design cues don’t bother me if they do not compromise the function of the car – that’s just fashion. I also think the new C3 is quite appealing.

    4. I like to think I’m not actually a dogmatic, old-school Citroeniste and reasonably open-minded to what manufacturers produce. I like the fact that Citroen say they are putting comfort first and, of course, if they achieve a fine riding car it doesn’t matter in the least whether it’s suspended on hydropneumatics or steel. I was greatly impressed by the Cactus in principle, but I felt it didn’t really pull it off when I sat in it – so much so that I didn’t even bother with the test drive.

      However I do agree that we give Ms Jackson a harder time here than she probably deserves. Even if some of the reality doesn’t come up to the guff, they are at least trying to create something a bit different. I guess it’s frustration.

  3. So which are the five Citroëns that Stave Randle owns? SM, C6 – what else?

    1. I hope Steve won’t mind me divulging such personal information, but in addition to the aforementioned, his collection also runs to an early CX, an Ami 6 and an Acadiane.

    2. Interesting choice. Makes me wonder if he chose the Acadiane out of complete fascination for the little van, or just for the occasional trip to the local dump. Probably both.

  4. To build a “true Citroën” is to build the best car that you can that advances the state of the art simultaneously on multiple fronts, unencumbered by such mundane matters as convention or profitability. The great Citroëns of the past have moved humanity forward in structure, packaging, aerodynamics, suspension, steering, packaging, ergonomics, safety, fuel economy…the list goes on.

    LJK Setright once memorably commented in CAR magazine words to the effect that if Citroën hadn’t gone bankrupt in the 1970s and therefore had been allowed to continue their 1930s to 1970s trajectory, a modern Citroën would make an egg look inefficient.

    1. Packaging should only be listed once. They didn’t pioneer the transverse FWD layout, after all 😉

    2. Longitudinal boxer FWD is just as good – short and with a low center of gravity. So low that you can put a spare wheel on top that will not clutter your boot.

  5. Transverse FWD for” minimal “packaging but traction avant when all others were akin to wagons with an engine!

  6. I dare say we can all agree that whatever a true Citroen is, a rebadged Opel isn’t it.

  7. The C6 suffered the classic failure of the late-to-market car: too small a range of engines and the price spread was too narrow.
    In isolation it’s a nice car. The strong feelings it engenders in owners are not a sign of madness but insight. That said, it was like the Thesis, not the right car. It was heavy and not practical – the CX and XM majored on utility as well as style. While I like the C6’s rich look today, in 2005 it seemed too Audi and too much of a backward-looking car: the CX reworked.
    The last real Citroen would be the BX, even it has 405 somewhere underneath.

  8. In my view, the C6 is probably a car that was doomed to sales failure no matter what it was or how it was pitched – the industry in general could see the wind was blowing in this sector by 2000. Ford didn’t spend a fortune on PAG for nothing (I mean, obviously it did, but not intentionally). Regardless, the turn of the century seems to be the point at which the sensible manufacturers gave up on pitching executive cars with decidedly plebeian badges on the nose. A handful struggled on valiantly for one more generation, but essentially the idea of the non-premium big car died at that point.

    With all of that said, if there is one thing Citroen could have done differently about the C6 that may have made a difference (however marginal), it would have been to give it a better-quality, less-407-y interior. I thought that was, by far, its biggest showroom flaw and I’m pretty confident at least a few prospective buyers felt the same way.

  9. I was at that Earl’s court motor show too back in 1997 when the Lignage was presented ! Aaah memories…..

  10. I’ve added a link to a dealer education video. Interesting to see how the manufacturer viewed the car and its features. It really was extraordinarily advanced technically – not something that was ever really covered properly in any reviews of the time.

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