It has been thirty years since the Citroen launched the XM, on this day in 1989. On sale for 11 years and out of production for nearly twice as long, that makes it a real antique, doesn’t it.
(There are now people around who may never have seen an XM in motion, anyone born after 1999, I suppose.)
It is something of a pleasant coincidence (for me) that the self-titled album by Tin Machine came out just one day before Citroen announced the CX´s replacement. If Tin Machine was David Bowie’s way of getting back to what he most wanted to do, the XM presented another step towards watering down Citroenisme.
In the long game of a professional musician at Bowie’s level, Tin Machine was a necessary experiment, a form of throwing paint around and casting off unwanted rules. It was a step toward something else. For Citroen, the XM was claimed to be a re-statement of Citroen values, but one to make them acceptable, as a Citroen executive said at the time. That made it very much not an analogue of Tin Machine and more like Bowie carrying on with mainstream pop, but with a little DB twist somewhere. And the XM was not a step towards something but an end in itself. Where did Citroen’s tin machine take us to? Let’s find out.
To celebrate this anniversary I had a test-drive of a 1990 XM, one from near the top-of-the-range. While this version lacked automatic transmission and a sunroof, it had the 3.0 V6 engine and the DIRAVI steering system denied to the four-cylinder models. Leather upholstery covered the seats. Though I have been XM owner for almost twenty years, I have always really wanted to try the left-hand drive three-litre version with its DIRAVI steering. And now my chance arrived, in the form of this rather tatty metallic grey model:
Key to this car’s identity, after the suspension, is the engine, the 3.0 V6 (PRV ZPJ S6A) which produced 165 hp or 123 kW. This one had manual transmission – something of an oddity, I suspect.
The other important thing is the steering: DIRAVI. Only the LHD V6 models had this feature. It allows maximum power asssist at low speeds and less help at higher speeds. The steering is strongly self-centering. For me this was the principal reason to want to drive this model, so as to see how it felt and also to compare it to my experience of the CX (limited as that was).
I was surprised to see the steering wheel return to straight-ahead as I set off from a farmyard in the Danish countryside. During low-speed manoeuvres one notices how the steering pulls back to centre; this means that when one stops as in a car park to see the best way forward, the steering will have reverted to straight-ahead and the steering wheel will be revolving back to centre while you hesitate to go left or right.
On the open road the Citroen suspension did its trick, providing a pleasant floaty feeling. Together with the thin rimmed wheel and the somewhat upright seating position I spotted the same character present in the DS and CX. They don’t call big Citroens the thinking driver’s cars for nothing. You seem to conduct the car rather than merely drive it.
I was looking for something else in the steering quality: directness and did not find it in the way the CX has it. Blame that on the increased steering ratio. It’s not as if it’s vague or slow so much as neutral. You swivel the wheel and the car points its nose in the required direction as you’d expect. What it is not is “telepathic”, not nervous or quick-witted. It does the job nicely and that’s it.
This car had a modest reading on the odo, considering its age. So, why did the pick-up feel so ordinary? I’d step on the loud pedal and the car would move forward no faster than adequately. Old clichées of kicks to the kidneys and being pressed back into your seat did not apply.
It’s not that heavy a car, about the same as modern C-class vehicle so it seems somewhat disappointing that the extra displacement over the 2.0 litre version I know so well is not more apparent or even apparent at all. The one difference is the sound on start-up, a dry roar. And under way it’s a quiet motor, quieter and smoother than the dreary old four banger spoiling the lower-ranking XMs.
We turn to stopping. The brake pedal has very short travel, but I am used to it. You stroke the pedal, press gently and the car slows effectively. It’s more of a switch than a lever. I could see how drivers used to longer travel might have been discomfitted, perhaps moreso by this than by the steering.
The rest of the car is standard XM: some of the finest seats ever put in a motor car. The driver’s seat is snug and supportive. The rear seats are only superb, with mountains of leg room, a broad centre armrest and tidy headrestraints that tuck away when not needed. As I have said before, the view out from the back is excellent, fit for a diplomat or senior manager who wants to see where the chauffeur is heading.
There’s the essence of the XM’s personality. Even if the engine is only just fast enough, the car is agile as no large car usually is. And at the same time, the ride is delightful, offering a gentle flight over the turbulence at road level. It is true the suspension is not so good at dealing with sharp irregularities yet far from awful. This does not detract from the overall sense of smoothness the unique oleo-pneumatic system provides.
So, if you want to drive the car yourself, it’s an intellectual pleasure, one provided by the controls which are intelligently thought-through. If you are a passenger, the roominess, airiness and seating make for a comfortable experience.
Much like misunderstood Tin Machine, the XM is misundertood too. It was different and different in a good way for the most part. Like Tin Machine, the XM has to be understood for what it was intended to do, not to “make Citroen values acceptable” but to quantitavely improve on the CX while keeping the good bits: ride, handling and distinctive style.
What was wrong is the rest of the range, the cars stripped of their DIRAVI steering and single-spoke steering wheel. This is now something typical of Citroen, which is that their unique features go extinct by gradual withdrawal up the range before deletion on the next model cycle. All CXs had DIRAVI, only V6 XMs had it and it was not present on the C5 or C6.
Thirty years later, the XM still proves to be a good drive, though overtaken as it is by medium-sized cars and by standard technical solutions pushed to new heights.
That said, no medium sized car feels like an XM, not in the relation of the driver to the car’s structure nor the lightness of feel in conducting it. Large cars are now way too large, and cars of the same size now as the XM are more banal even if safer and more efficient. The XM had space without bulk and agility without compromising roominess.
While Tin Machine didn’t provide any hits for Bowie, it turned into a springboard for the rest of the 90s. The XM wasn’t much of a hit either, in part because the market was moving away from large, mainstream cars but also because Citroen had not got it in itself to make the XM superlative in all areas.
Near all tests showed it outranked by the rest of the field; it was neither convincingly better than the Thema, Scorpio or Omega nor more desirable than the 5 series or E-class. Being better but not nicer than the CX was not enough.