Making amends for past indiscretions, Driven to Write takes a long look at the last true Citroën.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Part two here…