Welcome to Citroën's comfort zone

Wed, Aug 23, 2006, 01:00

RoadTest/ Citroen C6: Some call it arrogance, some say its panache, but the French have always had an inherent desire for individuality. From De Gaulle to Chirac, our Gallic friends have always had a headstrong refusal to conform, particularly if the rules are being set by the Americans or Germans.

In that regard the new C6 couldn't be more French if it smoked Gauloise through its exhaust and emitted Edith Piaf tunes from its engine.

This new C6 snubs its nose at the Teutonic titans that dare to dictate the criteria for the executive class. It's not surprising, given that it comes from the company that gave us the glorious DS19. Indeed the C6 owes much of its DNA to that ultimate French icon. From its ultra-comfortable ride through to technical features like its directional headlights, all were once part of one of the greatest cars ever to grace our roads.

The inherent secret of the DS's charm was its "flying armchair" approach to motoring. Whether heading off through the Massif Central or crossing through the Sally Gap, the principal aim of any large Citroën has been to make the journey mimic travelling on a magic carpet, all the while seated in surroundings that would not be out of place in a well-decorated sitting room, with seats that are better upholstered.

But first to the appearance: the C6 oozes personality. For too long the Germans have been building über-reliable executive boxes that lack charm. They are functional, admittedly with some sporting appeal when taken on the open road. Yet this new French car has the charm to win its way into your family. It's a car you can quickly develop an emotional attachment to and that's not something you can say about many of its rivals.

It's not just in terms of design that Citroën ploughs its own furrow. While the Germans have been competing for decades to make large luxury cars with the driving characteristics of sports cars, Citroën loftily eschews that juvenile quest. It recognises that for most luxury buyers, it's not a five-seater sports car they desire: it's comfort.

Forget 0-100km/h times, sports car handling and top-speed performance; most executive owners rarely make it over 80km/h in morning and evening traffic.

Instead of trying to impress each other with elusive sporting statistics, these motorists seek out as much comfort as they can.

In that regard it's hard to find a more comfortable way to pass a journey than in the cosseted seating of the C6; at least one that doesn't involve parting with twice the cash. The secret to this magical ride is its hydro-pneumatic, electronically-controlled suspension. The car glides along, ironing out the bumps and potholes and all accompanied by the quietness of a country graveyard.

Along with the ride and refinement, Citroën has thrown in a few extras for rear seat passengers, such as a little button on the rear door that sends the front passenger seat whirring forward to within an inch or two of the dashboard, leaving enough floor space behind to challenge a first-class airline seat. Another button in the rear armrest also reclines the rear seat.

Another nice touch in terms of technology includes the digital head-up display on the windscreen that flashes your speed or Sat-Nav directions in front of you. This is fitted as standard on all but the entry-level model.

The C6 also features Citroën's lane-warning detector - first offered in the C4 - that vibrates your seat when you stray into the wrong lane. It's a perfect accessory to the C6 for it's difficult not to drift off behind the wheel when faced with such cosseted comfort.

The biggest disappointment with the interior is the multitude of buttons on the central console, a clutter of fiddly switches that would confuse an airline pilot.

Of the two engines on offer, both are very refined but the 2.7-litre diesel matches an incredibly silent performance with more than enough torque to make the 3-litre petrol an also-ran. There's no real decision to be made here: the diesel option is a no-brainer.

The magic carpet ride does come at a price, however, and it's not just monetary. The steering feels as soft and supple as the ride and that's not a good thing on a dark country road. Try to push the car along on a tight twisting road and the front wheels take instructions from the driver in the same way Chirac treats requests from George Bush. This certainly isn't a car for executive boy racers.

It's not going to challenge many either in terms of outright performance, for it weighs in ahead of its German rivals and it shows when you push your right foot to the floor. Yet amble along and the C6 is eminently rewarding to all inside.

So Citroën has done it again: created an executive model that will appeal to those whose daily motoring needs are more about maximising comfort than feigning sports car performance.

Yet the C6 comes with one fatal flaw: the price. Admittedly our test car was the range-topping Exclusive version and came as standard with satellite navigation, heated electric front seats, parking sensors and the heads-up display.

And it's true that while the final price comes out ahead of many of its rivals, most of these features are only options on competitor models and when included would add another €5,000 or more to their prices. That said, however, the starting price for the entry-level diesel version (€65,500) is just too much for a Citroën. The same is true of the petrol version, which starts at €61,500.

We can all be righteous and say that the badge shouldn't matter but let's be realistic: Irish executive buyers care as much about a car's branding as they do about virtually any other feature. Every day, Irish motorists struggle to scrape together enough money to buy the most basic versions of prestige models - usually with engines barely capable of moving them along at 100km/h. They overlook the fact that for the same money they could have bought a top of the range mainstream model that would leave the bog-standard premium standing at traffic lights.

For the C6 to really succeed Citroën should have priced it to compete between the likes of the BMW 3-Series and 5-Series.

So what's the future for the C6? The good news is that unlike previous big Citroëns, such as the XM, the C6 has a feel of quality in its fit and finish. That probably will not be enough to protect its residual values, however. Historically, the resale values of executive sector cars of the big volume brands have dropped like a stone.

Given its comfort, you'd hope that several will find a happy home and there are always Citroën fans out there prepared to make the purchase. And when the worst of the residual damage has been done, this car will make an excellent used purchase.