Curbside Classic: 1997 Citroën XM – The Spaghetti Incident

All families have their problem child. In the small household of the big Citroëns, they all came out with a number of birth defects, but for the longest time, the public was willing to forgive these niggles. Early Traction Avants were notoriously fragile, but they were revolutionary and chic. Early DSs would sometimes blow their hydropneumatic system, but they were cutting-edge and radical. Early CXs rusted as soon as they saw a rain cloud, but they were so comfortable and stylish. However, when the XM plopped out in 1989, the buying public was no longer willing to take the rough with the smooth.

So why was the XM a flop? On the one hand, it was too expensive: a base-spec XM cost 50% more than its CX equivalent, so naturally there were fewer buyers who could afford one. But the real culprit was the bad rep the XM got in its infancy. This is a common enough malady – GM, Ford, BL, NSU and countless others made the same mistake: a good car coupled with a fatally botched launch leaves the company trying feverishly to address a myriad of flaws, amid throngs of angry customers and panicked dealers.

Our feature car is not one of those early XMs. It’s a series 2 model – those where nearly all the kinks were ironed out. Early cars are far less common nowadays, obviously. So what happened to the once-revered XM – the 1990 European COTY, no less – for it to turn from an appealing executive cruiser into a citrus-flavoured E-segment PR nightmare?

Talbot Tagoras of the ‘90s: by screwing up one platform, PSA managed to shoot themselves in both feet.

By the late ‘80s, the PSA Group had started to recover from the Talbot episode. The future looked bright again – the Peugeot 205, the 309 and the Citroën BX were helping the company out of its financial hole and the new small cars (Citroën AX and Peugeot 106) were off to a promising start. But the drastic cutbacks of the 1980-85 period were to leave a mark on cars that would only appear farther down the line. It so happens that PSA’s two flagships, the Peugeot 605 and the Citroën XM, were conceived during this difficult period. Problems encountered in utero can lead to developmental issues, as was the case here.

Clays dated October 1984 made by in-house designers Michel Albertus and Jean Giret

Peugeot-Citroën’s new E-segment programme was launched in 1983. From the get go, the two cars were to share the same floorpan, engines and transmission, but other elements would be entirely different. The Peugeot 605 looked like a slightly bigger 405 and featured a conventional suspension (MacPherson struts in front and double wishbones at the rear), whereas the Citroën was to have a completely separate shape and employ the marque’s signature hydropneumatic system on all four wheels, with semi-trailing arms at the rear. The internal codename for the XM, in those days, was “Projet V,” soon numbered as V80.

Another V80 design by Jean Giret, dated November 1984, with a lingering CX aftertaste


There were several in-house V80 styling proposals from Citroën’s Vélizy design centre. It seems that PSA decision-makers were keen to keep some of the marque’s most iconic design features, such as the fastback rear, aerodynamic nose and rear wheel spats, but it was difficult for the Vélizy boys to really come up with something suitably novel. They were more redesigning the CX than creating a new car.

Bertone Y30 design, 1985


In the Peugeot tradition, a competing design was commissioned to an Italian design house. Bertone and Marcello Gandini, who had just helped make the BX such a hit, were roped back in, though Gandini was now working as an independent consultant for Renault, so it’s unclear to me whether he had much of a hand in the XM’s design. Theirs was called “Projet Y” (a.k.a Y30, but no relation to Nissan) and, at least initially, the Italians ran into the same issues as the in-house team.

Belgian designer Marc Deschamps, working at Bertone, found the XM’s signature beltline


Eventually, the Bertone design got the nod, thanks in no small part to the new beltline that their design proposed. The significant kick up in the rear finally gave the project a distinctive feature, along with the wedge-like front end’s very thin headlamps and grille combo. The DS’s shape had been tapered down; the SM and CX were more horizontal, with a Kamm tail. The XM would follow the ‘80s trend and lift its tail up – only this time, it would have a rear hatch.

The choice of engines was a foregone conclusion: base-spec models would remain in the 2-litre bracket, with the Douvrin engine – carbureted, fuel-injected or turbocharged according to taste. Two Diesels, a 2.1 with or without turbo (81 and 108hp, respectively) and a turbo-only 2.5 giving out 127hp, were slated to appear – both excellent. At the top of the range, the infamous PRV would make its debut on a Citroën. This was the first 6-cyl. Cit since the SM, showing the marque’s intention that the XM was to be a more sophisticated and expensive car than the CX. The fuel-injected OHC 3-litre PRV could be ordered with a normal set of 12 valves, providing 165hp, or with 24 valves and 197hp. The PRV was discontinued after MY 1997, replaced by a completely new 2.9 litre DOHC V6, also seen on the 605 and the new 406 Coupé. All models came standard with a 5-speed manual, but a 4-speed ZF auto was optional.

Suspension-wise, the third generation of Citroën’s famous hydropneumatic party trick. They now called it Hydractive, which meant the system was hooked up to a computer and cancelled the previous generations’ tendency towards body roll in corners. The XM also had variable-powered steering, but instead of the Diravi seen on the SM and CX, this one was also computer-controlled. The brakes featured ABS on all but the lowest-spec versions.

Almost final pre-production car, 1988


All in all, when the XM was launched in April 1989, it seemed like an impressively complete package. And in many ways, it was. The car looked like no other, the suspension was supple but far more supportive than before, the V6 versions were supremely fast and the amount of toys one could have (for a price) was just astounding. Here is where things went awry: the electronics were designed by monkeys, put together by blind rats and used components sourced in someone’s garden shed. In the early models, the amount of faults that the system came up with was truly shocking. The same issues blighted the Peugeot 605 as well, of course – they had the same simian-devised/rodent-assembled computers and connectors to contend with. This, coupled with the model’s all-too-close resemblance to the popular 405, ensured that the 605 ended up being an even greater failure than the XM.

Shoddy assembly was another big issue. This affected the body, the drivetrain and was especially noticeable in the interior, which would rattle itself to pieces in short order. Speaking of which, this is one aspect we haven’t yet touched upon. The interior of the XM had its merits. The cabin was extremely spacious. The low beltline, copious glass area and thin pillars made for unparalleled visibility, even for the time. The seats, the A/C, the lack of road noise – those were all excellent. But the design and perceived quality of the dash were somewhere between mediocre and abysmal.

The first series dash looked a mite cheap, even in the higher-trim models like the one above. It was a perennial issue with Peugeots since the ‘70s – and one that the firm failed to address for a very long time. Citroën interiors usually had iffy quality as well, but at least they had style and innovation. In the XM, it seemed that Peugeot had taken over the reins completely and thrown the baby with the bathwater. The lone remnant of the Citroën idiosyncrasy of yore was the single-spoke steering wheel. But take a look at the Talbot Tagora’s dash again, and you’ll see the prototype for the XM’s, ten years before the fact. The controls used to have charm and quirkiness in the CX, but in the XM, they were just squeezed randomly all over the place.

The Series 2, which arrived in 1994, addressed some of the criticism by putting some ointment on the rash of switches that had plagued the original dash. Things looked a bit better on that front. However, the advent of airbags meant the demise of the trademark steering wheel, replaced by a rather boring-looking unit. Build quality was better all around in these later XMs, but whatever traces of Citroën the original had were now erased. It was impossible to have it both ways, it seems.

The first couple of model years of the XM were very successful sales-wise, but word soon got around: XMs looked good, drove great and seemed fine at first, but problems would come soon, and in bewildering numbers. Some defects were apparent within the warranty period, others reared their ugly head only after a few years of ownership. A few examples: camshafts were fragile on 24-valve V6s and could destroy the engine, electric windows and seats were glitch-prone, the Hydractive suspension switched to Sport mode without warning, seals came undone and panels were often misaligned (especially on the rear doors and hatch), window sill trim warped prematurely, brake and cabin lights worked when they felt like it, code-protected ignition systems failed due to poor quality keypads (which prevented the car from being started and is apparently very tricky to bypass or repair), fifth gear could become inoperative, some turbos died early… clutch issues, suspicious drivetrain noises, stuttering EFIs, erroneous computer data and alloy wheels that oxidized in months completed the picture – it was bad. Very bad. Even by Citroën standards.

In 1991, the extremely capacious XM Break, built by Heuliez, was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Citroën, by this time, had addressed a fair number (though not all) of the car’s most egregious gremlins, but it was too late. The reputational damage was already done. Production fell off the proverbial cliff, never to recover.

A big table full of detailed production stats is worth a thousand words, which is good, as this post is already getting a bit long. The 1994 refresh, heralding the true niggle-free XM (well, almost), had absolutely zero impact on sales, which were on a continuous and irreversible slide since their 1990 high point. Just over 300,000 saloons and 30,000 wagons were made in a full decade on the assembly line, whereas the DS and the CX both scored over one million units during their admittedly longer lifespans. The product planners doubtless would have liked to have stretched the model’s lifespan by a few years, but with such abysmal numbers, there really was no other way but to euthanize the XM several years before a true successor (the C6, launched in 2005) could be fielded.

Tissier’s peculiar XM limos — above: Majesté; below: Altesse

Few special bodies were ever attempted on the XM, compared to previous big Citroëns. Pierre Tissier made a few super-stretched six-/eight-wheelers, as he had done on the DS and CX, but he also made a few stretched limousines with four wheels only: the Altesse (+55cm, three made) and the Majesté (+107cm, four made).

Heuliez’s XM specials – above: armour-plated 1992 LWB “Palace”; below: curiously shorter 1996 “Limousine”

A few coachbuilders operated a less dramatic stretch of the XM, adding anything from 10 to 30 cm to the car’s rear doors. Heuliez tried this out a couple times, using a wagon base, and the product of these efforts were occasionally used for presidential transport, but the cars were never bought. Even the Élysée was weary of the ill-fated Citroën.

It’s worth noting that Citroën themselves mooted a three-box version of the XM, albeit on the normal-length wheelbase. This car was supposed to herald the marque’s return on the US market, after over 15 years of absence. Somehow, PSA figured that this was not a wise move, and they pulled out of the North American market altogether shortly thereafter. Oops again.

Nowadays, XMs are practically worthless and therefore dying at a prodigious rate. People who still own one are usually passionate about them and claim they are the most undervalued hydro Citroëns ever made. This may change in the next decade or so – the Traction, the DS and the CX all went through a similar period in their day. But unlike its illustrious forbearers, the XM has a gut full of half-baked electronic pasta that can be a real headache to sort out. Forget the kooky suspension spheres and the poor quality plastic – those are solvable issues, but shoddy electronics are a nightmare beyond any mechanic’s best efforts.

It is therefore likely that the XM will become a rare car in short order. The wagons are already very scarce, being few in numbers to start off with, but bog-standard carbureted 2-litre series 1 saloons are also becoming exceedingly difficult to find (not that you’d want one: with only 106-112hp, they’re a bit on the lethargic side). Diesels are long-lived and V6 models still command a premium, especially the 24-valve PRVs, but those are fragile and quite thirsty.

And then, there’s the issue of esthetics. Try as I might, I cannot find these as exciting as other big hydro Citroëns, including the C6. This restyled version is especially bland, in my view, with its Xantia-like snout and generic interior. I’ve been in a couple of XMs in my day – they’re smooth and spacious for sure, but they’re also unpleasantly cheap and neither interesting nor engaging.

Seems the owner of our feature car is in agreement, too. Self-deprecating humour is a fairly widespread trait among Citroën enthusiasts. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the sticker on this car, but it’s a fact that the XM, despite over 100 prototypes and the combined talents of Gandini, Bertone and the in-house styling team, falls short of looking spectacular. And if a big Citroën fails at that, then it’s not really worthy of the name.


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Cohort Classic: Citroën XM – Its Three Predecessors were Hard Acts to Follow, by PN