Road impressions: Citroen AX and BX

Ambitious AX

As part of the French Peugeot Talbot Grouping, one now enjoying a massive sales resurgence via the Peugeot 205/309 and Citroen's popular mid range BX saloons, Citroen is ambitious for mass sales. Such aspirations are completely at odds with its previous role, purveying ingenious and advanced technical features to a mildly eccentric, and mainly Francophile, customer.

The AX is Citroen's challenger to the band of lightweight "superminis” represented by VW's Polo, Renault's R5, Ford's long. running Fiesta and Rover Group's Metro. The flyweight AX (from 1408lb) has an unusually low aerodynamic drag factor in the 0.31-0.32Cd range, and has succeeded in outselling some key home market rivals since its launch at last autumn's Paris Motor Show.

For Britain, Citroen sees the AX contributing over 18,000 cars a year in 1988, by which time it expects to sell us 50,000 vehicles annually, rather than the 1986 total of 36,908. Can the AX fulfil such expectations?

We drove three examples of the seven models now offered in Britain, at prices ranging from £4399.04 to £5900.27.

It is important to say that these prices are usually lower than obvious rivals, including stablemates at Peugeot. I shall not quote their references to the Renault 5 as that line has only just been revamped (including an extra 5 bhp for that top hatchback performer, the GT Turbo). However, it is worth pointing out that Renault 5s now start at £4590 and many of these small cars, even before you aspire to the performance XR-GTI school, exceed £6000.

Engineered along conventional Eighties lines, with a transverse four-cylinder motivating front wheels, the AX is currently only available with three doors. As for diesel and sports versions outside the present limited production Sport, one can expect the AX to sprout these alternatives "shortly".

Given the low weight and obvious attention to aerodynamics, it is not surprising to find Citroen claiming extra performance over its diminutive rivals. Recent independent tests remind us that company claims of 104.4 mph from the 1360cc 14 TRS model with 65 bhp and five forward ratios are entirely reasonable, along with 0-60 mph capability in the 12-second bracket. The worst urban fuel consumption figure given is 40.9 mpg for the fastest model above, the best a fine 50.4 mpg for the 954cc starting-point to the range. The constant 56 mph figures escalated to 72.4mpg for the four-speed model.

The road manners of the AX are very much the secure and sprightly fashion one would expect from such figures. Cabin noise-levels are higher than generally accepted today, and there is no doubt that the practical interior (its door pocket providing for large bottles, non-alcoholic in outline . . .) belongs to an extremely light car.

We have previously outlined Citroen's 160 bhp aluminium dohc powerplant of 16 valves, following some preliminary experience around Donington circuit (Industry insight, Motor Sport, July 1987). As it is a unit also destined for use in Peugeot's 1988 UK-assembled 405Mi-16, we were doubly interested to drive the power-unit again, this time under French road conditions within the BX 16V (S for soupapes to French-speaking markets) GTi.

However, since this 135 mph middleweight will be sold in Britain "from the end of July at £12,300 including all taxes, ABS braking, sunroof, central locking and electric window operation, plus stereo radio/cassette player", we will not pre-empt a full road test. Judged as a power train, Citroen's mating of 16 valves and a close-ratio gearbox is magnificently successful. From less than 1000 rpm, this GTi will snuffle peacefully forward in a fifth gear which will allow over 6500 rpm in favourable conditions. The absolute rpm limit of 7000 rpm is smoothly attained in the gears, but there was a fine old exhaust resonance racket when decelerating from the fifth gear maximum.

Judged as a car around a fine powerplant, this BX GTi variant exhibited a thoughtful combination of a slightly stiffened suspension (via lowered gas sphere pressures) and Citroen's quality hydropneumatic ride. The high-pressure braking system via four-wheel discs (the fronts ventilated), plus Alfred Teves Generation 3 ABS was effective, and we were glad to note that ABS is a standard feature, as it often adds more than £1000 to West German saloons.

In all but the occasionally flimsy build quality we thought this high-output unit (84 bhp per litre, versus BMW M3's 84.6 or Mercedes-Cosworth's 80 bhp per litre equivalents) had found equally capable chassis accommodation. In our hands the speedy Citroen returned 25 to 28mpg. JW