Road Impressions: Two Citroën GTi's

About a year ago, I had a Citroën BX19 GT on test, and I recorded my disappointment with the car. As a pepped-up family saloon, allowing for Citroën’s idiosyncracies, it was alright, but as a car which boasted a ‘GT’ badge, it was diabolical. Then I said I could not understand how any were sold on the basis of a quick trip around the block, for the car is so unlike mainstream vehicles as to come from a different planet.

Now Citroen has made the BX19 GTi and it’s a wonderful piece of kit. It takes just a couple of miles to tell you that it’s different to any other BX you’ve driven. The first thing you notice on settling in is that the dash layout is different. Gone is the ‘USS Enterprise’ panel, instead you have the Peugeot influence, with a smoother dash and more conventional stalk controls. The old “let’s be different for the sake of being different” mentality still crops up. The windscreen is wiped by a single wiper with the washer unit feeding the suds onto the blade and this is fine, except that the wiper leaves important areas of the screen untouched. Forward visibility is further impaired, at times dangerously, by the position of the interior mirror, and when you use it, a lot of what you see is the line of the rear spoiler.

Enough of niggling, let’s concentrate on the car’s many positive aspects. Citroën’s hydro-pneumatic suspension has been refined on this car to fresh levels. You’ve barely started the engine before you’re aware of a tautness which you don’t normally associate with Citroëns. It may be memory playing tricks, but both the power assisted steering and the brakes seem to have been slightly more heavily weighted to impart more feel to the driver. The stopping power of the servo-assisted discs (10-1/2in front. 9in rear) is extraordinary.

While the test car did not have the electric sunroof which is now standard on the GTi model, it still had a lot of equipment for its price tag of £9,184. There was five-door central locking with remote activator, electric windows front and rear, with ‘one touch’ activation on the driver’s window, and an electrically adjusted near side door mirror.

Beneath the bonnet is a new fuel injected version of Citroën’s all-alloy 1905cc engine which gives 125 bhp at 5,500 rpm and 125 lb-ft torque at 4,500 rpm and drives via the pleasant Peugeot/Citroën five speed ‘box. While the claimed 0-62 mph time of 8.9 seconds is not quick by ‘hot hatch’ standards, in real acceleration terms, this car is extremely rapid.

Real acceleration is not the Traffic Lights Grand Prix, but safely passing another vehicle which is going, say, at 50 mph.  The power characteristics of the engine are perfectly matched to a fairly long third gear which will rapidly take you from around 45 to 85 mph. If there is another car in the BX19’s class with better acceleration characteristics, I’ve not driven it.

Top speed is a claimed 123 mph and you don’t need ten miles of deserted autobahn to achieve this.  Moreover, at maximum speed the car does not feel at all stretched, it feels that it will take a great deal more power.

At no time was I able to induce torque steer; in fact, you have to try very hard before you can get either of the front wheels to break traction. This car’s ride is superb, wind noise is low, and if the engine is a trifle noisy in the upper rev range, it’s the sound of honest labour and is to be commended.

Handling is most un-Citroën for the car sits tight and squat through bends, and is largely neutral. When pressed very hard in sharp bends, however, there is suddenly an unexpected amount of body roll and here the otherwise comfortable seats display a want of lateral support.

While on the subject of seats, and leaving aside the fact that the design of the cloth reminded one of the wallpaper in a down-market curry house, I was astonished that the seat back could not be adjusted to the vertical. As one with a dodgy back, I favour a perpendicular driving position.

Overall, though, this is a terrific car. It’s spacious and comfortable and the large boot can be further increased by folding down one or both of the rear seats which have a 60/40 split. Economy is not its strong suit, however, and an overall consumption of 24 mpg left me underwhelmed. For the record, the official consumption figures are 46.3 mpg (56 mpg). 34.4 mpg (75 mpg) and 27.2 mpg (urban cycle) but it cries out to be driven hard, and is so rewarding when so driven, that you would have to have a soul of flint not to press on at every opportunity.

When, with some regret, I returned the BX to Citroën’s Slough headquarters, it was to exchange it for a Visa GTi. The familiar small Citroën has been recently given the 1.6 litre (115 bhp) version of the same engine mated to the same five speed gearbox. By comparison, though, it was a disappointment.

Whereas the BX19 GTi seems to be a natural development of model, the Visa is an uneasy compromise. True, it is relatively inexpensive at £6,496 and for that the buyer has a car with a 110 mph top speed which will cover 0-60 mph in 9.5 sec but it’s pitched in the market right with the Ford XR2 which has a similar top speed and better acceleration.

This was not a car I enjoyed driving. The front wheels broke traction very easily, even when encountering slight unevenness on a trunk-class A road, I simply could not find a comfortable seating position and had to choose either to have a sore back or a sore right leg after a two hour drive and the radio installation was so bad it was better to drive without it on.

One felt that in uprating the Visa, Citroën has lost the integrity of its more humble siblings. To my mind the body kit looks cheap and decidedly ‘add-on’ (which it is), and the interior was similarly lacking harmony.

The Visa’s boot is anyway something of a joke, being dominated by the spare wheel to such an extent that I was unable to place my brief case flat on the floor. Its ride is comfortable, its brakes are good but there’s a lot of roll when cornering reasonably fast and of course, one’s never sure when the front wheels are going to break traction and scramble for grip. It’s an example of a frisky new wine in an old bottle. — M. L.