Ethereal Express: Driving The Citroën XM

Citroen XM
There are countless phenomenons out there which defy description. To know that something exists, having this fact backed up by the reports of others, even seeing it documented on TV still can’t hold a candle to experiencing it first hand.
I found this to be true when I visited Iceland in April and was lucky enough to witness Aurora Borealis live and outrageous in the late winter sky. It was everything I had dreamt of and more besides, at one point exploding from the restful ribbon of bright green that boogied in the darkness into a sudden Pink Floyd laser spectacular- pinks and blues and whites swirling in an unimaginable vortex like Nature’s Own LSD. Probably.
And if that celestial showcase wasn’t enough, on Thursday 26th May 2016, I got to drive a Citroën XM.

XM isn’t like other cars in the same way as the North American XB-70 Valkyrie isn’t like other planes. In fact it shares a good few aesthetic values with that sleekest of oversize darts, its silhouette incomparable with anything else of its time or any other. And, like the very-supersonic Research Aircraft itself, the XM is remembered more for its individual nature and its design achievements than for any great influence that it had in the physical world.
Yes, there have been Concordes and TU144s, and theoretical hypersonic transport aircraft on paper ever since, but Earth’s population still chooses to travel in one basic design of aluminium tube cut to different lengths. All current successful passenger aircraft essentially follow the same tried and tested format, one which is only changed incrementally as technologies improve, and when we say improve we mean “become more attractive for customers” whether it be in safety, customer satisfaction or reliability, all these things mean greater return on investment for the airline. Today’s cars have, by and large, become just as artless.
Citroen XM Side
The XM followed the even more extra-terrestrial looking CX, a car whose sheer design uniquity kept customers interested for almost twenty years. The XM, though, wasn’t destined to become evergreen in the same way.
Looking at the XM today is a lot like looking at any of the great Concept Cars of the ’80s. Things like Bertone’s Audi-based Aspid, Asgard and Astec trio or perhaps the Lamborghini Based Athon from earlier in the decade. These were flights of fancy which could have only come from their own era, a time where progress-or the look of it- was foremost in the marketing spiel of every major manufacturer. And sure enough, the XM looked like progress.
Razor edges were very much in vogue at the end of the ’80s and those worn by the XM surely represent the zenith of origami design. This car looks sharp, both physically and metaphorically, but also extremely well resolved with every feature line- and there are many- having a place to go and a reason for its existence. It looks dated, but only in the way that Stonehenge or The Eiffel Tower look dated. Those landmarks join the Citroën XM as things from history which have never really evolved, they were just created and have existed as a milestone ever since.
I always enjoyed how the bridge on the NCC-1710-D Enterprise had wood veneer trim on the secondary control console. I liked how Gene Roddenberry and the TNG design crew recognised that intergalactic explorers would appreciate a bit of restraint and elegance in their place of work. I mention this because the XM cabin frequently attracts Star Trek comparisons, and I can’t help but think that this interior rather out-points the federation starship when it comes to futuristic detailing.
I used to attach calculators and old computer keyboards to my go-cart, just so I had buttons to press as I rolled down the driveway. When I sit in this driving seat a big part of me is still seven years old. The sheer variety of buttons to press in here is astonishing, and many of them are assigned to purposes you couldn’t possibly have guessed there was a need to. For example-
Press the one with a musical note marked on it and a compartment swings silently open to reveal the radio cassette player (which was appropriately playing Jean Michelle Jarre during my drive). Or…
Press these two and the centre armrest can be made to pivot up and down. Electrically! You could be excused for thinking that this degree of complexity was asking for trouble, and that it all still works twenty three years after this car was built has to be given credit.
The main information dials are analogue- a sober choice presumably made because analogue dials are  The Best for presenting information. And anyway the instrument cluster is still flanked by two supplementary displays carrying LCD dot-matrix information on what time it is and details about open doors, that kind of thing. Actually, the truth is that one of the bulbs in the clock has expired- one of the few faults this car is beset by, but the owner isn’t too concerned about effecting a repair. Apparently it’s a fiendishly involved operation, involving the removal of much of the dashboard and probably the wheels.
It’s a shame it was daylight for my drive. I would love to have been bathed by the flood of green light that flows from all of those dials, displays and buttons. It pains me to use a metaphor as hackneyed as I feel like I’m about to, but this does feel distinctly Beyond Car.
It doesn’t drive like any wheeled vehicle I’ve ever tried before. This being the lowly two-litre version it doesn’t exactly take off like a drop-kicked cat, it rather gathers momentum like a boulder on a mountainside. However, once a cruising speed is attained it is stuck to rigidly with a sense of immovable inertia. The car tracks straight and true like that paper dart that its profile suggests.
The ride (and I know that this particular car has a few hydropneumatic peculiarities) is simultaneously hard and absorbent- ensuring that my hands and buttocks know the road’s every topographical detail, yet my body is spared any shock or lunge. It’s not a magic carpet, more an astonishingly smooth go-kart. But what is more remarkable is what happens when you pry it away from the motorway and onto more demanding surfaces.
It is here that I have cause to use the brakes for the first time, and also here that I remember all I have read about the oddities of Citroën braking systems. The brake pedal movement is minuscule, and retardation is metered not by how far you push the pedal, but how hard you push it. This doesn’t initially suit my right-foot-go, left-foot-stop default technique for driving automatics and I find myself forced to rethink my driving strategy.
In fact, so differently does this car respond to inputs that a cookery course or degree in needlework would give me more XM piloting insight than I had now. Having just got to grips with the atomically precise brake action I now found myself at war with physics. In most cars you can correlate your instinctive readings for steering attitude and body roll to sense how much grip you have left. In the Citroën you just can’t. It simply refuses to roll even when pitched into corners with reckless abandon. The relatively diminutive tyres hang on gamely but are inevitably overcome by my own puerile determination, but when they do break traction order is restored with a little pressure on the brake.
Meanwhile the steering is simply a dial used to determine the direction of travel. Its natural preference is to the straight ahead though the self-centering moment is far lessened here than in cleverly suspended Citroëns of even older-school, but it’s an extremely faithful and obedient interface. Instructions are hydraulically pumped from tiller to rudder with no lag at all and, assuming you’re not carrying too much momentum for the tyres to handle the car will simply dismiss the corner with a Gallic shrug.
It seems ludicrous to give a review of how the XM drives, really. It’s irrelevant, like discussing how the Mona Lisa tastes. After a while you realise that you’re putting absolutely no effort whatsoever into driving the car. Once you know where the limits are (surprisingly high) the XM doesn’t particularly reward you for trying hard, so there’s really no point in bothering. Instead, just sit back and enjoy the fact that the XM will take you anywhere you like, in sublime comfort and in imitable style.
So relax, sink into that deep, thick leather and set every one of the myriad adjustments until the machine accepts you as part of its whole. Then marvel at the uninterupted, widescreen view of the road ahead and consider how remarkable it is that such a bleak, black interior should feel so airy and spacious, and how hushed everything was thanks to that additional, secondary rear windscreen.
And then invert that smile and develop a frown as you remember that the XM was a dead end. Its belated successor, the C6 was actually fairly conventional once the exterior treatment and detailing were put aside, much of its character was derived from a pastiche of the CX, whereas the XM always stood out strongly as an individual.
An XM, particularly an early example (post ’94 versions recieved some normalisation which rather diluted the essence) now makes a striking candidate for addition to my own list of Cars I Want To Own But Probably Shouldn’t. You buy these, I’ve heard, on history rather than spec or condition. Scruffy but mechanically well-kept cars are probably a better bet than low-mileage minters which have never been given any exercise.
And that would be criminal. To own one of these and not let it take you far, far away as you luxuriate in your own late ’80s vision of a future that never really came.
(All images Chris Haining, Hooniverse 2015. With thanks to Newspress and Sam Skelton for the use of the car)

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  1. salguod Avatar

    I must have a Citroën some day. Did the XM come to the States?

    1. Borkwagen Avatar

      Not officially. The earliest do fall under the 25-year rule though.

    2. JayP Avatar

      News to me…
      When Citroen discontinued the CX in 1990, CXA, the New Jersey-based grey-market
      importer of the CX throughout the late 1980s, turned its attention to the
      newly-introduced XM. After several years of tests, modifications and battles
      with DOT and EPA, CXA released the XM on the American market. Unfortunately,
      the American market’s response was less-than resounding. Although the XM
      was sold fully loaded with ABS, AC, leather and the V6 engine, it was priced
      between $55,000 and $60,000 and, between 1992 and 1994, less than 20 XMs
      were sold (including 1 Estate version). Because of the limited number of
      XMs in North America, most replacement parts have to be ordered directly
      from Europe.
      Imported from 1992 to 1994.
      About 20 XMs in North America.
      Expect to pay:
      Poor: $2,000 to $4,000
      Fair: $4,000 to $7,500
      Good: $7,500 to $11,000
      Excellent: $11,000 to $15,000

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar

        This is (as far as I can confirm) correct. While I cannot vouch for the complete number of approximately 20 XMs having been brought in by CXA before they ceased trading, I can say that I have personally been in two of their XMs and driven one. Neither one was the estate version, however.

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    I have twice resisted the temptation to buy an XM wagon – they are huge. Also, their value seems to be about the same whether they work or not here in Norway; there’s no market for them.–1997-1999-.jpg
    Very nice, respectful post!

    1. karonetwentyc Avatar

      This was always the true successor to the 505 wagon in my book. Brilliant cars.

  3. Toaster Avatar

    I drive a ’96 3,0L. Full on Battlestar Citroenica, Euro V6, DIRAVI steering and all. Yeah, its either the best bad car in the world, or the worst great car ever made. I’d argue that the DIRAVI (self centering, speed regulated steering, a carryover from the SM/CX), which only came with LHD V6s until ’96 is actually the greatest feature of mine. No feedback whatsoever, but still feels direct and completely different than electric. Goes great with the on-rails feel of the hydroactiv suspension. The suspension, when the spheres get tired, often feels a little jiggly over short bumps, wouldn’t surprise me if this was the case here.

  4. Jaap Avatar

    To hell with buid-quality, reliability and all that, this car was meant as a usable piece of design or even architecture or even art. After it, I can only think of the Alfa Romeo 156 or Renault Avantime or BMW 1-series to reach that specific … quality.

  5. Toaster Avatar

    They aren’t even built that badly, or unreliable for that matter, its just that they are quite complex and pretty different compared to ordinary cars, so most mechanics can’t (and shouldn’t) work on them. They hydraulics are actually quite mature and if you know how to diagnose them, quite easy to service and fix, the engines apart from the PRV 24V V6, are considered solid and the small niggles aren’t fundamentally different to what every other early 90s luxo-barge has.
    What hurt those things is the permanent cust cutting, PSA Style. First during the design phase, with the electrical system esp. on early cars being quite inadequate, and then during the production run, with interior materials progessively getting worse.
    Example? This this thing has a metric fuckton of interior lights, not counting the dashboard, 3 dome lights, 4 map lights, twin make up lights in the sun visors and 4 curtesy/safety lights in the lower doors and a tiny spotlight for the ignition key. However by the time it came to lighting the trunk, they ran out of money so there’s only one puny light hidden behind the left wheel well, so half of the trunk is permanently cast in shadow.
    The leather seats are great, ajustable heating front and back and comfortable as fuck. But the interior plastics on my 96 are way worse than those on my moms old 92 Nissan sunny, hard and creaky, I’m pretty sure you could remove half of the buttons with a plastic spoon.
    The electric windows on early Y3 cars often failed due to the contacts corroding. So they fixed that for the Y4 with better contacts. All fine and dandy, but they also switched to a diffent window actuator (either for cost or space reasons, not sure, later cars also had side impact protection) which is prone to corrosion itself.
    They added redundant brakelights in the hatch (remember this was before the 3rd brakelight was a thing in Europe) for safety reasons, but then thought they could save a bit of money by running the current directly through the undersized brakelight switch in the pedal instead of a relay or at least a beefier switch. Meaning you could melt that switch by staying on the brakes for too long, which would also take out the cruise control.
    I love that car, don’t get me wrong, and it has’t failed me (so far) in any meaningful way but boy could they have made it better.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      To enforce your defense: If you live with an elderly car like that for some time, you’ll always run into weak points, especially when rough climate is part of the picture.
      Tedious replacements that wouldn’t happen during the first few years of ownership (e.g. oil leaks and hydraulics failure due to aged seals) will only demonstrate “bad” or just “inconvenient” design to the wrench turners – if it was an F-car or something collectible, you just pay the workshop hours and enjoy appreciation.

  6. Toaster Avatar

    Oh and do you see that cord in the last pic? That thing can be affixed to the rear hatch so it opens the 2nd window plane automatically whenever the hatch is opened. They could have simply put a little hook on the 2nd window frame so you can put the cord there when not in use, instead they designed a rubber band (spring?) doodad which is supposed to pull the cord into the window frame. At least that’s what the manual says, I’ve never seen a functional one.

  7. karonetwentyc Avatar

    These are truly, truly brilliant cars. But if you’re tempted to go for one, get a LHD series 2 model from a dry climate.
    Rust was not a huge issue on them, but electrical grounds were known to be and Series 1 RHD cars (which were the ones that I grew up with) had their own very specific peculiarities (which, to a much lesser extent, carried over into the Series 2 cars).
    I can remember going with my father on a test drive of a RHD Series 1 car somewhere in the 1989 – 1990 timeframe. It ended when the dealer – who had brought the car to the house – was unable to get it to start after making a great deal of noise about its PIN-pad security feature. No matter how many times he correctly entered the PIN, it just wouldn’t start.
    Still, absolutely fantastic cars, and I say this as a complete DS bigot.

    1. Toaster Avatar

      Ironically the electrical issues and the good rust protection are sort of connected. Citroens were known to turn into oxide quite quickly back in the day, but in the 80s PSA started to tackle that and they went all out on rust proofing on their new Flagship XM/605. Unfortunatly the rust proofed a lot of the mass connectors along the way, meaning that apart from parts-bin connectors designed for the cheapest of econoboxes the early cars had permanent ground issues.

      1. karonetwentyc Avatar

        Realistically, the one to go for from this time is the Xantia in top-spec trim. They have their own set of issues, to be sure, but can be had with all of the same toys and drive every bit as well as the XM without quite the same level of complexity.
        Don’t get me wrong: I like the XM. But they can have a level of pain to live with that isn’t found in other similar big Citroëns – and those have their own peculiarities to deal with. I’ll admit to not having owned one, but this is largely why I haven’t.

        1. Toaster Avatar

          Well a top spec Xantia would be an Activa, and those have the most complex hydraulic system ever fitted to a car. Never driven one (only regular Xantias) but they are said to be really nice.
          The Xantia is the final evolution of the XM architecture, electrical layout is very similar, so are the hydraulics, it’s just incorporates a lot of lessons learned and is therefore better in many ways, certainly easier to live with. But its not as big and weird, so it’s also worse in a lot of others.
          It’s a bit like recommending a GS or BX over a DS or CX. Alls sorts or rational arguments can be made for them and in and by itself the GS and the BX are funky little cars.
          But a big Citroens they are not.
          As far as the pain level is concerned, my mechanical background is commercial aeroplanes, so diagnosing systems and chasing gremlins is actually my idea of fun. Metalworking of any kind and serious engine work however isn’t, so a car that comes with good rust proofing, a solid drivetrain and a big binder of exploded drawings and circuit diagrams suits my personal brand of masochism just fine.

          1. karonetwentyc Avatar

            Fair point re: top-spec Xantias; the Activa wasn’t actually the model on my mind when I wrote that but rather something like a 2.1TD in loaded trim, which I really should have been clearer about. That said, my godfather did have a Xantia Activa with the 3.0 and it was a phenomenal car.
            Agreed, however, that the Xantia is essentially a debugged XM (which was in a large part spurring my recommendation for them) – but also one of the more marked points of Citroën turning increasingly orthodox.
            It’s funny you should mention the GS: despite looking at (and driving) several, I’ve never convinced myself to take the plunge on one. Despite having owned a few 2CVs and derivatives as well as one each of a DS, CX, and BX and liked all of them, the GS just didn’t quite do it for me. Not a bad car, but agreed that it (and the BX) aren’t the same as the large Citroëns.

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