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Citroen XM, An American Road Trip

Jim Yu January 11, 2013 Hooniverse Goes To...

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A couple of years ago weeks ago, a car nut friend asked me if I was interested in going to Portland to pick up and drive down a 1991 Citroen XM he had just bought.  I don’t need to tell you my answer.

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The XM is a rare car in America.  Citroen dealerships were already long gone here when the CX’s successor was introduced to the world in 1989.  A small outfit called CXA in New Jersey federalized about a dozen of them (including a wagon) so that the XM would meet American safety and air quality guidelines.  A handful more were imported by individuals.  I estimate that there are less than two dozen XMs running around in this country.

Though I obsessively plan all of my trips and vacations, not much could be done for this one other than retrieving an Oregon road map.  There are no Citroen specialists between Portland and the Bay Area if the car broke down.  The tow plan had a generous but still-too-small-for-my-needs 50 mile radius limit.  We were still in an unseasonal heat wave (I was worried about the engine overheating on the long mountain passes).  And because there are no sizable airports between PDX and SFO, if the car suffered a catastrophic breakdown, I was going to have to take Greyhound home.

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But that’s just me, Mr. Pessimist.  I am always imagining the worst case scenario.  And you know what horrible things happened on this trip?  Absolutely nothing.

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I pick up the car around nine in the morning.  Keith, a card carrying Citroen-phile, proudly but sadly shows me the baby that he is about to part with.  Its exterior is in almost perfect shape.  It has been pampered.  I ask him if there are any quirks about the car that I should be aware of.  He laughs.  I tell him that I am really afraid the car is going to break down in the middle of nowhere.  He assures me that the car is in great shape and that it shouldn’t give me any problems.  However, driving the XM that long of a distance, he advised seriously, will definitely be an “adventure”.

First, Keith teaches me how to use the remote key fob.  I have to aim the infrared transmitter directly at the rear view mirror to lock and unlock the doors.  It works on my first try.  The car starts on my first attempt too.  Almost immediately, the Hydractive suspension lifts the car up on queue.  Though these signs should have left me at ease, I stress for most of my trip.  The horror stories I read about the XM’s electrical system made Lucas-outfitted British roadsters seem like Honda Civics in comparison. 

Something will go wrong with the XM. 

I was wrong.

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I leave Keith’s driveway and wind through a residential neighborhood, looking for the freeway onramp.  The steering at low speed is very loose– a bit disconcerting.  By boosting the power steering at low speed, it was Citroen’s way of making parallel parking easier.  As the XM reached highway speeds, I felt more and more resistance.  I still wish it had more resistance (no doubt simply because of habit), but the steering was nevertheless very true and precise.

The XM’s handling was admirable.  It was very neutral and I couldn’t tell it was front wheel drive.  I was expecting the ride to be like floating on a cloud.  Alas, there might have been a bit of hyperbole when people describe Citroen’s hydropneumatic ride.  Though it was as pillowy as a 1980s Buick land barge, the XM had enough feedback and grip so that you definitely felt in control.

Once I got on the freeway and cruised at 110 to 120 kph, it was heaven.  The 3 liter, 12 valver valiantly and effortlessly gobbled up miles like Pac Man after eating a power pellet.  It handled 3,000 and 4,000 foot passes like any modern car.  The seats were soft but supportive.  After almost 12 hours of nearly non-stop driving, my back was fine.  And the center armrest– I felt like liberating it from the XM and installing it in my daily driver.

The XM is much better looking in person.  It looks tall and boxy in pictures.  But in reality, it is low-slung, stretched out, and sleek.  It looks a lot like the CX.  Inside, the 13 windows certainly exude a greenhouse effect, but the numerous pillars and nearly vertical window dividers give the XM an odd, jailhouse feel.

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The XM is definitely an anonymous looking car.  I think a couple of motorists did a double take when they passed the XM, but they may have just been doing neck exercises.  The ZZ Top beard-wearing gas station attendant who filled my tank in Oregon couldn’t care less what I was driving.  Apparently, French car cognoscentis do not frequent the I-5 corridor.  Incidentally, I got maybe 25 miles per gallon during my trip.  Not bad.  And with a big 80 liter tank, I was able to keep my pit stops to a minimum.  Exiting the gas stations, I was also impressed by the tight turning radius, which was almost as small as a modern, and shorter wheelbased, 3 Series BMW.

One thing I never got used to during the trip was the brake pedal.  First, it is a bit too close to the accelerator.  This leads me to wonder how close the two pedals are in Audi 5000s and Toyota Prii.  What was even harder to get used to was the feel of the brake pedal and the small distance the pedal traveled.  I never knew if I was putting too much or too little pressure on it.  To be safe, I often stopped two to three car lengths behind the car in front of me at red lights.  I imagine the pedal feel is not unlike the mushroom caps they put in the Citroen SM.

At one particular point of euphoria during my drive, I thought about my bucket list– a list of fun things I should do before I die.  I gotta learn to X.  I have to travel to Y.  I have to have a meal at Z restaurant.  Driving a Citroen XM long distance in America was never on my list.  Not once did I ever think– That’s what I want to do.  But it is definitely something I have to do.  And I’m doing it.  I wonder what other unknown experiences out there am I missing?  But I won’t know the answer because they are unknown.  They will be known and obvious only when I am actually doing them.  Was that confusing?  I sound like Donald Rumsfeld with his “unknown unknowns”.  My point is– enjoy life and do the unexpected.

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Images source: Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jim Yu

Currently there are "48 comments" on this Article:

  1. Tanshanomi says:

    Day-um.

    <img src="http://tanshanomi.com/temp/blinking-gallagher.gif"&gt;
    I'd say something beyond that, but I have no words.

  2. Jay_Ramey says:

    Niice! One of the best posts I've read this year.

    Did you happen to school any doughy gentlemen driving Audi S8s along the way?

    By the way, that one XM wagon is supposed to still be in daily use somewhere on Long Island, but it doesn't go to any car shows. Did your friend's XM appear later this year at Concorso Italiano?

  3. mdharrell says:

    " Apparently, French car cognoscentis do not frequent the I-5 corridor."

    I've lived along the I-5 corridor nearly all of my life and drive it often, but in my case "knowledgeable" probably isn't as accurate as "should know better."

  4. B72 says:

    Compared to the rest of the car, that gauge cluster is disappointingly plebeian.

  5. wisc47 says:

    I love how cars from that era looked like they were designed with just a ruler, then the designers just rounded out the corners in hopes that no one would notice. Hell, I'm sure they would've made the wheels square had it made any mechanical sense. Anyways, it's a cool look, and this just might pull at some Hoon's heartstrings.

    <img src="http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/NTc1WDEwMjQ=/$(KGrHqNHJFIFC-dO03CYBQ2vrCm8b!~~48_20.JPG"&gt; http://ottawa.kijiji.ca/c-cars-vehicles-cars-truc

    • Maymar says:

      I could be in Mississauga within 25 minutes, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that for 15 grand, I could get my wife and I a reasonable trip to Europe, pick up one of these as a souvenir, and get it home and federalized.

    • Felis_Concolor says:

      I have frequently mentioned how Ford's Taurus sounded the death knell for the origami school of folded steel, but that doesn't mean I am pleased with the latter's passing. I loved that particular era of styling and still do. Those wonderful wedges were a glimpse of a future which did not quite come to pass, although the multiplicity of buttons is definitely something I'm glad is gone.

  6. Vavon says:

    That was a cool story! "enjoy life and do the unexpected" that's my way of looking on life too.

    I once made a road trip from Lyon in France to Dorohoi in Romania.
    My friend and I were supposed to alternate driving, but in the end I did all the driving, I loved it!
    It was a trip of 2.222 km or 1.380 miles through 6 countries in 27 hours and I was driving this:

    <img src="http://aebergon.perso.neuf.fr/photos_Peugeot/106_Enfant_Terrible_3.jpg&quot; width="650/">
    The most interesting bits:
    - I got a ticket in Hungary for not stopping at a stop sign at a deserted crossing at 5h30 in the morning.
    - I saw some spectacular views of the Carpathian mountain range and lots of horse-drawn carriages.
    - I almost got a fine in Suceava in Romania for nudging a continuous line, my Romanian friend bribed the cop.
    - On the whole trip the 1.4 engine with 75hp managed 47 miles per gallon (US), average speed: almost 52 mph.

    Whilst I was in Romania I also drove over the Transfăgărășan highway, as Top Gear said: totally awesome!
    The trip back, after a months holiday, took much longer and was also utterly unadventurous.

  7. danleym says:

    What are the two green balls under the hood, on the rear corners of the engine compartment?

  8. duurtlang_ says:

    I believe you were once looking to import an XM yourself, pre-Pheaton and possibly before this trip. Is it still something you'd like to do? 1989 is almost 25 yeas ago. The earlier ones are getting rarer, but they're still there. Like this V6 (32 valve) with black leather from 1990, for almost €2500 asking price. They are appreciating though, especially nice ones.

    <img src="http://fotos.marktplaats.com/kopen/b/30/2F8ASHl0EYDAiPh29dCY0A==.jpg"&gt;

    • wisc47 says:

      Man that is tempting, especially in that color!

      • duurtlang_ says:

        You can get a nice looking one for €500. The thing with these cars is that you absolutely need one that was well taken care off. They're reliable if you do, especially the otherwise slightly less interesting later ones. If they're not kept right it can become quite expensive.
        When looking on our craigslist alternative to find the above car I came across another nice looking one from 1992. Guy asked €400 for it, it had stupid hubcaps on it and he was willing to trade for a scooter. I'd rather pay €2000 more for one kept in the presence of the other cars in this picture. See the CX with the double rear axle? Yeah.

    • Rust-MyEnemy says:

      5.33 valves per cylinder! Talk about advanced engineering…

      • duurtlang_ says:

        Ha! It's a V6 with 8 cylinders. Are you that unfamiliar with French engineering?

        I must be drunk or something. 24 valve is what I meant. There's a 12 valve version as well, that's why I mentioned it. Good catch though.

    • Maxichamp says:

      I remember you from Oppo! Welcome.

      If the right XM comes up, I'd consider it. But the Phaeton is more than a handful. I think the next car is going to be a mint Saab 900 or 9000 (convertible, wagon, coupe, or sedan).

      Recently, I toyed with the idea of a Citroen GS for my wife, but we are getting her a Fiat 500 Turbo instead.

  9. Metric Wrench says:

    Baller! Courage! Viva la XM!

  10. VolvoNut says:

    "enjoy life and do the unexpected"
    Couldn't have set it better myself.

  11. Maymar says:

    It does seem like it'd be at least one of the top 5 road trip cars of all time.

    That said, I'm really waiting for 2020, when the C6 is eligible for importation (at least to Canada). I know the XM's more interesting, but I'm taken with the newer car. Not that I'd turn down any big Citroen.

    • Maxichamp says:

      I saw one C6 in my life…in Patagonia of all places. It is so baller.

      • Maymar says:

        I was in Europe in the fall – in Paris, the C6 was nearly as ubiquitous as black Town Cars in just about any North American city. I could probably count on one hand the number I saw outside of there (although most of the rest of the trip was in Germany, or Prague, where I just saw a lot of our hotel's Skoda Supurbs).

    • Jay_Ramey says:

      Ugh, 2020 is such a long time away. And there so much French compact goodness available to you Canadians right now.

  12. Alcology says:

    This post seems super familiar. Was this posted somewhere else? I was thinking about it recently as well. If it wasn't, this is an amazing case of deja vu and I just over-wrote a bunch of great memories with your great memories!

  13. Xehpuk says:

    Does this XM have DIRAVI steering?

    • Vavon says:

      If I'm not mistaken only very early left hand drive V6 Citroën XMs had DIRAVI.
      I drove a CX Diesel with DIRAVI a couple of times, it was a fun, but weird, experience.

        • Vavon says:

          Easier to show than to explain…

          [youtube lu8Bj3p8J8s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu8Bj3p8J8s youtube]

          This is a part of what wikipedia has to say about it: DIRAVI

          DIRAVI is the name given by Citroën to its proprietary power steering system, first seen in 1970.
          DIRAVI is an acronym for "Direction à rappel asservi" literally meaning "steering with controlled return" more accurately described in English as "power steering with power assisted return". In the UK, it was marketed as VariPower and in the U.S. as SpeedFeel. This was the first commercially available variable assist power steering arrangement, allowing the motorist power assist when parking, but recognizing that less steering assistance was needed at high speed. This feature is now spreading to mainstream vehicles.

          This DIRAVI system is an addition to the integrated Citroën hydropneumatic suspension and braking system and apart from its hydraulic power supply is independent of it. This unique Citroën power operated self centring steering system is fitted to: Citroën SM, Citroën CX (most), Citroën XM (early Left Hand drive V6), Maserati Quattroporte II, Maserati Khamsin

          • Xehpuk says:

            Also a major feature of the system is that disturbances caused by the road surface (potholes etc) cannot turn the wheels at all. This leads to a strange steering feel too.

  14. Rover1 says:

    Now I've started looking for an XM to go with my BX and CX, while they are still affordable. Also probably a good time to consider looking for another Renault 25, a car which must have had some influence on the XM design. How does the XM compare to the Eagle Premier/Dodge Monaco, the American car based on the 25? Has anyone driven both an XM and one of the Franco-american twins?

  15. dukeisduke says:

    I've been a Citroenphile all my life (when I was a kid, my dad was fascinated with the DS, and there was an old man in the neighborhood where I threw papers in that drove a puke green Mehari), so the XM just makes me drool. An excellent article, Jim.

  16. mr. mzs zsm msz esq says:

    We had the same door lock fob in a Mercedes rental in Germany. Our German was really weak and we could not figure-out how to lock the doors. I swear there was only a key hole for the trunk. So I had to stay outside watching the car, I asked people, no one knew. It was a bit funny, a small crowd all speaking in tongues and trying various things. One guy was convinced you could take a piece of plastic off near the door handle and use the key there but it was very difficult for me to communicate with him to please stop politely. Halt! Halt bitte? But my dad came back in the nick of time from the hotel after a phone conversation with the rental place.

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