As Brits, we like to think we have the last word on eccentricity. We gave the world Tommy Cooper, Carry on Films and with both, the liberal use of the slide whistle. We have Morris Dancing. We have Harry Hill. The list goes on. But it needn’t, because compared to the French, we’re amateurs. Especially when it comes to cars.
So bonkers are some of the French motoring offerings, they don’t even need to be full-scale to make us look at them with an inquisitive eye. A case in point would be the Citroen XM. As kids, we payed little attention to what was driving past us. But what we were playing with, that was a different matter. And French Matchbox equivalent, Majorette, gave us this odd little vehicle to play with…
…even way back then we knew the Citroen XM was something different, but with it, something special. But then again, the bonnet opened and the suspension was delightfully springy… on the toy that is. As such, it found favour with us as we reenacted car chases beside the skirting board.
And now, as adults, we look at the XM with a fondness not only because it was a top toy, but because the real car has become a bit of a pop culture icon thanks to a starring role in 1998’s Ronin. It might have been the baddy’s car, but even so, the wheeled protagonist of that scene, the Audi S8, couldn’t hold a torch to the XM. The XM was just… cool.
Seriously, just look at it. It’s manacing. And that’s no mistake. The XM has been referred to as being “Gothic” in design, thanks to its long lines, the thin and menacing lights that almost seem to be sneering at you, and of course, that staggered belt-line. Hnng. It’s just awesome.
The XM was released in 1989 and it had big shoes to fill. The CX before it was a handsome car that offered space, space and a great deal of comfort. It was a flagship car for the French manufacturer, so the XM would have to be, too. And at first, it was. But that didn’t last long.
The XM was radical in general terms (just look at it), but it was more than a sharp suit. The engineers worked tirelessly to counter some of the complaints of the CX customer. For one, there was the way the CX handled, leaning out of corners rather than staying flat. For the XM the suspension was completely overhauled, but in a way only the bonkers French could. You see, Citroen had already given the world the clever hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, which worked with spheres, green goo, nitrogen and other things we don’t understand (nor are we making up).
For the XM, Citroen glued a computer to it, wired it into the throttle, the brakes, the steering and some other bits and called the whole thing Hydractive. That’s good, because it’s a lot easier to spell than hydronew… hyroneopm… that one we said earlier.
And it worked. The giant XM could rise and fall like a sinister lowrider, which was cool (though as of yet, an XM still has not featured in a rap video), but more than that, it could hold the road like a champ. For a big car, an XM was – and still is – an impressive thing to be at the helm of.
Citroen also bolted a V6 into the XM, which was pretty special as it was the first time it had done so since the mighty SM. It made the big bus pretty quick, but then the turbo engine was quick, too, as was the diesel. It didn’t need to be fast, but that didn’t stop the French from seeing to it that it was.
And it wasn’t just fast, it was also comfy. There’s a level of comfort that, to this day, only French cars can achieve. Maybe it’s the armchair-like seats, maybe is that suspension ironing out every bump, we don’t know. All we do know is that the XM is a supremely comfortable car, even today.
And yet, despite all this wonderment, all this charm and intrigue, the XM was a flop. It was a victim of timing though, rather being a bad car. It wasn’t. Those who did buy them adored them and made no secret of it. But for many it was seen as too bonkers, too eccentric, especially when compared to cars like the Audi 100 and the BMW 5-Series that were safe and solid and came with badges that people seemed to aspire to own.
The XM should have been the car to carry on the ‘big car’ bloodline for Citroen, but it wasn’t. When the likes of Ford and Vauxhall pulled out of the big exec market the writing was on the wall. Consumers were buying German and there was little room for anything else. And for a volume manufacturer like Citroen it made no sense to keep the XM on, so in the year 2000 it was killed off.
The XM’s demise wasn’t befitting of a car so magnificent. Its legacy should be something altogether more special, and thanks to some devout fans, that’s becoming the case. The XM is a popular car in classic circles, in which it is celebrated for its unwillingness to conform. And with parts availability aplenty, and classic insurance policies seeing to it that XMs are cheap to drive, there has never been a better time to buy one.
Just remember though, if you buy one, don’t offer a lift to a bald man with a silver case. And if you do, keep your eyes peeled for green Audi A8s.