I consider myself a future Citroën owner. It’s only a matter of time before the marque with the double Chevrons finds its way onto my parking spot. The thing is, I’ve not yet sure which one is the one to get – I’ve not yet driven a CX or an XM. My daily-driver Mitsubishi Sapporo with its one-spoke steering wheel and comfortable-but-weird interior stands as a sort of a placeholder for a real Citroën (it even has a 2.4-litre four like the CX does); I’m sure I’ll find a way to find an affordable, well-kept Citroën sometime in the future to replace it. But in the meantime, the logical thing is to do some research within the marque, to find out what exactly I want from one. Produced in the days when Citroën had toned down the funk, the Xantia is becoming increasingly affordable, and until now I hadn’t driven one – so when the opportunity came knocking, I was eager to give it a look. This is the ’98-’99 Citroën Xantia Break driven by Ilkka, a friend of mine. It’s originally been bought by his online auction dealing dad by sheer mistake; he had placed a low-balling bid, tongue-in-cheek, and soon had the Xantia fall in his lap by surprise. The Cit was promptly handed over to Ilkka, after which it proceeded to have the suspension fail on him in an expensive fashion. But, despite causing him big bills initially, he’s kept driving it for a few years now. It’s acquired a few bumps and knocks (parking garages have their difficult days) and a couple of larger scrapes, but it keeps on soldiering on. Ingeniously, Ilkka’s devised a solution to keep the Citroën from causing trouble: he simply doesn’t drive it that often. The Xantia is a true Citroën, as it came with the Hydractive hydro-pneumatic suspension. Utilising a system of nitrogen and mineral oil filled suspension spheres and managed with electronic sensors, the system stands to minimalise road irregularities whilst enabling a stable and self-levelling suspension setup, guaranteeing good handling and tidy road manners. Manually controlled with a lever between the seats, a Hydractive car can also be lowered or lifted in seconds to negotiate a road that requires a higher clearance. The system does have its disadvantages, maintenance-wise, and is fairly complicated in comparison to a conventional suspension setup, but it’s something that’s essentially Citroën. A Citroën with steel springs is little more than a Peugeot in disguise. Having been costily overhauled some time ago, this Xantia has a working suspension setup. Despite the temperature hanging somewhere close to -10 centigrade and us having just driven out of a carwash minutes earlier, I was eager to test the system – and it did not fail us. The Cit jacked itself up to seriously high-riding setting, then lowered itself back into hugging the ground. At the lowest setting, there’s little sense in trying to drive the car as the tires dig into the wells so deep they’ll scrape. This is also the way the car looks when the system has failed; unlike Citroëns of old, this is not the default stand-by setting as a valve in the system keeps the car slightly higher up when it’s not driven. Of course, the default stand-by setting is lower than the normal driving height, so you’ll have to wait a few seconds after starting to car to let it rise a few centimetres. There is a huge STOP light in the instrument panel for this, and it also lights up when there’s something more wrong than usual. Like I said, the Xantia’s acquired a few scrapes. This one is almost the length of the entire passenger side. Parking garages can be tight. You can see a large dent in the rear wheelarch too; on the other side there’s a new one that was only revealed from under the muck the day we washed the car – the doing of Ilkka’s flatmate. Luckily the yellow paint comes off by scraping it with fingernails. The car has done 178 000 km by now, and the body damage notwithstanding is in fairly good condition inside out, having passed inspection with no issues a while ago. Interior plastics are good, thick quality and the seats seem to be hard-wearing as they’ve stayed tidy. Specification is really rather good, with climate control and a convincing stereo set-up with steering wheel controls. The outside temperature display seems to have been confused by the carwash, it was a bit colder that afternoon than just -1 ‘C. Under the hood in this car lies not only the suspension nucleus, but also a 1.8-litre 16-valve DOHC four. And while the suspension could be considered the car’s Achilles heel, it’s really the engine I’m more doubtful of. While it does admirable service if properly maintained, and is relatively frugal, it’s not gutsy enough to make the Xantia stand out as a jack-of-all-trades car. The engine moves smaller Citroens like the Xsara just fine, but the Xantia needs a 2.0-litre engine – preferably with a turbo, or then the snarly, gnarly 3.0-litre V6 – to shine. Both of those engines were available in the Xantia Activa special edition that had an even trickier active suspension setup which killed body roll dead; an Activa can be gunned into a corner and it’ll shoot out of it still completely level. A photo to demonstrate: Driving the non-Activa Xantia Break, it felt solid, almost German in execution; only let down by minor rattles (like a Volkswagen wouldn’t rattle in the winter) and a strange, hard brake pedal feel that I would attribute to not being used to the car. Brakes on a hydro-pneumatic Citroën are connected to the suspension system, so there’s little need for long brake pedal travel. I liked the shifting action on this 5-speed car, and it’s really good to have a satisfying feel to the shifter as you need to work it with a relatively gutless engine such as this. Of course, there’s little point in berating a cheaply-acquired Xantia wagon for lacking straight-line oomph or body roll combating active suspension, but as a Citroën it’s been toned down so much in the design department that it’s possible to be mistaken for something less quirky in heritage. Despite this, it’s a good load hauler and returns reasonable mileage; just drive it like any other car but maintain it like a Citroën. Deal? Ilkka’s considering getting rid of his Citroën, as he doesn’t really need it for anything as commuting only takes a couple of minutes by foot. The car is worth something in the region of 2000-2500 euros; the body damage brings down the value somewhat, but recent inspection brings it up. Xantias do not really rust, except if there is or has been body damage – the body shell has been treated well at factory. The A/C does need a reboost and cleaning. Here’s an example I would consider had I fallen for the car head over heels. It’s a white one with low kilometres, and white suits it better as the shape looks slightly more futuristic in lighter colours. The downside is the resemblance to a beluga whale. All in all, the Xantia felt like something I would easily get used to. And like a good progressive rock album, a Citroën product should open up more slowly and reveal hidden depths only by repeated usage, to better withstand the passing of time. The Xantia exists now as an interesting alternative to Peugeot sedans, but the Activa notwithstanding it hasn’t made an impact like the more adventurous older Citroëns. Still, I find it less bulbous and sprawling than the C5 that succeeded it; in comparison the Xantia is lighter and simpler and is certain to age better.
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