The 2001 Citroën C5 was a spacious, comfortable and practical large car. It was also unforgivably frumpy looking. DTW tries to muster some enthusiasm to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its birth.
The early 21st Century was a lean time for Citroën design. The company’s glory days of the DS, SM and GS were a distant memory. The sensible men in grey suits at Peugeot, which had owned Citroën since 1975, had repositioned the company as a purveyor of automotive white goods; sensible value-for-money appliances like the 1996 Saxo and 1997 Xsara, whose most attractive features were the deep discounts and cheap finance deals used to sell them. The characterful if flawed XM had died in 2000 and the handsome Bertone-designed Xantia would follow it to the grave a couple of years later.
Both XM and Xantia would effectively be replaced by a single model, the 2001 C5. This was a large D-segment five-door hatchback or estate, with a wheelbase of 2,750mm (108¼”) and overall length of 4,745mm (186¾”) for the hatchback and 4,839mm (190½”) for the estate.
The mechanical layout was entirely conventional, with front-wheel-drive and a range of transverse engines. The latter comprised 1.8 and 2.0 litre in-line four and 3.0 litre V6 petrol units, and diesel units in 1.8, 2.0 and 2.2 litre capacities. Transmission was via five or six-speed manual or four or six-speed automatic gearboxes. Citroën’s trademark height-adjustable fluid suspension system, now renamed Hydractive, was retained, but steering and brakes were now separate systems.
If the mechanical specification of the C5 was largely conventional, its styling certainly was not. In a reversal of a Citroën tradition, the C5 was a hatchback styled to look like a saloon, with a short vestigial ‘bustle’ at the rear. The front end comprised large, vertically orientated ovoid headlamps either side of a horizontal grille, an arrangement that gave the car a permanently startled look.
The tall rear end comprised a V-shaped tailgate framed by vertical tail lights, the unusual shape of which made the car look wider at waist level than at bumper height when viewed from directly behind, giving the car an unfortunate top-heavy appearance.
There was trouble in the C5’s side profile too. The lower DLO line curved gently upwards towards the rear of the car, flattening out somewhat as it reached the D-pillar. This line was not unpleasant in of itself, but it clashed badly with a straight, rising bodyside crease running through the door handles. The crease also interfered with the front wheel arch. The vertical curvature of the rear screen also seemed rather too pronounced and this exaggerated the odd proportions of the car when viewed in profile. The C5 was certainly no beauty.
The estate version, with its practical vertical tailgate, was considerably better looking from the rear and side, although it still suffered, albeit to a lesser extent, from the clash between the lower DLO line and bodyside crease mentioned above.
After just over three years on the market, the C5 was given a major facelift, ostensibly to bring its appearance in line with the recently launched smaller C4 model, but probably also to try and improve its rather odd countenance. At the front, a slim slot grille incorporating the double-chevron logo sat between wide, L-shaped headlamps.
At the rear, inverted L-shaped tail lights were split between the wings and tailgate and the number plate was relocated down to within the bumper. The effect of these changes was to give the car a wider, more horizontal stance and make it look better planted, especially from the rear. Unfortunately, the budget did not run to fixing the hatchback version’s awkward side-profile.
Autocar magazine tested the facelifted C5 in September 2004 and opened its review with the remark that “There are certain objects you simply cannot polish effectively…” in reference to the car’s styling. Despite its dated design and some brittle plastics, the reviewer praised the “fantastically comfortable” interior and said that “…the Hydractive suspension still has much to recommend it, marrying useful body control with genuine suppleness over most surfaces.” In conclusion, however, the reviewer advised would-be buyers to “…wait for Citroën’s cashback deals to return before parting with [your] money, though.”
The C5 was a respectable success for Citroën. A total of 647,222(1) examples were sold in Europe over its seven-year lifespan. Its best year was 2002, when 145,731 found buyers. The 2004 facelift had no discernible impact on sales, which is unsurprising as it was a car that was bought for reasons other than its appearance.
The original C5 was replaced in 2008 by a much sharper-suited successor that was advertised as possessing Germanic rather than Gallic qualities, and had a boot rather than a hatchback. By that time, however, the market for large non-premium saloons was in sharp decline and the Mk2 C5 managed just 390,641 European sales in a decade, although a further 217,673 found buyers in China.
For me, the 2001 Citroën C5 is a most perplexing design in that it seems to be wilfully and unnecessarily odd. I have played around with it and found that, without altering its proportions but by simply removing the upper bodyside crease and reprofiling the rear quarter window, D-pillar and tailgate, it can be made to look much more attractive, albeit in a more conventional sense. Was somebody at Citroën so wedded to the bustle tail that they could not see how awkward the resulting design was?
Appearances are, of course, subjective, but I have yet to encounter anybody who thought the 2001 C5 was a good-looking car. Perhaps somebody within the PSA hierarchy dictated that Citroëns of this era had to be rather plain and frumpy looking, as a quid pro quo for the bargain pricing, so that they would not cannibalise sales of the more desirable Peugeot alternatives? That is probably too Machiavellian to be true, but how else can one explain the C5?
(1) All sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com.