Or in proper American English: “modern french interludes”. Modern? Yes, at the time I had these. The Renault was a new car and the Citroen was a 6 year old car. These cars deserve a COAL chapter as they have been part of my automotive history. However, they did not make a lasting impression. As a result this chapter may be a little less inspiring.
In 1997 I started working for an IT company. We were seconded to clients, and commuting distances could be big. A new lease car was a must, and I was told to make a choice.
I was not a fan of new cars at the time. It seemed to me this was an era lacking quality and design freshness. Interiors always were a horrible sea of plastic, cold, gray and dull. New cars were for other people who did not care or had no eye for elegance, sleek styling and proper interiors. I knew I had to step over my dislikes and had to find out what would be a good car for the coming period.
Before I would receive my newly chosen car, I had to make use of a car the company had available nearing the end of its lease period. This was about the most slow and dull car imaginable, and one I would rather not be remembered of: a 1994 Ford Escort (non-turbo) diesel. I hated every time I had to drive it. Quite often I left it at home and took one of my classics to drive to the client. Thankfully I had to use that red Escort for three months only.
In order to prepare to buy a new car I did something I never had done before: going to dealer showrooms to look at, sit in and drive new cars. And collect brochures. No internet then so all information had to be distilled from brochures. Quite a few evenings were spent finding out what would be best, what options might be interesting, what car and type had what standard equipment, how did the engines compare, etc etc. Probably things that are familiar to a lot of people but all new to me.
Visits to the showrooms to get test drives were an interesting experience. At one dealer, it seemed no-one from Sales were available. I did not see anyone in, around or near the showroom and asked the receptionist if there was someone who could help me. No. She suggested to come back another day. That I did not.
Learning from that experience, I made an appointment at a Citroën dealer to test drive a Xantia 1.8. Citroën was known for its quirky designs and out of the box solutions for dashboards and suspension systems. Being different gained extra points from me. But during the 90s, Citroën shifted to more normal cars. Maybe in order to attract more (other?) people.
The Xantia was the successor of the popular BX. The BX still had all the Citroën quirks, styling, very soft hydraulic suspension, soft seats, the one spoke steering wheel. The Xantia looked much more “normal”, its (still hydraulic) suspension was set a little harder and did not sink to the ground after parking. The dash and seats looked exactly the same as in any other car. I was disappointed at the test drive. It steered well but nothing special. I thought a Citroen with their hydraulic suspension would be softer but I could not find much special about it. After the test drive the sales man asked how it went. I was not too positive and mentioned I had somehow expected more. He said that if I could not feel the comfort of the excellent Xantia, maybe I had to look elsewhere! So I did!
I did not want the usual Opel, Fiat, Ford, VW, Toyota or Nissan. It was bad enough to have to drive a modern car but I could not face to be in a car of a brand I always had detested. I looked at a Subaru Legacy but found out these were too expensive for my budget. A Volvo 440 or stripped 460 was possible but I did not like the blocky design. A Peugeot 406 looked very attractive but in the end I decided I would like to own a car with a hatchback. We just had our second child and it would be useful.
Introduced a couple of years before, the Renault Laguna. As far as modern cars go, I did like its shape, not as slab sided or a morphy blub like other 90s cars. I did not care about a color so Sylvia got to that task: she chose a nice dark purple (still a favorite color for her).
I hated the what looked like faded flowery pattern of the greyish/blueish/greenish fabric seats but there really was no other choice for it going with the purple exterior. However, a Sport package option was available which included different seats, black with thin grey lines. Much more acceptable! I cannot remember what else was included in the Sport package but I chose it for the seats alone.
Furthermore the car had climate control, air conditioning where you just set the required temperature, a first for me. It had other useful common luxuries of the time like electric windows, mirrors and remote central locking. One option I selected was an electrically heated front windscreen, it saved me from scraping ice off the windscreen on frosty mornings because being a new car, it had to live on the street. The Laguna had an good but unremarkable 4 cilinder 1.8 litre engine and a 5 speed manual gearbox. It was not too slow, it was not really fast either. The suspension seemed more comfortable than the Xantia I had test driven before.
The car was pretty good. It did its job well, there were no real problems with it in the 20 months or so I had it. I had ordered it with a towing bracket so could tow our old Constructam caravan to far away campings. The large trunk with the big hatchback door was useful, we took our son, baby daughter and camping gear on a summer holiday. Have to admit the air conditioning was a success in the hot summer!
That said, I never got to terms otherwise with the Automatic Climate Control. It always was just too warm or just too cold. It would decide to blow cold air for a short period and then stop. Or hot air. I did not want that so was always fettling with the controls – not something to be expected with Automatic climate control. Maybe it was not a very good sophisticated system or maybe I am not the person for it and would be better of with just manual air conditioning.
Apart from being a pretty good car, it was also boring. I never really looked forward in driving the car. I felt too much a Mr. Average in it. It was not a car for me. When I changed employer, I did not regret much to leave it behind.
Citroen Xantia wagon
A few years later, another employer, another car. This time I had a regular communting distance of around 200 kilometres (130 miles) per day. At first I used my trusty old 1966 Triumph 2000 Mk1 but I got very weary sitting in hot traffic jams every day. I needed an automatic and air conditioning and preferably a wagon. Knowing the job would be for a longer period, I better had to choose a suitable car for it.
So I started looking for a 4-6 year old car. Most cars on the market were still without air con (Europe was late to adapt) and most were manual. The Laguna was available as wagon but it looked awful. I knew by selecting a modern I had to set aside some preferences and dislikes but I could not stand the thought I had to drive such an ugly car as a Laguna Break.
I really would have liked to find a Peugeot 406 wagon, but could find none. There were many available but nearly all were diesel powered and I did not want that.
So the Citroen Xantia got a second chance. I remembered my test drive with the Xantia sedan years before but the newer X2 wagon version now looked more attractive, it had a better interior and a huge boot. Most wagons on the market were the manual 1.8 (quite slow). Or had too high mileage. After a few weeks I finally found something that maybe would be interesting enough. I had a test drive in a 2.0 litre wagon X2 with auto transmission. This combination felt better than I remembered the 1.8 hatchback before. Comfort was pretty good, seats were good, space was excellent and the automatic shifted fine.
Within the year I began to wonder my decision. Sitting on boring grey seats, looking at a big non-exciting plastic dashboard. Did I want to spend two hours per day in this? Were the favorable economics really worth that? It was like the Laguna experience all over again. Of course it was useful, yes it did its job good, yes it was as expected. I could even understand why this was a popular car, for people who have no interest in cars – just want a driving machine.
I like the saying: life is too short to own a boring car. So after owning the car for only a year, I took the decision to sell it and go back again using older cars for my transport. Three weeks after selling the car the new owner called me, the car had been lost in a fire. It seemed it had combusted spontaniously, had I ever experienced electrical or fuel related issues? No.
The Laguna and Xantia were the two modern French cars I have lived with for a longer period. Good, reliable, up to date cars of the 90s. But they did not inspire me to have a long relationship with. How can you be enthusiastic about a car that looks like any other car, has no flaws and does what it should do? It needs to have something different, a nice styling or interior, strange details or to be very quick. This Xantia, or the Laguna, did not have that extra something.
There have been more “modern” cars in the household since but they were a bit more away from the ordinary. That just is not for me.
Nine years ago, Mark E posted a striking comment on a Toyota Prius article at CurbsideClassic. I saved it because it sums it up quite nicely:
A transportation device, pure and simple. No passion, no excitement, no feedback or feeling whatsoever. You don’t like the car but you don’t dislike it either. It just IS, doing what you bought it for, reliably, predictably, without any emotion. Like your toaster.
My parents had a 1.9 BX auto – surprisingly superb handling, as well as the usual ride.
Tidy instruments, good headlights, really quite likeable.
It was inexplicably replaced by a Xantia 1.9 Turbodiesel manual. Somehow, Citroen had managed to make the car worse in every way.
The steering wheel was even lower & farther away, leading to shoulder ache. And it obscured the instrument panel. The headlights were feeble. Handled like a big, heavy lump and the ride was unremarkable.
Clearly, the marque I had once loved had died.
Two more great COAL reviews Dion, thank you. From the perspective of cars available in the US and Canadian market in the late ’90s and early ’00s, the styling of the Laguna, reminds me some of the early 2000s Hyundai Elantra hatchback. Especially, in the greenhouse.
The semi-elliptical seat bottom fronts on both the Renault and Citroen are an interesting touch. Adding visually to the curvy aerodynamic look of each car’s interior. And may aid in seating entry and exit, if the seats are positioned more forward, towards the dash. A unique more custom look, compared to typical North American car seating.
I’ve always found french cars a bit more exciting than its Japanese and German counterparts, although the 90’s wasn’t a highlight. However when driving a Laguna for two years I couldn’t help feeling a bit le intellectual.
Comfortable cars nevertheless.
Probably because by then the German car industry had set the standard for perceived quality – the quirky / plasticky interiors of the Citroens or Renaults of the early 80s were simply not what European car buyers were interested in. In their search for real and perceived quality, Renault and Citroen switched to very conventional designs (Renault 19, Citroen Xantia, ZX, Saxo) and it would take a few car generations before they recovered some of their previous originality.
With the exception of a 2CV in the early 1970s, I have no experience with Citroen vehicles. However, their quirky past designs, especially the mid-50s DS, have always been objects of remote fascination to me.
I am not alone. Clean and well maintained DSs and later, but still quirky Citroen models, do very well on current internet auction sites.
However, after years of looking for reliable, and yes, probably dull appliance vehicles to be there when I needed them, regardless of the weather or the imposing and mean streets of NYC, (and not being much of a wrench wielder) led me to safe and sure, rather than sexy and classy.
But, I too would have a hard time with the Laguna’s standard seats, even though my Duster’s green and yellow plaid seats were not an issue to me in the early 1970s, those Lqguna seat make me feel the designers were trying too hard to make one feel that the interior was cool and “interesting”.
I applaud your refusal to compromise on your preferences and standards (at least not for long).
And yes, I prefer manual climate controls.
“New cars were for other people who did not care or had no eye for elegance, sleek styling and proper interiors.” – I have had these same thoughts many, many times. I have chosen newer cars for practical reasons, and some of them I have bonded with. But none of them has really been what I truly loved.
I have been fortunate that I was never forced into something I did not want to drive. I occasionally thought about all of those people in the 90s driving Taurus’ and Camrys and wondered if I wouldn’t be better off with an appliancemobile. But I never really did it. My Kia Sedona may be the closest I’ve come, but even it is quirky enough that it appealed to me on some odd level.
I marvel at a world where all of those French cars were a garden-variety option.
I go back and forth on the appliance/interesting to me pendulum and am realizing that I just can’t be satisfied in the long term. Or better stated there are too many fish in the sea and I want to try them all. I completely admire people than can stay with a car, any car, for decades or drive it from dealership to scrapyard. I just can’t do it, no matter the car.
I’ve come accept auto climate control but also never leave it as is, it just never seems to be good which is likely due to the nature of driving, usually you drive around and the position of the sun changes affecting YOUR relative temperature if not the interior of the car itself. Starting with the Mercedes 400E I found that leaving it in auto but twisting/twirling the temp dial/wheel would immediately affect the temperature and velocity of the air being blown into the cabin so that’s how I treat all of them now, with relatively frequent adjustments of the temperature which then usually gets me set for another period of time.
I like the Xantia’s shape even if it’s less BXy, It was a fresh look at the time and even works in the wagon. And the Laguna was one of the better, more (most?) premium looking Renaults of its time. Both probably better choices for you than a Mondeo for example. A good COAL chapter that plenty of people can relate to, thanks!
That mirrors my experience exactly. I came very close to installing a manual fan speed control rheostat in my 300E.
It’s no better in Stephanie’s TSX. I love the manual a/c in my xB and the Promaster.
What I did like about it (a lot) was that you could twirl the dial with your hand or one finger instead of grasping something, it was a very “light” control, it sort of reminded me of the big Price is Right wheel. Some newer cars (such as a lot of Chrysler/Ram/Jeep products, some GM) you can adjust the fan speed by spinning/pushing around the decent sized knob too, the Subaru on the other hand for example has a small knob with a pinch face (like many stove burner controllers) that you have to grasp with two fingers to adjust which is worse…and it’s fairly stiff and too small. No big gloves which is a fail in a Subaru of all cars.
The Tesla is of course perfection. No, just KIDDING, but it does have a permanent temp display along the bottom of the screen which you can stab to change the temp up or down or then use the virtual slider for a large adjustment when the HVAC mini-window pops up. Or just use a voice command to tell it what temperature you’d like which then affects fan speed, which I’ll usually only do when/if alone in the car.
French marques are long gone from the U.S., but I would have liked to own (or at least test-drive) a Xantia Activa.
I’ve followed the quirky-to-appliance path myself over 52 years. From beginning to most recent: Saab 95 V4, Fiat 128, 2 Saab 96 V4’s, 3 Peugeot 504’s, Audi 4000 quattro (my all-time favorite), ‘84 VW Quantum turbodiesel, 2003 Saturn L200, 2008 Honda Accord (rear-ended at 2 a.m. by a drunk driver while parked), currently 2005 Honda Civic.
The Xantia Activa was king of the moose test nothing else could do it faster even a regular Xantia handles brilliantly but the turbo diesel 1.9 is the pick of them. The activa system morphed into the car Ive been driving the last 51/2 years the Hydra-active C5 with electric suspension pump, the suspension is live all the time so the car does not sink far it drops to rest level and pressing the remote to unlock one triggers the pump and the car assume normal ride height as you get in, Most reliable car Ive ever owned including several Japanese cars so naturally I bought another one.
Love the Laguna, one of the last Renault’s best cars.
The Xantia hatchback, having similar proportions as the Pontiac G6. The G6 having the advantage of being styled later. Ironically, the Xantia having more angular generic styling, one would expect from GM. In the vein of the Chevrolet Corsica hatchback. Or Pontiac Tempest (Canada). It looks like a GM design. The G6 with more fluid and organic lines. Again, the G6, being the more modern shape.
Chev Corsica hatchback.
I had considerable wheel time in a Laguna 1.8 estate and can attest to the overall ordinariness of it, albeit it was comfortable and a good cruiser. Nothing to excite, but also nothing to frighten people either. Visually, it reminded me of the Ford Sierra and I judged it lower than a Ford Mondeo Mk 1 overall. But it did well in the UK.
The one I drove (a work hack) had done 170,000 miles, and spent a lot of time doing nothing. So the bonnet seized shut and we couldn’t open it.
Team brains trust came up with “leave the lights on and flatten the battery then call the RAC, who’ll have to open the bonnet to jump it.” Brilliant!
Battery duly flattened, RAC came and squeezed a long a screw driver through the bonnet shut to the battery terminal…and jumped the car. Job done…..
Never mind, it’s not like it was a multi billion dollar international aerospace engineering company or something….