The Definition of Obsession? 10 years with a Citroën C6 (part 2)

In this episode of one man’s near life-sentence with a large Citroën, he describes some of the more stressful experiences of C6 ownership.

OK, from this photo, I can see why people think it might be a shade of black, not brown (source: the author)

The day I collected the C6 probably should have scared me off… but it didn’t, somehow. I picked it up on a Saturday morning, very early as agreed so that I would not be in the way of the sales guys getting stuck into the punters on their peak sales day. I stopped off on the way home to collect my son from football training. Naturally, he was curious to experience the C6’s trick suspension, so, whilst still in the car park, I started the engine, let it settle and then pressed the button to raise the suspension.

No cigars for guessing what happened next. The car rose to its top setting… and there it stuck. It being new to me, and having heard and read so much about the complexity/ potential unreliability of the oleopneumatic system, all confidence in the car fled from my body and soul, like a bad bout of psychological diarrhoea.

I limped the car to my nearest dealer (yes – the one which also sold and serviced my previous Legacy) and left it with them to attend to on the Monday morning. Devastated does not begin to describe how I felt – like a kid whose best Xmas toy self-destructed by midday on December the 25th. Of course, it was still under warranty, and thank God for that, given that a faulty control unit (which, worryingly, supports every aspect of the car’s systems, I later learned) was diagnosed and a new one fitted, which alone would have cost me well over four figures. It took a week to source one and have it fitted – not a disaster in the circumstances, but what a bloody awful start!

After that initial shock to the system, life with my nearly new, large, brown, residually stress-inducing car started to settle – to an extent. I recall an early trip out as a family to Cambridge was tainted by juddering and hesitations from the big diesel engine (it cleared just after we passed Baldock). On another trip to Aldeburgh, a warning sound came on about a rear seat-belt not being fastened (when it clearly was). I had been used to a flawlessly reliable Subaru and a surprisingly robust Xsara Picasso and could never feel completely relaxed heading out in the C6.

Charcoal interior, like my C6, albeit mine has updated graphics for the infotainment system, but, disappointingly, the same centre stack of button-based controls sourced from other PSA models of the era. Image: Car

Nevertheless, nothing broke, or fell off, or caused a real issue for the first year or so (admittedly, mileage was quite low because I was not using the car for work purposes at all). I had the C6 serviced by the local authorised Citroën dealer and I spent a good deal of time admiring its looks and enjoying having a talking-point on wheels.

Things changed quite dramatically when I changed jobs about 18 months later, with my main office of work being 65 miles away in Banbury. Now the C6 was being put to more of a test, doing around 700 miles a week or more in all weathers and traffic conditions. Actually, the mix of motorway, dual carriage way and fast B roads worked rather well for the car, just so long as I remembered not to get too carried away on the Welsh Lane approaching Banbury, where the very nose-heavy weight distribution could become especially noticeable (you can take the boy out of a Subaru, but not a Subaru out of the boy).

Just such a thing led to the first really heart-stopping moment in the car when the big diesel engine’s turbos decided to take a break just as I was passing a tractor on one of the two overtaking opportunities on that 8-mile stretch. I managed to complete the manoeuvre, but the turbos hadn’t reappeared as I dropped down into Banbury, so I made my first of what was to prove to be many visits to Evans Halshaw’s Citroën dealership to have them take a look and sort. My relationship with them lasted about 7 years, being quite intense for the first three, and then tailing off to being ‘only in emergencies’ by the end.

Rear cabin replete with TGV seats, which also feature in my C6 and most C6s imported to the UK. The folding centre armrest has a button on its leading edge – press it and the front passenger seat glides forward and back, providing endless fun for my daughter playing practical jokes on front occupants. (Source: DriveMag).

I won’t now go into every detail about everything that has gone wrong over the years – for one there isn’t space. It has fully let me down only twice. Once was when a what proved to be a couple of poorly executed, previous fixes led to the front offside brake pad disintegrating whilst I was travelling up to catch a train from Milton Keynes Central. I nursed the car to the station car park, did my overnight trip, and then called the AA on my return the following evening. That proved to be one of the most frustrating experiences of my life as an initial call at 6pm finally resulted in the arrival of a low-loader recovery truck at 4am in the morning.

The report back from my local dealership was that a previous fix had led to the stub axle having been bent, which led to unusually hard wear on the pad, and the worn pad had not been picked up by the warning system because that part of the wiring harness had been damaged and not replaced (probably because the fitting of a whole new harness – the only potential remedy – would have cost the previous owner (Citroën UK) over £1,000 to buy and fit.

The second time I was left stranded, I was again quite lucky in that I was about 200 yards from my destination’s car park and not that far from home (and therefore from BL Autos, whom I discovered for myself about 5 years into ownership). This time, on having driven slowly over one of those small but sharp speed-bumps, there was a loud clonk followed by rapid lowering of the suspension until the car was on its bump-stops by the time I managed to stop in the car park.

A trail of fluid snaked back down the road I had just travelled and the front nearside wheel was soaked in the same liquid. The car was again rescued by the AA – this time with impeccably good service; the care with which the guy got the awkwardly low C6 with its long snout onto the low-loader was a joy to watch – and taken to BL Autos.

They diagnosed that the top of the front strut had corroded and actually popped-off, like the lid of a tin-can. The other front strut had sprung a leak about three years earlier, so this is clearly an area of a degree of weakness, as was to prove other aspects of the suspension’s componentry, as I will explore further in the next part of this saga.

Read from the beginning.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

25 thoughts on “The Definition of Obsession? 10 years with a Citroën C6 (part 2)”

  1. Can anybody imagine Audi or Mercedes selling you a car in that class with parts of the brake related wiring loom knowingly missing or inoperative?
    And then they ask why they didn’t sell more of these cars.
    I’m currently running my second Audi that I bought from their ‘Young & Used’ programme used to offload their own internal cars. You buy the car unseen but you get a report on it meticulously listing even the smallest fault and the cost to repair it and the cars come with a five year extended warranty. That’s the kind of care you’d expect from a car in that category.
    Otherwise the list of breakdowns and faults is shocking, particularly the one with the disintegrating brake pad and a stub axle bent during a brake repair. These are things you’d expect from a backyard blacksmith but not from a workshop working on a car owned by the importer.

    The story about the popped suspension strut is shocking. They seemingly haven’t learned anything from the XM where the struts’ top rubber mounts can wear away, letting the strut shot through its mounting, bending the bonnet and letting the car fall onto its front bump stops at full speed which is absolutely no fun. I also remember BXs with heavier engines -particularly turbo diesels – having a tendency to suddenly blow the rubber membranes in the front suspension spheres, making the car hop dangerously without any springing.

    1. Seems that it’s not only XMs and Xantias suffering from struts going through the bonnet:

    2. I had the same thought. It seems beyond comprehension that Citroen UK itself would not care enough to repair one of its flagship cars properly.

    3. I wonder if that’s the story behind that photo – it looks a bit like the pedestrian safety pyrotechnics have been triggered, which lifts the bonnet in that way to help lift the poor pedestrian is lifted up, away from the engine. Dunno?

  2. Just how mechanically unreliable were Citroën’s hydraulics? I know they have a reputation for fearsome complexity and unreliability, but was it justified in recent years?

    I have a book about the development of the XM and it mentions that by that point Citroën could machine the parts to such fine tolerances they didn’t need seals. My father had two BXs and a Xantia and they never missed a beat.

    I get the impression the electronics introduced a lot of unreliability. A couple of years ago the windscreen wipers stopped working on my Fiesta. After visits to my local independent garage and then a Ford specialist it was eventually diagnosed that a new body control unit computer was required, which cost me £500. Why do I need a computer for operating the wipers?

    1. The purely mechanical hydropneumatic system as in DS/CX/SM/GS was extremely reliable once they introduced the green hydraulic fluid in 1966. Before that the clear or red fluid was hygroscopic and led to internal corrosion and leaks.
      The good reliability is astonishing when you consider that on a DS the system also controls the gear change and has a provision to open the throttle for starting from stand still and when you consider the complexity of the rear brake operation in the mushroom pedal type system. It’s just that many workshops (including many Citroen dealers) did not understand the basic physical principles of the system and this resulted in a bad reputation.
      The systems also were very robust with suspension spheres lasting very long or having a possibility for repair (split spheres DS/SM). Once they introduced struts (BX, Xantia, XM) the spheres became short lived and the front hydraulic cylinders started to wear out, something largely unknown on the older cars. The worst thing that could happen on a CX were stuck self levelling height corrector units that could be cured by gymnastics when you lifted and lowered the car twenty times, unsticking the control valves.
      The electronics introduced a layer of unreliability that was not there before, particularly early XMs with Hydractive I where all kinds of sensors go AWOL, mainly the one decting steering movements and then the system goes into permanent sport/hard mode. When the system got ever more complicated with anti-sink spheres and Activa suspension the sheer number of spheres (up to eleven on a Xantia Activa) resulted in a multitude of possible faults.
      The purpose built clean room factory Citroen set up for manufacture of the hydraulic components operated to extremely fine tolerances even in the age of the DS. Even DS components don’t have seals but they leak a defined amount of oil (which is collected and returned to the reservoir) to keep the surfaces oiled and internals lubricated.

    2. With a minimum of care, the hydraulic system usually is much more robust than its reputation implies. In my 400,000 hydraulic kilometers, I’ve been immobilized about three times because of a hydraulic leak. The reasons for this were different: a corroded pressure line somewhere below the rear axle in the CX, a porous rubber hose in the same, and a leaking hydraulic pump (broken seal) in the Xantia. The cars were over fifteen years old at that time. On the other hand, the GS I still own, and drove when it was close to thirty years old, never had any fault. Ditto an earlier, over twenty year old CX.

      The electronic gremlins on the early XM suspensions were severe, and instantly killed the reputation of the car. But from the second version on (around 1993), the reliability was much improved. On the Xantia Activa and the C6, I experienced a total of over 250,000 km without any electronical suspension problem.

  3. Good morning S.V. Thanks for another interesting instalment and well done for having the patience to put up with the C6’s glitches. As it’s your primary means of transport and not something you wheel out on sunny Sunday afternoons, that requires a degree of commitment. I hope that, overall, the pleasure of driving such an interesting and distinctive car was more than adequate compensation.

  4. Wow, that was a really bad start! Mine was not too good either, but the first failure came after a few weeks, not on the first day. The radio / telecommunications unit blew its hard drive and was not able to start again. It was still possible to operate the car, but most of the auxiliary functions are steered by this unit and use its display. So, while the heating and air condition were fully operational, I could not see which temperature or fan setting I actually had, as an example.

    I then learned that a replacement unit would cost several thousand Swiss Francs… Luckily, my dealer could source a used one for free and I was relieved. I could see why someone was giving it away, because the music did not play flawlessly all the time. So when I had the opportunity to buy a new hard drive with up-to-date navigation data on it, I replaced that (not the whole unit). It’s been working all the time since.

    1. If an owner of an Alfa 166 has bad luck and a microswitch for front or rear fog lights fails the complete ICE unit in the centre console has to be replaced at a cost of about 4,000 EUR.
      And this will get worse now that car manufacturers go the Tesla route of ever larger and ever fewer computers.
      An Audi A6 has about 100 control units that can be replaced individually at relatively modest cost but an ID.3 only has two computers and a Tesla only one…

  5. You have my sympathy SV.
    I once had a Xantia as a Company car and the engine was replaced at around 40,000 miles after the camshaft drive belt decided to disintegrate on the way to work one morning. Serviced by a Citroen main dealer so replaced the lot under warranty.
    I also suffered suspension failure on a trip to Ireland when a plastic clip gave way and bounced my way to the local Dealership with a queue of cars following me very slowly. Simple fix but what a nightmare.

  6. If you can stand the suspense, the next part reveals that there was more pain to come. Re-reading the whole story again, it is a bit like the same kind of fascination as watching an accident in slow motion.

    @Dave’s point at the beginning of the comments is right – it shows that, back then at least, Citroen’s dealer network just did not have the kind of customer-centred approach to selling its nearly-new cars.

  7. At some point Citroen switched to grey spheres instead of green ones. There are two reasons this was daft. One, the green spheres were an identifiable bit of unique technology. Second, there was a semantic reason for the colour, just as the lids and covers for oil and water and washer fluids are coloured. It tells the user what the bits are doing. Did some design-illiterate designer think grey was tidier? It´s a tiny thing but also infuriating.

    1. The colour of the suspension spheres plays an important role becuse it’s an indicator for the type of hydraulic fluid that goes into the system.
      The original DS hydraulic system used brake fluid (not good) and later a synthetic type of fluid called LHS which was clear and hygroscopic like brake fluid. The suspension spheres and oil tank were black with a painted-on blue circle on them

      When the hydraulic fluid turned to mineral oil based LHM this was coloured green and all hydraulic elements were painted green as an alarm that no LHS should go into the system because the fluids can not be mixed.
      The C5 and later used LDS, again a synthetic type of fluid that cannot be mixed with LHM – hence the new colour for the spheres. These spheres also have a completely different form because they aren’t spheres anymore but have a flat top. These spheres eliminate the hydropneumatic’s biggest drawback which always was rubber membranes sticking to the sphere through adhesion which made the system reluctant to react to small road imperfections that had to be absorbed by the tyres.

  8. A very interesting story, well told, and I look forward to the next chapter. I think there may come a point when you know a car so well, it begins to lose some of its ability to induce fear, perhaps (?).
    I came across this chap’s story of owning a second-hand Volkswagen Phaeton. I think you got off lightly, S.V.

    1. The Phaeton is hateful for its laser-like LEDs on the tail lamps. They are sufficiently bright to leave persistence-of-vision “burns ” on your eyes. That means after the lights go off false information is hanging around on your retina for about half a second. On a busy motorway, at night, at speed, that could be dangerous. I never saw a car with such bright LEDs again.

    2. This video does prove nothing except the fact that maintenance costs do not relate to the purchase price of a car but to its class.

      Lots of people buy cars they think they can afford because the initial price is attractive through high depreciation but in the end they can’t pay the maintenance bills with the result that the car gets neglected. Cars like big Citroens and Alfas are particularly badly affected by this phenomenon.

      At the beginning all Phaetons bought through the official dealer network went through a very thorough examination in specially set up refurbishment facilities in Wolfsburg where they were checked and meticulously repaired to make sure the new owner gets a car in top consition.

  9. The 303000-mile example on Autotrader has been reduced since the first instalment, and is now £1000; I wonder what they will eventually take for it. While it does have a recent MOT, the history does suggest some issues, particularly regarding the mileage, which was 97502 in 2014, unreadable for the next two years, 235000 in 2016 and then 10k lower by the next year. Possibly a vehicle-check ‘app’ would reveal more – do they have a reputation for display failure?

    In case someone was looking for a spares car (although initially it doesn’t look bad, and mileage is quite low): https://www.copart.co.uk/lot/59626930/clean-title-2007-citroen-c6-lignage-westbury

  10. Always a bonus! That car is a category N write-off; unless the photos have missed something, could it really be for that minor damage to the bonnet? Which would back up Richard’s point in the previous piece. I assume it would be obvious (and expensive) if the pedestrian-friendly bonnet had activated?

  11. Great Scot, SVR, you’re story is quite something. You must have an amazing Citroën-Ian tenacity from such difficult beginnings. Full marks for your dedication to the final, honest big boat wearing double chevrons. What a shame the tale starts so inauspiciously. There must be a nice/hopeful/shiny side to the story, no?

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