Bangernomics: Is the Xantia the world’s most underrated car?

Do you shy away from this Citroën model? Don’t! These bargain cars are so much better than you think – and unfeasibly cheap at the moment

Of all the underrated cars in the world, the Citroën Xantia could well be number one – but by the time anyone realises that, they’ll probably all be gone.

What’s so good about the model? Well, 50 percent of the appeal is in Citroën’s famed hydropneumatic suspension, which smooths out every bump on our increasingly potholed roads. By the time the Xantia was introduced, in 1993, the manufacturer had perfected the system, minimising roll without compromising the ride. After this model, the larger wheels and lower-profile tyres of the C5 that followed resulted in less of a magic-carpet ride.

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And the other 50 percent? Well it’s subjective, but isn’t this a good-looking car? Not spectacular, but simple and stylish, with an interior to match. That gets 25 percent of the vote.

The final 25 percent is for – and you’ll barely believe this – build quality. The interiors don’t rattle and the galvanised bodies don’t rust.

You’d think, then, that there would be Xantias everywhere, but they’re worth nothing because… well, because they’re old Citroëns, disposable and misunderstood. And because they’re worth nothing, any repairs needed to the suspension – such as replacing the spheres or, worse, the rear arm bearings – immediately become uneconomical.

This is generally what finishes off a Xantia. The spheres gradually harden, giving a bouncy ride that you’ll spot from a mile off. They’re basically a service item, expected to be replaced roughly every three years, and are available reconditioned for around £130 for the five (add an extra £30 for later models with their sixth anti-sink sphere). That’s less than a typical set of conventional dampers, although less long-lasting of course.

With a sphere-removal tool (or a simple strap wrench) and the knowledge of how to depressurise the hydropneumatic system, all five spheres can usually be changed in a couple of hours – either by a specialist or by DIY.

New spheres transform the ride, and there’s very little else to go wrong with the system except if the hydraulic pump fails, which isn’t common but is expensive. If the car’s back end doesn’t rise to the correct height, the rear height corrector has probably seized. A replacement is less than £100. Hearing occasional clicks from the pressure regulator is normal, as long as it’s only a couple of times a minute.

The rear suspension arm bearings are less straightforward and best left to a specialist to replace. This could easily cost you £300 a side. That’s bad news, bangernomics-wise, but they should last 100,000 miles. Again, the problem is easy to spot, because worn bearings will cause the rear wheels to sit at an angle, sloping inwards towards the top, and will often squeak.

Engines and gearboxes are tough. The early 1.9 diesels are the best bet, being strong and easy to maintain. Post-1997 2.1-litre turbodiesels come with more complicated electronics. The 2.0 petrols are good, too – although thirsty, struggling to achieve 30mpg – while the V6 petrols are worse still on fuel, but smooth and powerful.

For the really committed fan, there’s the Activa, which has active suspension that keeps the car uncannily flat through corners. It’s absolutely remarkable, but there are ten suspension spheres and complicated electronics, with all manner of sensors. These are brilliant cars, but be prepared for plenty of fault finding.

If you want to take it to the next level, then you need a V6 Activa. These were never made in right-hand drive, although a few enthusiasts have converted four-cylinder Activas to V6 power. That makes for a great, if complicated, car.

Other problems? There’s a clip on the clutch pedal that breaks, allowing the operating cable to come free. The clip is cheap to buy but frustratingly difficult to replace, requiring patience and contortionism.

That’s about it. The upside is a surprisingly quick, incredibly smooth and comfortable, robust all-round practical classic, that’s more enjoyable to drive than you’d ever give it credit for.

A few years ago, in the process of setting up and funding Octane magazine, I sold a very nice Subaru Impreza and bought a 90,000-mile Xantia 1.9 diesel for £400. Bizarrely, the prompt to do so came from professional racing driver and instructor Mark Hales, who by that point was on his third – and such was the model’s impact that art director Rob Gould bought one, too.

At times there were three Xantias parked alongside each other in the car park of a magazine featuring multi-million-pound Ferraris. The three together were probably worth less than £1000. I featured my Xantia in a series of articles in Car Mechanics magazine.

Over the following couple of years I replaced the spheres and the clutch clip and, sure enough, had the rear suspension arm bearings changed. But the car regularly pulled a trailer piled high with magazines, carried project-car engines and took an insane amount of abuse. I spent only a touch over £1000 on it, including the purchase price.

More than 30,000 miles later, I sold my Xantia to a friend for £180, and he continued to use it for another 10,000 miles or so from what I remember, eventually selling it on for £80. There are better examples of bangernomics, but not many.

All credit for the ‘Bangernomics’ term goes to journalists Steve Cropley and James Ruppert

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