Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Cars: Citroën Saxo

Okay, let’s get a couple of things straight. Not once have I referred to anyone as ‘Bruv’, I don’t spend my evenings loitering in McDonalds’ car parks and my CD collection doesn’t contain a single hard house or drum-and-bass compilation. And so, with that out the way, I feel free to confess a dark secret: I absolutely adore the Citroën Saxo. Its popularity the big stereo brigade may have robbed the car of some of its credibility, but underneath lies a very honest and surprisingly capable little car.
My connection with the Saxo, and W169 OFJ in particular, goes almost as far back as my driving. It was bought for my mum around the time I was learning to drive and when, sometime later, I finally passed my test it became my first 4-wheeled transport. Buzzing round the lanes of Devon, this little Gallic tin box proved an ideal introduction to the basics of car control. Its nimble (and surprisingly tail-happy) handling was a joy to experience. Skinny tyres meant it was possible to indulge in lift-off antics at manageable speeds, while the steering provided a gloriously detailed stream of communication to your fingertips. I’m going to stick my neck out here and claim that this poverty-spec supermini had the best steering, and one of the best overall handling packages, of any front wheel drive car I’ve encountered. This may sound far-fetched, but it does actually make sense.

There’s an old adage that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and in this case that was probably true. The Saxo felt like a car from another era. The 1.1-litre model belonged to a time before air conditioning, electric windows or multiple airbags (it was also built with all the structural integrity of a cheese and onion crisp, hence crash regulations eventually killed it off, but that’s by-the-by). The end result was that it weighed in at a scarcely credible 790kg (less than a Series 2 Elise). To put that into perspective, many modern superminis weigh a third of a ton more.

The Saxo’s anaemic build meant it didn’t need feedback-zapping power steering. It also meant that the meagre 60bhp engine would punt it along very respectably, despite never producing enough grunt to induce torque steer. Add to that the stiff sidewalls and high-profile of its Michelin Energy tyres and suddenly the Citroën’s dynamics didn’t seem so unlikely. It’s also worth bearing in mind that PSA wasn’t averse to having a little fun back then. Believe it or not, the humble Saxo bore a striking family resemblance to the Peuegot 205 GTi behind the wheel. I do wonder if more of the mighty Pug’s aggressive setup was carried over to the 106 and Saxo than the health and safety people would these days allow.
It wasn’t just a one-trick pony either. Its brilliantly judged damping managed to combine lively handling with a surprisingly supple ride, while the Saxo consistently returned mid 40s to the gallon, seemingly irrespective of how it was driven. True, the cabin was more than a little plasticy and it did feature some rather unusual aesthetic choices, like odd-coloured seatbelts and a bright yellow gear knob, but it was a comfortable and airy place to be. What's more, folding seats and a generous hatch gave it excellent luggage capacity for a small car. It would swallow two mountain bikes (minus wheels) with ease and thought nothing of taking four people and a week’s worth of camping gear.

It wasn’t long before these exploits prompted me to invest in my own car, but that wasn’t the last I would see of the Saxo. Five years later I was looking to change cars at the same time as my mum spied a newer runaround. A deal was struck and ‘OFJ once again came to join me, this time half a decade and 200 miles away from those first steps in the West Country. By that point I’d owned and driven a far wider variety of cars and you know what? It still felt good. In fact, around that time I ended up chatting to a very well known magazine road tester who confided that one of the best drives he’d ever had was spent nipping along coastal roads in Greece behind the wheel of a hired Saxo. That was some statement from a man who drives Astons and Ferraris on a daily basis.

Alas, all good things come to an end. And in the case of ‘OFJ it was quite an abrupt end. On the way to work one morning a driver in one of those 'lardy modern hatchbacks' I spoke of earlier drove into the side of me. There was barely a scratch on the offending Vauxhall, but the twisted remains of the Saxo were about to embark on a one-way trip to the great dealership in the sky. It seems the car’s featherweight build was ultimately to prove its downfall. The fact remains, however, that I walked away unscathed and all those years of use simply wouldn’t have been as much fun in any of its contemporaries.

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