Traction Rétrograde

The opposing polarities of the double chevron are unlikely ever to be satisfactorily reconciled, but was this any way to go about trying?

Citroen as white goods – in Gold. Image: buyacar

Many observers are content to nowadays view Citroën’s role as being that of the pre-Traction Avant era: fundamentally a purveyor of pragmatic, rather ordinary cars. The earthbound Goddess of course (temporarily) put paid to such notions and has formed the boundary line for a far more vehemently opposing camp who view Citroën’s descent from those Olympian heights as being somewhere between tragedy and outright crime. So if the car we’re gathered here to commemorate today falls into the former category, how are we to view it, twenty years later?

The Xsara was not the first, just another in a serially dispiriting line, following on from 1991’s ZX, a car critiqued on these pages as follows;  “There’s almost, but not quite, nothing Citroën about the ZX other than the badge. If you look very carefully you can find Citroen style watered down to near undetectability.” A statement which not only remains fiendishly difficult to counter with a straight face, but one which could even more justifiably be levelled at its successor.

The Xsara’s task was to build upon the success of a car which hardly set anyone’s heart aflame, but managed for a short time to outsell the VW Golf in the UK. The reasons for this anomaly were nuanced. Firstly the ZX was essentially a Golf with the merest hint of a French accent, and was similarly rational/ functional in offer. It was also tellingly cheaper to buy and in addition, gained a reputation for being a more pleasant car to drive, and a durable one in service. The ZX put Citroën squarely back into the C-segment, but while sales figures were respectable, they fell some way short of sector leaders – to say nothing of PSA stablemate, Peugeot’s 306.

Image: favcars

The Xsara was based on a shared PSA body structure derived from the ZX and aforementioned 306. Both shared thoroughly conventional C-sector hardware: a pair of McPhersons up front and a clever independent trailing arm/torsion bar arrangement with passive rear-steer geometry astern. Engines too were standard-issue PSA four cylinder petrol and diesel units. The market demanded no more and the Jacques Calvet/Xavier Karcher recipe was to give the customer what they expected – but (chassis dynamics apart) not a whit more.

Shared uncomplicated mechanical hardware of course made pragmatic sense at this hotly contested end of the market where margins were feeler-gauge thin – the Xsara programme costing PSA a fairly modest £200m before tooling and changeover costs, allowing the model a decent stab at profitability. The result meaning that the only possible differential would lie in matters of style and positioning.

Here PSA management would turn (group) logic on its head. While Renault had embarked on an acclaimed styling reinvention under the assured leadership of Patrick le Quément, Sochaux was inexplicably floundering. How else to view the decision to ready the as yet unreleased 307 as the more radical choice, with the Xsara the more conservative offering?

Styling duties were overseen by Velizy Studio chief, Donato Coco, reporting to Design Director, Art Blakeslee. Thematically, Xsara would refer to the mid-range Xantia and to a (very) fleeting extent, its more Citroënesque XM flagship, the intention being to create something akin to a Mercedes-like vertical affinity aesthetic.

The five door version, by far the most popular model was the work of a young British graduate who Blakeslee had approached while still completing his RCA automotive design course in the UK. Giles Taylor arrived with his suitcases at Vélizy in 1992 as the Xsara programme was being initiated and his theme was chosen over proposals from Bertone, who were reportedly responsible for the interior style.

Taylor, rather unusually was singled out for his contribution, Blakeslee telling Autocar in 1997,  “Giles is one of our best young designers, and I thought he should get credit for his efforts. I’ve found that if someone’s efforts are properly recognised, he’s likely to stay with you.” A somewhat presumptuous statement given that Taylor subsequently accepted an offer from Jaguar’s Geoff Lawson, where he would ultimately become responsible for, amongst others, the interior styling of the X350-series XJ. He has subsequently become Design Director at Rolls Royce.

Image: Bestcarmag

Xsara’s style was attractive and neatly executed in a slightly anodyne fashon, but rather obviously dialled down with the clear intention of neither eclipsing its larger sibling nor indeed its Peugeot equivalent. Critics were broadly underwhelmed, Autocar’s Steve Cropley describing it as “a mite conservative“, while lauding its visual coherence within the Citroën range. A three door version was also offered at launch, dubbed a coupé with a higher price point.

PSA’s market ambitions for the Xsara were bullish. However, later that same year, VW introduced the Mark IV Golf, a car which redefined standards of design sophistication and interior presentation for the sector. This was bad enough, but 18 months later the Xsara’s prospects were hammered flat by the advent of Ford’s sector-defining Focus – the Xsara’s vapid expediency laid mortifyingly bare.

For the 2000 model year, the Xsara was facelifted, receiving a modified corporate nose treatment along similar (gawky) lines to that of the C5. A five door estate was added, along with improvements to interior and drivetrain. In this form it limped on (heavily discounted) until 2004, when the hatchback versions were replaced by the striking Jean-Pierre Ploué-inspired C4. Production continued in China however for some further years.

With total production of over 3.3 million cars, the Xsara cannot be considered anything but a commercial success, but all this really tells us is that they sold rather a lot of them. For brand-Citroën however, it was another value engineered and conservatively styled nail in its coffin, and while its 2004 replacement offered a more engaging visage to the world, this see-sawing of Citroën’s visual language did nothing either for identity or coherence.

But given what PSA’s dim-witted management were up to at Sochaux, it’s hardly surprising Citroën was unceremoniously cast into the bargain bins. Corporate cowardice, panic or simple ineptitude? Take your pick, but the Xsara stands today as simply another commodity-Citroën, just like today’s visually blank C4. The same mistake, over and over.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Traction Rétrograde”

  1. These really haven’t aged well, have they? And the facelift wasn’t born well.

    The phrase that comes to mind looking at the Xsara is “lacking definition”. For me it always had the feeling of a very fuzzy car, both stylistically and in terms of product planning. Eóin has done a good job articulating the problems the Xsara faced on the latter front; the best way to consider the former is to compare it to the Xantia. The Xantia’s body is drawn taut with some well-judged character lines; the Xantia scrubs these and manages to become almost entirely blobular as a result. (Although, I always thought the pre-facelift front end was quite neat.)

    With all of that said, I always felt there was a significant degree of piling-on in the Anglophone press regarding the conservatism of this car. This tendency exists for many cars, but with the Xsara I always thought it was especially pronounced, regardless of whether or not the points were justified. Ironically, for the press, the Xsara was (and is) utterly defined by its non-identity, irrespective of its qualities as an actual vehicle. This piling-on really bothers me because as plenty of examples before and since have shown, it is only a short step from journalistic received wisdom to “facts that everyone knows” down the boozer. Not entirely unrelatedly, those same characteristics are also a reflection of intellectual laziness, lack of critical acuity and a willingness to use overly-simple analysis for complex, multi-dimensional problems.

    1. Yes, lacking definition about sums it up. I thought long and hard on how to define the Xsara, especially as I have latterly come to view car design in a slightly more balanced manner. However, I think Citroen tends to be viewed differently to other marques due to it’s avant-garde phase, so while other marques would perhaps get a ‘pass’ for producing something as expedient as this, the chevron is held to a different set of standards. It certainly is by me.

      Nevertheless, Stradale makes a valid point regarding the automotive press. Citroen is pilloried for producing rational/functional cars like this and yet when they offer something a little wilful – (which isn’t very often of late) – they are derided for being ‘weird’.

      A point I’d take issue with (from SVR) is direct criticism of the stylist responsible. Giles Taylor was a neophyte working to a brief; one which came from his superiors. Art Blakeslee’s responsibility was to define the theme and to push for that theme’s adoption, both downward to his styling team and upwards with senior management. But if the theme isn’t right, or the styling director not capable of convincing management, the results will more than likely be disappointing.

    2. Eoin, that’s a fair comment/ cop which I’ll take on the chin. I was being unfair without full knowledge of the context and circumstances.

      In some respects, though, that’s a point in itself in that others, in their careers and in similar circumstances, are not given the opportunity to express a case for the defense and are just blighted by a single outcome or event with which they are inextricably associated. And so, I should flip it and say in all seriousness how nice it is to see someone’s career not blighted as such.

    3. Easy to do SV, and one I have been guilty of in the past. It’s taken me a few years to realise this, but nobody embarks upon a creative endeavour such as styling a new car with the aim of producing something visually disappointing. Even vilified car designs started out with (broadly) good intentions. In some ways, the interesting aspects are attempting to understand what went wrong.

      In truth there’s nothing palpably wrong with the Xsara in launch specification. It’s all very correct, but utterly lacks ‘definition’ or a shred of personality. I recall examining a Xsara in detail at the ’97 Earls Court motor show and being very disappointed with it from that perspective. I expected and (God help me) still expect more from Citroen, if not PSA…

  2. the facelift is simply hideous. it wasn’t good back then and it is no good nowadays.

    Citroën would recover some of its character with the 2-door version of the C4 that replaced the Xsara, but the 2nd-gen lost it again. I miss the BX…

    1. +1. I saw a few BXs in lovely condition in central France recently and they really are terrific things – the thing that shocked me was how small they look these days!

    2. I agree with you, SV. especially when you realize it was replaced by the Xantia, which, for its turn, was replaced by the C5 – more than 50cm longer than the BX.

  3. The garage that services my C6 has an automatic one of these that it lends out as a courtesy car, which I have had the pleasure of using (sadly – for a number of reasons) on too many occasions now. The most overwhelming feature of that car, which may be unique to this example given its age, is the power steering which is the worst that I have ever come across, defining in my mind the word ‘inconsistent’. I’d almost go as far as describing it as dangerous, so vague and then sudden is its temperament. Beyond that, it really is an insipid car. The dashboard, whilst managing to have more about it than almost every other aspect of the car, is almost crackle-finished, and the ergonomics poor. The face-lifted exterior design must be an embarrassment for anyone involved in it – the fact that the lead designer ended up in charge at Rolls Royce must stand to us all as an exemplar or human generosity and forgiveness, let alone benefit of the doubt.

    Of course, it begat our own faithful Xsara Picasso, which at least verifies the fact that, at this point, PSA was capable of engineering and manufacturing reliable cars, but was further proof that this was the opposite of a purple (beige?) patch at Citroen’s design studios. I much prefer the preceding ZX, which offends me far less than others attending this site, and indeed rank the Xsara as the near nadir of the marque’s design history (only the C5 descends further).

    1. The C5 does stand out as a particularly egregious design offence. Einstein hoped that when he died God would explain fluid dynamics to him. My request would be to find out what was behind the C5 as a design in isolation and as a Citroen.

    2. Eduardo, well, both, but for different reasons and I think the first generation has to be the worst of the two. The first generation – pre and post facelift – looks like two different, skeleton-less cars joined together (the rear quarter attached to the other. I say skeleton-less as the form lacks definition and so the car looks floppy, and lumpy. And, not very Citroën-like. Compare with the CX (a similar size) or even the Xantia, it’s predecessor and try hard not to weep.

      I find the current car (they still produce it, but it does not come to the UK, I think) much better in isolation. It’s rather fussy and overwrought, but it has a sense of substance, structure and stance. And, I like the interior, which can be rather plush with a modern, integrated looking dash. What I dislike is that it looks like a BMW, not a Citroën. In the UK at least, the car was launched with an advertising campaign stressing the Germanic traits of this car from the most French of marques, and I think this was because the marketing team realised they had to make a virtue out of the design. The problem was/ is that when you drive the car, especially with oleopneumatic suspension, the driving experience is entirely Citroën. Hence, prospective buyers are freaked out by this most schizophrenic of cars and run a mile. And so, it is almost certain to be the last of the oleopneumatic cars.

  4. I wasn’t aware that Giles Taylor had penned the Xsara. The Jaguar-PSA/Talbot styling connection is one of the more peculiar ties within the automotive realm.

    In pre-facelift form, the Xsara is an acceptable offering that could be place ahead of the likes of the AX or Saxo. But later versions certainly bear testament to my contention that Citroen under Blakeslee were most inept at adapting the soft design trend of the ’90s.

    1. The car styling world is a small and somewhat incestuous one at the best of times, but even allowing for that, the level of cross-pollination between those two entities is notable.

    2. Sorry to differ, but I could not put the AX in with the Saxo and Xsara – it may have not been anything particularly special, but neither was it so compromised (Saxo) or ill-defined (Xsara).

  5. In comparison to the sharply suited Xantia, the Xsara immediately appeared too soft. I don’t know why, but the Xsara always radiated a feeling that Citroen’s heart was not quite in it. I had forgotten too what a nice car the following C4 was. The three door in particular was a terrific looking thing. I always enjoyed the immobile steering wheel boss, and wonder even now why it was not adopted across the range.

  6. I always was a loyal fan of Citroen, but the late nineties were the hardest years for me. Saxo, Xsara and Xsara Picasso were all cars i did not really want to own. Too soft, boring und nothing definitely characteristic for a Citroen. With very conservative interiors. Then came the hardest shock, the Citroen C5. A fat and cheap looking car with wrong proportions – i refused to take a closer look at it, it seemed to my as wasted time.

    Fulfilling the task to please Monsieur Calvet´s conservative taste seems to be not a dream for car-designer. So this period is probably responsable for Citroen´s image as a car for older people…

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