Sunday, October 03, 2010

Road trip in a Citroen XM

A few weeks ago, Rich asked me if I was interested in going to Portland to pick up and drive down a 1991 Citroen XM he had just bought.  I don't need to tell you my answer.

The XM is a rare car in America.  Citroen dealerships were already long gone here when the CX's successor was introduced to the world in 1989.  A small outfit called CXA in New Jersey federalized about a dozen of them (including a wagon) so that the XM would meet American safety and air quality guidelines.  A handful more were imported by individuals.  I estimate that there are less than two dozen XMs running around in this country.

Though I obsessively plan all of my trips and vacations, not much could be done for this one other than retrieving an Oregon road map.  There are no Citroen specialists between Portland and the Bay Area if the car broke down.  The tow plan had a generous but still-too-small-for-my-needs 50 mile radius limit.  We were still in an unseasonal heat wave (I was worried about the engine overheating on the long mountain passes).  And because there are no sizable airports between PDX and SFO, if the car suffered a catastrophic breakdown, I was going to have to take Greyhound home.

But that's just me, Mr. Pessimist.  I am always imagining the worst case scenario.  And you know what horrible things happened on this trip?  Absolutely nothing.

I pick up the car around nine in the morning.  Keith, a card carrying Citroen-phile, proudly but sadly shows me the baby that he is about to part with.  Its exterior is in almost perfect shape.  It has been pampered.  I ask him if there are any quirks about the car that I should be aware of.  He laughs.  I tell him that I am really afraid the car is going to break down in the middle of nowhere.  He assures me that the car is in great shape and that it shouldn't give me any problems.  However, driving the XM that long of a distance, he advised seriously, will definitely be an "adventure".

In addition to motor oil and transmission fluid, I was given this tall bottle of LHM (mineral based hydraulic fluid for the suspension and brakes) for my trip.

First, Keith teaches me how to use the remote key fob.  I have to aim the infrared transmitter directly at the rear view mirror to lock and unlock the doors.  It works on my first try.  The car starts on my first attempt too.  Almost immediately, the Hydractive suspension lifts the car up on queue.  Though these signs should have left me at ease, I stress for most of my trip.  The horror stories I read about the XM's electrical system made Lucas-outfitted British roadsters seem like Honda Civics in comparison.

Something will go wrong with the XM.

I was wrong.

I leave Keith's driveway and wind through a residential neighborhood, looking for the freeway onramp.  The steering at low speed is very loose-- a bit disconcerting.  By boosting the power steering at low speed, it was Citroen's way of making parallel parking easier.  As the XM reached highway speeds, I felt more and more resistance.  I still wish it had more resistance (no doubt simply because of habit), but the steering was nevertheless very true and precise.

The XM's handling was admirable.  It was very neutral and I couldn't tell it was front wheel drive.  I was expecting the ride to be like floating on a cloud.  Alas, there might have been a bit of hyperbole when people describe Citroen's hydropneumatic ride.  Though it was as pillowy as a 1980s Buick land barge, the XM had enough feedback and grip so that you definitely felt in control.

Once I got on the freeway and cruised at 110 to 120 kph, it was heaven.  The 3 liter, 12 valver valiantly and effortlessly gobbled up miles like Pac Man after eating a power pellet.  It handled 3,000 and 4,000 foot passes like any modern car.  The seats were soft but supportive.  After almost 12 hours of nearly non-stop driving, my back was fine.  And the center armrest-- I felt like liberating it from the XM and installing it in my daily driver.

The XM is much better looking in person.  It looks tall and boxy in pictures.  But in reality, it is low-slung, stretched out, and sleek.  It looks a lot like the CX.  Inside, the 13 windows certainly exude a greenhouse effect, but the numerous pillars and nearly vertical window dividers give the XM an odd, jailhouse feel.

The XM is definitely an anonymous looking car.  I think a couple of motorists did a double take when they passed the XM, but they may have just been doing neck exercises.  The ZZ Top beard-wearing gas station attendant who filled my tank in Oregon couldn't care less what I was driving.  Apparently, French car cognoscentis do not frequent the I-5 corridor.  Incidentally, I got maybe 25 miles per gallon during my trip.  Not bad.  And with a big 80 liter tank, I was able to keep my pit stops to a minimum.  Exiting the gas stations, I was also impressed by the tight turning radius, which was almost as small as a modern, and shorter wheelbased, 3 Series BMW.

Chevron logo on expansive, flat hood

I spent much of my drive obsessively checking the gauges, lights, and digital information center, anticipating ominous news.  In retrospect, I should have enjoyed the scenery more.

One thing I never got used to during the trip was the brake pedal.  First, it is a bit too close to the accelerator.  This leads me to wonder how close the two pedals are in Audi 5000s and Toyota Prii.  What was even harder to get used to was the feel of the brake pedal and the small distance the pedal traveled.  I never knew if I was putting too much or too little pressure on it.  To be safe, I often stopped two to three car lengths behind the car in front of me at red lights.  I imagine the pedal feel is not unlike the mushroom caps they put in the Citroen SM.

Too close for comfort?

At one particular point of euphoria during my drive, I thought about my bucket list-- a list of fun things I should do before I die.  I gotta learn to X.  I have to travel to Y.  I have to have a meal at Z restaurant.  Driving a Citroen XM long distance in America was never on my list.  Not once did I ever think-- That's what I want to do.  But it is definitely something I have to do.  And I'm doing it.  I wonder what other unknown experiences out there am I missing?  But I won't know the answer because they are unknown.  They will be known and obvious only when I am actually doing them.  Was that confusing?  I sound like Donald Rumsfeld with his "unknown unknowns".  My point is-- enjoy life and do the unexpected.

1,073.5 kilometers of trepidation...and bliss.

Endnote 1: This is my first experience driving a Citroen, so any mistakes or cluelessness on my part in this post, I apologize for preemptively.

Endnote 2: Thank you again, Rich.


Ozmac said...

Wow, first Citroen drive! Lucky you. Mine was an ID19 Sydney to Melbourne in the 70s, trailer on the back with a few racing motorcycles on the trailer. 500 miles, from midnight to dawn. The race team was asleep in the back, it was just me and l'idee and le open road at night. We floated all the way at speed, and they all slept like babies in the back. Glad you liked the experience. I'll never forget my first Citroen drive.

Maxichamp said...

@Ozmac: Unforgetable is right. Do you have any Citroens now (other than your dozens of diecasts)?

MattC said...

I am definitely jealous of your roadtrip. As I have become older, Citroen intrigues me more and more. Maybe, it is that you can purchase a midsize vehicle from any manufacturer today and have a 99% chance of having a reliable, predictable(re: boring)ride, and anonymous vehicle. For most people, that is all they want out of a vehicle.

Citroen on the other hand, really allowed their engineers to try to improve existing systems. By the time of the XM, Citroen improved ite suspension reliability (different oil), but the styling and direction is still completely different from anything else. They are not perfect. but are always unique. For most Americans, the brand was an enigma. For few, it is a passion. Someday, I hope to be a part of the few.

Maxichamp said...

@MattC: There are many words to describe my trip. Boring is definitely not one of them!

Ozmac said...

Yep, a turbo diesel C4. My first turbo-diesel (and I am in love with it, not only as a fuel miser but also because it has stacks more grunt and midrange power than an equivalent petrol engine) and my first ever auto transmission (well, it's the automated manual, but I use it in auto mode almost all the time).

Alan said...

I once read that XM's hydropneumatics were tuned to be firmer than their predescessors, and that the DS in particular truly did have an otherworldly serene ride quality.

Great story, I'm happy for you to have experienced such a wonderful thing. Someday I hope to own a DS, or rather less realistically, an SM, and take lots of trips too - San Diego to LA for starters, maybe further if the car proves reliable and I brave enough.

Maxichamp said...

@Alan: If you ever need a useless, dead weight passenger for your future DS road trip, you know who to call.

John L said...

My first drive of a Citroen was in the 60s when I bought my Light 15 which was fabulous to drive, taking everything I threw at it. It ended up being a great hillclimb car. And that gear lever coming out of the dash was good to use too.

longrooffan said...

Man! That sounds like a killer road trip! Back in the mid '70's, my Dad had a 72 DS 21 Palas and we lived in the Midwest. He was able to get a Vietnamese refugee, who also happened to work on Citroens relocated from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to Springfield, Missouri to work on his sweet ride. I remember, as a kid watching Bach Ngyugen work on that car with a huge Rolex on his wrist. If you have the need for something similar delivered anywhere from the Sunshine State, this olelongrooffan had better be on your friends list. Glad it was a good trip and I an envious.

And honest to God...the word verification for this comment is "chevron"! You the Man Kashgar!

Edvin said...

Those are dirt cheap over here (not in that condition tho), could ship you a few. :)

Maxichamp said...

@Edvin: I was trying to explain the car to my hotel-airport shuttle driver. I compared it to driving a Lincoln Town Car (plentiful here, rare in Europe) from Budapest to Bucharest.

sebasm said...

You're too pessimistic, it could fail, but not so bad as to leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere (that's how I think, sometimes things doesn't work out as planned, but at least is less stressfull).
I fell in love with this car when I saw it in Ronin, but I've never seen one live, I don't think Citroen imported them here (I'm from Argentina) but in that time you could buy a new 3CV here (not that I wanted to).

Fikri Pakdin said...

In my experience, Citroen XM were still one of the greatest car to Citroen enthusiast, compared to it's smaller incarnation like Citreon Xantia.

It's great to see you had a pleasant experience driving on Citroen XM for your roadtrip and I absolutely love the awesome photographs on your blog, truly catch the futuristic beauty of XM itself.

Kudos on that.

Maxichamp said...

@Fikri: Thanks! Are there many Citroens in Malaysia?