French car geeks have a saying: “Nothing beats a well-born hydro Citroën.” Well-born means the ones that were made for a long time and sold in good numbers, such as the DS, the CX, the BX or the C5. Conversely, that means one should avoid the SM (painful, I know, but sensible), the GS Birotor, the XM (especially the early ones) and the C6. The Xantia, though it only made it to ten model years, is most definitely part of the good ones.
The Xantia appeared in December 1992 with one clear job on its slate: being as competent and popular as the car it was replacing, the BX. The older car remained in production for a couple of years to smooth the transition, but eventually the Xantia stepped up as the upper mid-range Citroën. It had to be the comfortable family hauler, the thrifty long-distance traveler and the country doctor’s reliable berline.
The platform was a tad larger than the BX: Citroën had launched the ZX to cater to the lower end of the segment, so the Xantia would be allowed to grow a bit. Given how poorly the XM was fairing, this turned out to be a wise decision. Also like the BX, the Xantia would share its bones (i.e. platform and engine) with a sister car, the Peugeot 406.
Bones were shared indeed, but not blood and skin. In keeping with tradition, the Xantia was given one hydropneumatic sphere per wheel in lieu of suspension, plus one for the power brakes and steering. That was only for the lower-spec cars though: heavier and more powerful versions got the new seven-sphere Hydractive II system, which enables the driver to choose between a softer and a firmer suspension setting.
In late 1993, all cars received an additional sphere, as the system changed to include an “anti-sink” feature to prevent the car from settling to its lowest suspension setting when parked. Our dark blue Series 1 saloon should have this later system, still juiced with LHM Liquide Hydraulique Minéral, i.e. the “green blood” used on hydro Citroëns since MY 1967.
Skin-wise, Citroën were still in the midst of a tryst with Bertone, who had designed the BX and XM. The above sketch was drawn in 1985, when work on the Xantia started in earnest. Apparently, Citroën got a lot of flak for the blandness of the ZX, so they tried to give the Xantia a bit more character. Not massive amounts, obviously, but enough to make it fit into the range, yet appear fresh. Then again, the late ‘80s / early ‘90s is not my favourite period of automotive design, so I’m not a great judge of these things.
Engines included a 87hp 1.6 for the base spec, as well as a 1.8 and 2-litre versions of the “XU” 4-cyl. seen on many PSA products, such as the Peugeot 605. The 2-litre, which equips both of our feature cars, was available in several variants, including turbocharged, DOHC and 16-valve, the last of which is what the Series 2 wagon has. From 1997, the Xantia was also available with the new 2.9 litre V6 – at 188hp, that was to be the most powerful of them all. A plethora a Diesels were also on offer.
Because the XM was such a dud and because it was free of egregious defects, the Xantia became the hot hydro Citroën for the ‘90s. Hydractive II was one thing, but the ZX’s rear steering was added to the mix, the cornering was pretty amazing. But then Citroën unleashed the Xantia Activa, adding more magic spheres to eliminate body roll almost completely and transforming the family saloon into a veritable sports car – handling-wise, anyway.
Activas were expensive and are therefore quite rare – only 18,000 were made. But if you can get a hold of a V6-powered one, it’s apparently a heady mix of traditional Citroën cloud-like comfort and Mini-like flat cornering brought together by a discreet but powerful engine.
Not that our feature cars today are of the Activa variety – I don’t think many left Europe. The Activa was unveiled for MY 1995, soon followed by the Heuliez-built wagon. For MY 1998, the Xantia was given a makeover, including revamped rear lights, body-coloured bumpers, a new dash and a revised nose (grille and headlamps).
I wasn’t able to take a photo of the Series 1 car’s dash, unfortunately, so here’s a brochure pic. To be completely honest, this is the least appealing facet of the Xantia. Most Citroëns up to that point had cheap but characterful interiors – some were even iconic. What we have here is a Peugeot dashboard. The interior was completely de-Citroënified, leaving only cheap quality plastics and boring grey fabric.
The wagon’s interior is not terribly different, though more airbags mean there are actually a number of substantial structural changes. I suppose the light grey of the seats is marginally better, but realistically, only leather (which was an option, but not one that is very popular in Japan) would do anything to improve the Xantia’s sad cabin.
Xantia production was halted in France in October 2002, so it almost made it to a full decade. They made over 1.5 million of these – a very decent score. Not quite as good as the BX, but then this was a slightly bigger car. Image-wise, the Xantia did not do Citroën many favours. Most buyers were graying at the temples, to say the least, and the model became something of a French Buick.
Still, these days that means many can be picked up in decent enough nick by a younger generation. Just like the BX, CX and DS in their day, the Xantia is still commonly sighted on French roads, 20 years after Citroën switched to the C5. Said C5 did not have green LHM coursing through its spheres, but orange LDS, a new liquid. The Xantia was the last Citroën to use the old system, but also ushered more innovations on the hydro front than any other model since the DS.
Seeing one, let alone two saloons (I also documented a Series 2 saloon in one of my Singles posts) and a wagon in Tokyo was less expected. The older car was imported by Seibu, who handled all of PSA’s Japanese clientele up to 1995. Thereafter, the bigger Citroëns (Xantia and XM) were distributed by Mazda’s Eunos subsidiary, for some unfathomable reason.
It seems nearly all Xantias that made it to Japan were RHD, which is never a given for imports, and had 2-litre petrol engines, though it seems a few V6s made it over as well. I saw the dark blue Series 1 car only once. It was parked on my street from a distance, but immediately recognized the familiar (and therefore strange in this context) shape. It’s seen better days exterior-wise, but it’s probably barely broken in mechanically.
I see the white wagon on a regular basis; it’s still in daily use, and obviously kept in this mint condition by a very careful and passionate owner, as many Japanese motorists are. Not necessarily the best colour for these in my view, but in this condition, it’s quite the head-turner.
There’s no question that the wagon is the one to have. The Series 2 nose is the nicer of the two to my eyes, and the extra rear overhang makes for a more balanced profile than the short-arsed saloon. Mind you, there is that Activa V6…