The Citroen ZX celebrates its thirtieth birthday in 2021. Will anyone remember to send a card?
The 1978 Citroën Visa came as a pleasant surprise to those who expected the Double-Chevron’s highly distinctive identity to be crushed under the weight of Peugeot’s conservatism and financial rectitude. Although heavily based on the Peugeot 104, the Visa retained more than enough Citroën quirkiness to be accepted as a spiritual heir to cars such as the Ami and Dyane. Likewise, the 1982 BX and 1989 XM models were both unlikely to be mistaken as anything but Citroëns.
Citroën had lacked a mainstream C-segment competitor since the demise of the GSA in 1986. It had hoped that the Visa and BX ranges might be stretched to fill the void. Although both were strong sellers, PSA recognised that they were missing potential customers, so work began in 1986 on a true replacement.
This time, quirkiness was rejected in favour of a wholly conventional design and mechanical package. The platform and running gear would be shared with the Peugeot 306, which was also in development and would be launched two years after the debut of the new Citroën. This included the TU and XU petrol engines ranging from 1.1 to 2.0 litres and the 1.9 litre XUD diesel in both normally aspirated and turbocharged form.
These inline four-cylinder units were installed transversely and mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels. Front suspension utilised the ubiquitous MacPherson struts with an anti-roll bar, but the rear received a fully independent setup using trailing arms and torsion bars, with an element of passive rear-wheel steering(1), rather than the cheaper beam axle featured in many C-segment hatchbacks.
If the new Citroën was to be mechanically mainstream and unadventurous, perhaps it might be distinguished by quirky, individualistic styling? Citroën again turned to Bertone, the Italian carrozzeria that had styled both the BX and XM, but there would be no reprising the distinctive design themes of those models. Instead, what emerged was a disappointingly Euro-generic design that could easily have been sold as a Peugeot. In fairness to Bertone, they were kept on a tight leash by Citroën’s chief designer, Art Blakeslee, and his team, who co-authored the new design.
The only even slightly unusual feature (on the five-door hatchback and estate) was the rear quarter treatment. A third light incorporated into the C-pillar was positioned so that, visually, it connected with the tailgate rather than the rest of the side glasses. Unfortunately, the opportunity this presented was squandered because the glazing in the tailgate did not wrap around to meet the trailing edge of the third light.
The three-door hatchback did without even this flourish but was instead embellished with an uptick to the lower DLO line either side of the B-pillar, below which was a vertical door handle recessed into the trailing edge of the door. The car’s dimensions placed it squarely in the C-segment mainstream, with a wheelbase of 2,540mm (100”) and overall length of 4,070mm (160¼”)
The new model was named the ZX and launched in five-door hatchback form for mainland Europe in March 1991, with UK and Ireland RHD sales following two months later. It had the misfortune to arrive on the market at the same time as the new Über Mercedes-Benz, the W140 S-Class, which promptly stole all the headlines. Even without that gate-crasher, the ZX would have had a tough time raising the pulse and temperature of the automotive press.
Car Magazine opened its feature on the new model with the damning quote: “It’s not a Citroën.”, allegedly uttered by a French motoring journalist and accompanied with a Gallic shrug. The reviewer went on to state that: “The ZX, in any of its manifestations, is not a car for Citroënistes. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in the way it looks, the way it drives, the way it feels. It has none of the Citroen spirit; instead, it has been designed to be made cheaply and to sell in large numbers, just like a Ford.” According to the reviewer, Blakeslee rebuffed this criticism by citing the conservative tastes of typical C-segment customers and arguing that quirkiness simply does not sell to these buyers, at least not in the numbers that Citroën hoped the new model would achieve.
The reviewer did acknowledge that the ZX seemed sturdily constructed and had a much higher quality interior than earlier Citroëns, similar to the Volkswagen Golf(2), but rather less stark and more colourful. It was also a notably roomy interior, on a par with the Fiat Tipo, with firm but comfortable seats. On some models the rear seats could be slid fore and aft(3) to optimise rear legroom and boot space.
The sporting Volcane version of the ZX was, however, a disappointment. It was fitted with the engine from the Peugeot 205 1.9 GTI and shared that car’s verve and responsiveness. Performance was fine, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of under 9.5 seconds and a top speed of 127mph (205km/h). However, the engine noise and “horrendous” vibrations quickly became very tiresome. This was all the more disappointing because the car handled and steered very well. Ride quality was stiff and lumpy at low speed but improved at higher speeds. The ride and handling compromise was one of the best on a hot hatch, thanks in part to the long wheelbase.
The comfort-orientated Aura version was more satisfying. Its 1.6 litre engine, also fuel injected, felt eager and it had a slicker gearchange, more progressive brakes and a more supple ride than the Volcane. Overall (and somewhat surprisingly) the reviewer rated the ZX as “vastly superior to the new Escort and Astra, more entertaining to drive than the Renault 19 and has better engines and a smarter interior than the Tipo.” It was, however: “…a sorry day for those who believe a Citroën should offer a unique driving experience.”
The ZX got off to a good start in terms of sales, which were boosted by the arrival of the three-door hatchback in August 1992 and five-door estate in May 1994, when the range received a minor facelift. This added a driver’s airbag and seat belt pre-tensioners to the car’s standard safety equipment. In the autumn of 1996, the range was rationalised to just two trim levels, a prelude to the replacement of the model a little over a year later by the Xsara(4). Anyone hoping that the latter would return some individualism to Citroën’s C-segment model was sorely disappointed: even in comparison with the ZX, the Xsara was deeply, drearily conventional.
The ZX did, however, enjoy a long afterlife in the Chinese market where it was the first Citroën to be manufactured by the Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën Automobile joint venture. It was sold as the Fukang and carried either Dongfeng or Citroën marque badging. Chinese market saloon and LWB saloon versions were developed by French engineering firm Heuliez. There was even a crew-cab pick-up derivative. The saloon versions continued until 2003, when they were replaced by a heavily facelifted model called the Elysée. The hatchback version received a similar overhaul in 2009 and both continued in production until 2013, which was 22 years after the ZX was launched. Total production was 2,637,100 units.
The ZX and its Chinese cousins may have been disappointingly mainstream and unadventurous Citroëns, but they were solidly built, reliable and pleasant to drive cars that deserve not to be forgotten in the company’s colourful and occasionally traumatic history.
(1) This system would cause an issue with wear in the rear axle assembly at higher mileages.
(2) This comparison would be with the Golf Mk2 as the Mk3 would not be launched until August 1991.
(3) On models with this feature however, the rear seat bases could not be folded forward to achieve a flat loading floor when the seat backs were dropped.
(4) The ZX hatchback models were discontinued in November 1997. The estate remained on the market until the spring of 1998.