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Happy Birthday: Citroen ZX

Published 19 January 2016

It’s hard to believe it, but this month marks a quarter of a century since the launch of Citroen’s ZX - a seemingly humdrum hatchback that, in many ways, was a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Unveiled at the Paris Motor Show (where else?) in September 1990 and launched to the media in January 1991, the ZX was a car that didn’t go down so well with Citroen purists. The brand’s last entry into the Escort/Astra/Golf segment had been the GSA, itself a derivative of the ancient GS, which was finally put out to seed in 1986.

The BX was supposed to plug the gap, but it also tried to compete in two different markets – it was bigger than most compact family hatches, yet a smidgen smaller than the likes of the Ford Sierra, Vauxhall Cavalier and Austin Montego. The BX was also gloriously weird. The ZX wasn’t.

The weirdness would come later, with the BX’s eventual replacement taking the form of the larger, more fleet-focused Xantia. The ZX, meanwhile, allowed Citroen to campaign in the conventional hatchback market, and they did so with some aggression.

Citroen ZX (5)

Keen pricing and a decent standard of build (the contemporary car mags compared the quality of the ZX to that of a VW Golf, but time proved it to be generally much better) gave the ZX a decent amount of showroom appeal and while it retained the Bertone-influenced angularity of the BX, it did so in a harmonious way. It wasn’t out-and-out pretty, but the styling was contemporary, and a little sharper than that of the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Escort that took the lion’s share of the market.

It was much better to drive, too. Underneath the angular bodywork was a new PSA chassis that would also go on to underpin the Peugeot 306, much in the same way as the Citroen AX and Peugeot 106 were mechanically kindred spirits. French cars have always been entertaining to drive and the ZX didn’t disappoint, with sharp steering, a suitably compliant ride (no hydraulics, but it still had to behave like a Citroen) and an impressive amount of grip.

It performed reasonably well in the showrooms over the years, and became the car with which Citroen really embraced the private retail market, piling on one special edition after another toward the bottom of the range. And to be fair, a Citroen ZX Reflex, Dimension, Provence or Temptation was a decent proposition for the private buyer – comfortable, adequately equipped,  not bad looking, and significantly better to drive than most rivals. Indeed, the only one that really matched it for driver appeal was the Peugeot 306, launched two years later, and that used the same chassis.

By then, though, Citroen had already proven what the ZX was capable of. The sporting flagship of the ZX range was the Volcane, which in 2.0-litre petrol form was a lithe and entertaining beast – 0-60 in a smidge over eight seconds, plenty of mid-range torque, a close-ratio gearbox and some subtle but effective sharpening of the suspension and steering allowed Citroen to pretty much invent the ‘warm’ hatch sector.

Citroen ZX (2)

Citroen ZX Volcane TD – a model that’s broadly recognised as the world’s first diesel hot (or at least warm) hatch.

It wasn’t as ballsy as some of the turbocharged hooliganism coming out of Ford and Vauxhall’s stables, nor was it as ‘hot hot’ as legendary Peugeot and VW GTis. But what the Volcane had become more than made up for it – it was a truly wonderful, engaging car to drive.

With this firmly in mind, Citroen decided it was time to pull out its trump card. Along came 1992, and with it the Volcane TD – a model that’s broadly recognised as the world’s first diesel hot (or at least warm) hatch.

Admittedly, a 0-60 time of 10.3 seconds and a top speed of 114mph don’t sound too impressive by today’s standards – they’re what you’d expect from a mainstream diesel hatchback these days – but in 1992 this was astonishing. Diesel, remember, meant slow and smelly. In 1992, it meant Nissan Bluebird minicabs and Leyland National buses, not something that came with a strip of red trim around the bumpers and standard alloy wheels, the ‘sporty’ trademarks of Nineties motoring.

On the road, the low-down torque also made the car feel a lot quicker than it looked on paper, with excellent mid-range responses. It was clattery at idle, of course, but Citroen worked hard on the soundproofing to make the Volcane TD almost as refined as its brethren.

Citroen ZX (6)

By 1998, when the ZX was replaced by the Xsara (which very few were convinced was better), the rest of the world had caught up. Ford’s dismal Escort had been replaced by the Focus, which could outhandle a ZX and a 306, while Volkswagen had replaced the corrosion-infested Mk3 Golf with the built-like-a-brick-whatnot Mk4, but the influence of the ZX on the mid-size car market should never be overlooked.

Sure, to Citroenistas, the ZX is nothing more than a too-conventional bit part. But to the car industry in general, this is a car that taught the world’s engineers, marketeers and dealers a lot. That diesel was good, and that a Citroen could be class-leading. And as we mark its silver anniversary, these are things we’d do well to remember, rather than let the ZX slip into inevitable obscurity.

Comments

Cappuccino Break    on 20 January 2016

Crikey, that's one those cars that I've just forgotten about. Kinda like the Renault 19...

shauncwalsh    on 20 January 2016

I had one of these (a non-turbo diesel) and my daughter had a 1.4 petrol. Mine did 225,000 miles with only a head gasket and glow plug replacement, still on original clutch and exhaust, no rust. My daughter's only did 80,000 before the throttle position sensor failed and I couldn't get a new throttle body.

Absolutely no rust and built like a tank, my daughter had two accidents that were not her fault, someone drove into the back of her and another into the front, on both occasions no damage apart from a front indicator the other cars weren't drivable.

So simple to service and repair.

Corps Diplomat    on 20 January 2016

I owned a Volcane 1.9D one of these. It felt rapid back then and was cheaper than the equivalent 306. Probably a rare car now.

anthonyf    on 25 January 2016

I had an N reg ZX estate - non turbo and pretty slow but reliable. Very uncool but as my father-in-law used to say, 'made out of the very best quality plastic'. 283,000 miles on original clutch when I gave it away after the rear suspension broke. No rust. A motor car as an appliance.

999pez    on 25 January 2016

I had a 1.4 Reflex as a company car back in the early nineties. Wasn't too impressed at first (wasn't my choice of car) but over the 3 years and 75,000 miles I drove it, I liked it more and more.

Much better than the Pug 306 which replaced it.

belknap    on 25 January 2016

i had a zx turbo D back in 1995 as company car i choise it as i read only good things about it

and what a motor it was fast and economical i covered 154000 mls in 3 years all over the uk and ireland never let me down ...loved it !!!

Edited by belknap on 25/01/2016 at 13:17

SinisterPenguin    on 26 January 2016

I have fond memories of my ZX Volcane TD, especially treating tailgating BMW's to a faceful of soot by dropping & gear a flooring the throttle. Ah happy days!

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