COAL № 12: 1997 Renault Laguna & 1998 Citroën Xantia • Intermèdes Français Modernes


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.


A Ford Escort


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.


A Citroen BX


Citroen Xantia hatchback


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.


Renault Laguna


Renault Laguna (not mine)


Renault Laguna (not mine)


This Laguna has the the same color our car had


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).


standard vague seats


better seats


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 only picture I have of our Laguna


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.


with LPG tank


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.