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.