Saturday 12 February 2011

Driven #20:- '03 Citroën C8

Yes, I know, yet another car on Roadwork that was never especially good when it was new and is even less especially good now it's ancient. And yes, I always end up crowing about the fact that it's interesting making up for all its numerous shortcomings.

And this one isn't even all that old. It's an '03 Citroën C8 seven seater, in Private Hire blue with plastic wheeltrims. But somehow it's managed to put over 260,000 miles under its wheels. And I find that pretty impressive.

This car came into the garage as a part exchange. The previous owner had bough it as an ex-taxi with two hundred thousand miles on the clock already, which strikes me as quite a leap of faith. Mercedes and Volvos are famed for their ability to shrug off intergalactic mileages, to remain reliable and to defy the ageing process. Citroëns aren't.

While being nowhere near as troublesome as the myths suggest, Citroëns of the past used to incorporate all manner of mystifying alien technologies that other cars didn't. From as long ago as the DS of the '60s Citroën cars have hosted innovations such as hydropneumatic suspension with variable ride height and headlamps that swivelled with the steering. In truth it all worked rather well and, in the right hands, was reliable and long-lasting. But your average man in the street never had to take his Cortina in to have its spheres looked at. Disadvantage:- France.

Of course, Citroën cars of the 'nineties were somewhat reformed and restrained compared to those that went before them. Market forces dictate that being individual isn't always the best way to sell a car and the entire car industry went through a very conservative phase during that decade. Helping to make the marketplace a far blander time during the era were the several alliances that sprung up between manufacturers to share development costs of new vehicles.

One of these marriages of convenience led to this car; the Citroën C8, which was all but identical to the Peugeot 807, the Fiat Ulysse and the Lancia Phedra. It was actually the second generation born of the SEVEL partnership , the earlier Citroën Synergie (Evasion), first Fiat Ulysse, Peugeot 806 and Lancia Zeta promised a similar package but far less style. Because the four manufacturers were churning out people-carriers that all looked the bloody same, the entire brood became nicknamed Eurovans.

This second generation, though, was actually quite a handsome beast. While the Fiat was probably the most interesting to look at thanks to the treatment of its headlamps, all had a wind-cheating shape that was certainly the equal of the Ford Galaxy or Renault Espace for elegance, if not quite build quality or sheer size. All, too, were available with a similar choice of petrol and diesel four-cylinder engines of around the two litre mark. Overall, no new ground was broken whatsoever.

So forgettable that until today I had pretty much forgotten they exsisted. Well, not forgotten as such, there's no “what the hell is that?” moment when I see one, but they do camoflage themselves into the background very well indeed. So unremarkable are they that my memory any merit they hold has been lost in the mists of time.

When this vision in blue arrived at the dealership I immediately lost interest in the 507hp Mercedes I had just been driving and went to check out the big Citroën. It looked quite tidy, nothing much in terms of dents or scrapes, nothing more than you might expect it to accumulate over ten years of service. There was some flaking plasti-chrome, but nothing substantial broken or falling off. Then I pressed a button on the keyfob and the rear doors slid open, electrically. Thus the novelty value ramped itself up still further. I was on the verge of a Eurovangasm.

After closing the side doors again as an excuse to watch them again, and remarking to colleagues of my astonishment that they still worked, I installed myself in the drivers seat and memories came flooding back.

Oh, yeah, this was the one with those floating dials in the middle of the dash, two gloveboxes, one on each side, I remember now. Oh, yeah, that translucent ashtray, that's right. The gearstick jutting out of the centre stack, of course. Where's the handbrake? Is it electric? I bet it's somewhere really obvious or really stupid but i'm buggered if I can remember... come on, this is silly. Er, not there, not under the steering column, is it that? No, that's the cupholder (Laughs loudly), oh hang on... Yes! Next to the door.”

I'd driven these before, of course, but a long time ago so it took me a few minutes to get my bearings. Once I was back up to speed, though, I put the key in the ignition and started her up. “Immobilisor Error”, the dashboard told me. Spare key in, turn, churn and then it coughed into life. And then I read the odometer. 260K? Really? I was amazed.

It sounded, well, rough; but these HDi diesels never were the last word in smoothness. But the interior was more or less completely intact. True, there was an all pervasive smell of two-stroke oil, (the tow-bar on the back could well be a clue that outboard motors may have been lugged about in the past) and there was an honourable grubbiness everywhere, but no signs of imminent collapse. Some of the materials were even quite luxurious, like you might expect to find in Premium Economy on a major carrier. I liked it.

Reverse engaged quite positively and a warning bleep occurred that wasn't strictly necessary. Manouvering the car out of its space I realised that the turning circle wasn't a particular strong point, a five point turn was the order of the day. That done, engage first and I was off. After stalling.

And then slowly. Very, very slowly. For the first half mile or so of my journey I assumed that some recalibration of my throttle foot was required, a 260000 mile accelerator pedal may be less responsive than the E63 I'd been in half an hour ago. After that I wondered if my foot was catching on something that prevented the pedal being pressed all the way down; I have huge feet so this was eminently possible. But no. It simply turns out that a 260k Citroën C8 HDi is impossibly, wretchedly slow.

Typically, when I drive a diesel I'll change up at about 3000rpm, I tend to drive on the torque. In the Citroën that really didn't feel like an option. Merging onto the dual-carriageway, with Eddie Stobart about to Scania me to death, holding the throttle open right up to the red line was all I could do. I suspect that some of the original 108hp had gone into retirement, the Turbocharger may well not have been quite as free-spinning as it once was.

Then was the challenge of changing gear, a quarter of a million miles had taken its toll on the gear selector which now felt like using a wooden spoon to retrieve a brick from a bucket of marbles. Third seemed to move around the 'box quite a lot, top row, middle one minute, bottom row, left the next. Never mind. After looking in the mirror and noting how long my hair had grown since leaving the dealership we were at a 75mph cruise.

Suddenly it felt really good. The car was planted and stable, the ride was supple with no annoying vibrations, it was quiet, too. Quiet enough to realise that the factory Clarion radio/CD was hopeless and a disgrace to that fine name, although I suspect that Clarion probably had rather less involvement than the SEVEL accountants when it came to sound quality. Playing with the other minor controls I established that the air-con was either just out of gas or resolutely broken, displaying the same cooling efficacy as an ice-cube in a volcano. Everything else, though, was just fine.

As a car to own, one of these would make a fine vehicle for transporting family and freight, and that it still feels even half-way acceptable after such a high mileage is testament to how suprisingly adequate these things are. All the passenger seats are comfortable, the middle three enjoying their own controls for the (useless) Climate Control system, as well as seatback tables from which cups, crisps, sweets and toys all slide off the moment you even think about going into a corner. Speaking of which the softly-sprung Citroën doesn't even embarrass itself too utterly when the roads get twisty. No, it doesn't handle well, but in my book this old bus simply not being dangerous is achievement enough.

And, well here I go again, it's interesting. Not in the same way as Citroëns of old, but a damn sight more amusing than a VW Sharan or a Chrysler Voyager. Those central dials, with daylight flooding past below them, are as visually appealing as they are ergonomically questionable. It's quite remarkable for me to say that, usually I have nothing but contempt for centrally mounted dials and being different for the sake of it, but in one-box car it seems to make more sense. And the fact that it feels a bit tired to drive adds to its appeal, for me, anyway. It doesn't drive itself; it needs to be nursed a little bit.

I really hope the next owner of this car keeps the faith and trusts it for at least another hundred thousand or so. It came to us for only £600, towards the bottom of the price spectrum and close to where cars are worth more in parts rather than as a whole. After a valet I hope that the auction sees it find a home with somebody who knows its true worth and keeps it going. It deserves to.