When it was taken over by Peugeot in 1974, Citroen had successful middle size and full size cars in its range (the GS and the CX), but its line of small cars was limited to the 2CV, launched in 1948, and to a few 2CV derivatives that only old people would have bought – there was nothing in their lineup for young city dwellers. Peugeot filled the gap rapidly with derivatives of the 104 (the Citroen LN and Visa) but their design was not very attractive and they were not “true” Citroens.
The first real modern little Citroen was the AX, launched in 1986. A follow up to the Citroen Eco2000 research project, extremely light, very aerodynamic, equipped with a brand new line of Peugeot designed engines, it was more fuel efficient, and even a rather small 1100cc engine was enough to provide a good level of performance.
It was also pleasantly designed, with contributions from Bertone and Trevor Fiore in addition to the PSA internal design studios – and the fit and finish was correct for the price class. For the anecdote, the second generation of the Suzuki Cultus (known on these shores as the Geo Metro and launched in 1988) seems to have drawn heavily from the AX – with a similar design brief, and a very similar exterior style.
Mine was a black, 3 door hatchback, with the 1100cc engine and the TRE trim. I had bought it as a recent used car, and sold it 7 years later (a cash for clunker program again) at more than 190,000kms. I had the privilege of changing some parts twice (the alternator, the brake master cylinder, the CV joints) because the car had been designed to a budget and to a target weight, with very light components obviously engineered to only last for so long.
I also had to replace the front headlights multiple times – they were acting as bumpers in the Paris streets – where you make a parking spot large enough for your car by pushing the other cars away.
Its main quality was its fuel efficiency – I remember driving from Paris to Switzerland through Germany and Austria, and needing no more than 4 liters per 100 km (58mpg). I was loud inside (sound proofing cars is expensive and adds weight) and the seats were pretty thin, but it was otherwise fast, safe and comfortably suspended – I drove it multiple times as far as Vienna and Madrid without needing to visit a chiropractor.
I finally sold it because I had a Saxo envy, and also, honestly, because I had probably grown more reasonable, and that driving such a lightly built car with a temperamental brake master cylinder scared me a bit. I needed something marginally larger and definitely more solid. Citroen had made some serious progress in terms of build quality and long term reliability in the recent years, and since I had had a good experience with the brand in general, I decided to trust them again.
An english friend told me he had the GT model AX sand it was seriously quick and very agile when he told me he was selling his VW Kombi he said hed been searching for another AX for a commuter car, they are quite rare here.
My recollection is that they rusted quickly when exposed to salt.
Les américains ont eu les Lincoln Continental Cartier, les Cadillac Seville Gucci, et autres AMC Javelin Pierre Cardin et tout ce qu’on a eu c’est la Citroën AX Kway.
Americans got the Lincoln Continental Cartier, the Cadillac Seville Gucci, the AMC Javelin Pierre Cardin, etc., while all we got were the Citroën AX Kway (Kway being, at the time, the maker of handy yet very ugly raincoats).
I rented a white AX for a week during a trip to the Netherlands, circa 1988. It did the job: reasonably comfortable, agile and quick enough. A bit noisy, but not not unpleasantly so.
But what I remember most was the interior, which appeared to have been designed and manufactured by Tupperware, or maybe Lego…
Hmm, both Tupperware and Lego are iconic products which literally last a lifetime. We have 1970’s Tupperware in daily use, and 1960’s Lego’s too, though unfortunately the latter are 3000 miles away with my sister’s grandchildren. The AX interior must have been pretty darn good!
Good point – I did not mean to put down either Tupperware or Lego.
It was simply not a pleasant or inviting place to be: plasticky, blocky, very grey. As good as Tupperware and Lego products are for their intended purposes, their materials and designs don’t translate well to car interiors.
I have certainly seen other low-cost car interiors that had a lot more charm. And Citroën has certainly made more welcoming, interesting and daring interiors.
Of course I can’t comment on durability after a one-week rental!
Man, that has “rental car” written all over it. It seems to be just big enough and yet still rather spartan in the way that rental car fleets seem populated. I could see myself being assigned one of these at an airport counter in France sometime in the mid-80s. (Instead, in real life, I got a Fiat Panda…because I was cheap, and was in Italy.)
It seems that everywhere was over-run with boxy little hatchbacks back then. And we all had them.
Excellent article covering cars I (for one) know virtually nothing about. Thanks!
I’ll give it this: It is a much more attractive and cohesive design than the ’88 Toyota Tercel EZ that I used briefly as a commuter vessel in the early 90’s. That was positively the most miserable car I’ve ever spent time with, and the pain started from the moment it came into view. At least the AX has a certain chicness about it.
Ah yes the mighty 88 Tercel. I bought those little roaches for less than $50 a shot and put my kids thru high school some 15 years ago or better. They were awful but they mostly ran all the time and were so cheap I didn’t car what happened to them. My daughters affectionately still remember them as “Junky” and “Junkatina”. Later replaced by a Chevy Cavalier which was a far superior car (which says something).
The Tercels obviously had something more of a personality I’m guessing…they got names and memories.
What is one country’s mass-market commuter is another’s little bit of exotica.
Australia got a tiny sprinkling of these in ’91, badged as GT, with Japanese-spec throttle-body 1.4 injection (for emissions). 78 whole horses, but also only 1550lbs to pull around, so they bopped along quite nicely, and the motoring writers liked them. Me too. Lots of flaky, entertaining French appeal, with roly handling, lots of grip and wheel-cocking and collapsible interior bits to keep one’s attention.
Not sure owners did though, as with a/c and leather and other bits to justify the uppity price, the price-limited build quality mentioned by Xtalfu made them wilt pretty quickly in the heat, and when things fell off or died, they were an awfully long way from Quai de Javel. Haven’t seen one in years, except one time in a wrecking yard, a place most of them got to quite young.
I never even knew they were available here! Surprising they went to the trouble and expense of certifying them for sale for only a ‘tiny sprinkling”.
Back in the day, I chose a lightly used example of this same model AX, for a daily commuter run, on cross country UK roads. If your tastes included minimalist small cars with character, this could tick the box – not just rental car fodder
Thanks to weighing very little, it was lively and economical for that class of car, propelled by Peugeot’s smooth revving, long lasting, 5 bearing, wet sleeve TU series alloy engine, with single OHC and hemi head, as fitted to millions of 106 / 205/ 306/ AX’s/ ZX’s, etc, for decades.
With sure footed handling, and an absorbent, typically French ride, even this base 1.1 model could be rewarding for a press-on driver ( yours truly ) to scoot around the countryside. And the 1.4 and 1.4GT versions, more so.
However, by today’s standards, obviously, crash protection wouldn’t have been so good. Fortunately, I never put that to the test !
Were these small Citroens regarded as being upmarket of Peugeot, or more like ‘alternative-Peugeot’?
Interesting that you should liken it to the Suzuki Cultus, as I owned a first-gen Cultus for a while. 600kg and a one-litre triple – whee! The plain interior is no surprise, but I see Citroen at least gave you a split-fold rear seat with metal backs. My Suzuki had a one-piece seat back with a wooden frame, and the floor mat screwed to it! But it’s still going, as an in-law’s farm runabout.
In the UK anyway they were more of an alternative. If anything they might have been seen as below a 205 in the pecking order. They were more basic and got better MPG.
They were sort of classless though – hard to pigeonhole.
The Peugeot 104 was gone so the 205 was the smallest Peugeot, and in Britain the Visa was soldiering on, diesel only, at the start of the AX’s run. So was the 2CV (!) which was driven by many wealthy people here, or at least by their kids.
An AX might be driven by a posh type in a mews house in Edinburgh, or it might be driven by someone living in a council estate who needed a frugal commuter. The 1.4 diesel was advertised as getting up to 70mpg or something outlandish like that. The GT was cheaper to insure than other hot hatches but nearly as quick and felt quicker. The 205 1.9 GTi was legendary but uninsurable by a young man.
I’m really enjoying this French hatchback COAL series. I’m always on a pendulum between cushy large automatic cars (mostly American) and something light, small, stick shift, with road feel (or at least road noise). After my $400 ’91 Park Avenue, I now have my $300 Forester. Although it has an automatic, weighs 3000lbs, and has a “massive” 2.5L 4cyl engine with 165hp, it falls squarely into the category of “fun small runabout” to me.
I tried an AX in about 1987/8 when they first came into the UK.
Cheerfully pleasant to drive and ride in, with a good ride in a French way which I liked, but the echo chamber body did for it for us.
But a pleasant small car best suited to an urban environment.
The later AX GT and GTi were quiet giant killers though
My older brother had an early model AX like this, though it had rear doors, which is a plus. Not a bad car, but pretty flimsy. Still a few around in their home country — like the Peugeot 205 or the Renault 5, they’re surprisingly hard to kill and dirt cheap to run.