The Appliance of Science

Previewed briefly last month, Mark Hughes spends a little more time with Citroen’s innovative suspension system

Don’t be fooled by the name of Citroen’s new Xantia Active, for it doesn’t have active suspension. It does, however, have something which goes some way towards that: active roll control.

That is the obvious technical highlight of the car, but it comes wrapped in an interesting package that is not available elsewhere in the range. It gets the light pressure two-litre turbo engine from the bigger XM model. This gives only an extra 15 bhp over the normally-aspirated Xantia 2.0, but there is a healthy torque advantage of 42 lb ft. Available only in one trim level, this isn’t quite as plush as the VSX version of the standard car but includes more highly bolstered front seats. In fact the whole tone of the Active is more sporting than that of the standard car with bigger wheels on lower profile tyres filling out the bodywork, a rear spoiler and an extended, more aggressive looking front end.

All this helps lend the Active a sporting persona that the standard Xantia has always pointedly lacked, something that is confirmed when you get behind the wheel. The standard Xantia is all about wonderful ride comfort and a light, flowing, fluid feel to its handling, but sporting is not an adjective you’d choose. The Active on the other hand immediately transmits a different set of messages.

First of all there’s the ride comfort, then there’s the roll-free handling and, not least, there’s the performance which has the sort of mid-range guts that no Citroen since the CX Turbo II of the 1980s has enjoyed.

It feels decidedly odd to be in a Citroen that has only an averagely compliant ride. At high speeds it’s fine, little different from the Hydractive VSX, but around town it’s decidedly firm. Bumps that you simply wouldn’t expect to feel in a Xantia find their way through to you with surprising authority. And should you happen to drop a wheel in a pot-hole it does not like it one bit. Furthermore, over medium speed, badly-surfaced B-roads it gets quite fidgety; not uncomfortable exactly, but never cosseting in the way that even the better conventionally-suspended cars do.

So, a car that doesn’t ride particularly well from the company that brought the world hydropneumatic suspension 41 years ago. There must be some payback? Sure there is. If you have the hydractive button in its standard setting rather than firm, you might just feel the body begin to roll as you turn into a corner, but before you can say, “see, it does ro…” it will have righted itself no matter how hard you’Ve thrown it in. With the hydractive’s full-time firm button selected you won’t even feel that.

This helps with turn-in grip enormously. With the outside front tyre no longer supporting such a big proportion of the cornering load, there is a very noticeable increase in roadholding. So good is it at sudden direction changes that you do need to relearn your technique if you’re to get the best out of it. Given a clear sightline through a corner your entry speeds can be supercar-high and right-left switches need hold no fears. Eventually, you do get used to this from the driver’s seat, but the sensation is even more bizarre for the passenger because the speed the scenery is passing by through the corner seems unrelated to how little drama there is inside.

But it’s not all so rosy. Even the standard Xantia has a slightly nervous feel in high speed corners, with not much feedback coming through the steering telling you what’s going on. In the Activa you get even less, yet you need it more because it is not as benign and flowing in its handling. The instant turn-in gives it a very darty, aggressive feel but thereafter it doesn’t really settle down into a comfortable set. You constantly feel that it might want to do something else, yet the steering isn’t really telling you what. Actually, it never does do anything very naughty but it takes quite a bit of mileage to get you to the point where you have complete faith in that.

At the limit the car will simply begin to under steer wide, but lifting off the throttle only stops the understeer, you cannot balance it delicately between front and rear in the way of the best conventionally-suspended front-drive cars.

The suspension is obviously the most interesting feature of the car but arguably its the engine that does the Xantia more favours. Its 150 bhp is not enough to give what is quite a heavy car great all-out performance, but the turbo’s boost is virtually lag-free and comes in very insistently from low revs, addressing the one real weak point of the Xantia. Citroen claims it can achieve 60 mph in under 9s; we reckon it takes slightly more. But the in-gear times are more than a match for most of the more outwardly sporting hot hatches on the market.

Something of a curate’s egg the Active may be, but its very uniqueness makes it an appealing package. However, for all its technical trickery we couldn’t, with hand on heart, say that it was a better car than something as commonplace as a Mondeo 24v, which can be had for around the same money.