MOTOR MOUTH: The saloon as salon

MOTOR MOUTH: The saloon as salon - Montparnasse cemetery is one of the least melancholy accident blackspots on earth: there's no place better to spend a reflective half-hour before a jolly lunch at nearby Thoumieux or the Dome. It's a perfect exposition o

by Stephen Bayley, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Montparnasse cemetery is one of the least melancholy accident blackspots on earth: there's no place better to spend a reflective half-hour before a jolly lunch at nearby Thoumieux or the Dome. It's a perfect exposition of the French method: quirky, grandiose and stylish. Here you find French culture interred, but monumentalised. There's Serge Gainsbourg! Hey, Dreyfus! Then it's Baudelaire. And it's not long before you come across Andre Citroen, buried in a magnificent black marble tomb whose jagged angles suggest the helical gears that inspired his famous double chevron logo.

Citroen was an engineer of genius, a gambler and a chancer. The Type A was Europe's first mass-produced car, the deux chevaux a Bauhaus-inspired contraption of ineffable charm, while the elegant Light 15 brought unitary construction and traction avant to the middle classes. Citroen died, all but insolvent, before his company's greatest product, the 1955 DS, was launched at the Paris Salon de l'Automobile. So astonishing was the shape of this car that its debut was on a pylon, with wheels removed and wheel-arches filled, so as not to compromise the public's perception of it as sculpture. The conceit worked: shortly after the motor show, France's greatest post-war intellectual, Roland Barthes, said 'cars are our cathedrals'. Quite.

But audacity costs: Citroen never made money. For a long while the company was owned and subsidised by Michelin, which eventually tired of an ingenious symbiosis and sold it on to Peugeot. This dour firm was at first a poor custodian of a precious inheritance, and in the later '70s and '80s Citroen declined into a mediocrity of shared components and blurred image.

That dark period is now over. We seem to have a Citroen renaissance with the new C5. Do not be put off by associations with Clive Sinclair and his insolently inefficient pedal car: the Citroen C5 works very well indeed.

It is one of the most wired cars you can buy: high-end models lack only a kitchen sink. There's every electronic aid known to the parts bin, up to and including a Porsche-style clutch-free sequential gearbox differing from the German example only in its lack of finesse and definition. More importantly, the mirrors fold away when you zap the remote blipper. That function sounds trivial but is a helpful delight.

The density of electronic activity on board the C5 is announced by a continuous symphony of whirring and clicking control systems, bleeps, chimes, bongs and blinking diodes, like a late orchestral work by Olivier Messiaen stage-mounted by Dan Flavin. These same systems allow you to set the gearbox mode and Citroen's trademark high-pressure hydraulic suspension to 'sport': this means, in the example I drove with a smooth, powerful three-litre V6, that you can go very quickly along both the straight and through the curves. But frenzied urgency seems out of character with a car whose USP is spacious comfort supported on superb ride.

The C5 is no great beauty. In fact, it looks very odd. At first appearing simply boring, it establishes a subtle presence over time. Citroen's chief designer, Donato Coco, may have decided that competition with the glorious DS was futile. The C5 is a clever evolution of an emerging trend where MPVs and saloons will coalesce: it has an almost unbroken profile from the nose through the windscreen and across the high roofline to the tail.

At the stern, although styled to look like a conventional booted saloon, the C5 has an enormous hatchback. It is also deceptively large. If the total effect is jolie-laide, this is only an affirmation of its quintessential Frenchness.

What I really liked about the C5 was sitting in its generous seats and driving comfortably in no great hurry. You could not pretend you were in a BMW: the amazingly light steering has only moderate self-centring, which means manoeuvres require good manners. This is fine: like its grandparent the 'Voiture de Grand Diffusion', as the DS was formally known, the C5 excites the lust for travel not because of snorting acceleration but because it would be a fine place to lounge between lunch in Auxerre and dinner in Vienne.

The C5 is not as well made as a Volkswagen and does not handle as well as a Mondeo, but it is a more mature car than either. And being mature does not mean one foot in the grave ... even if I started writing this in a cemetery.

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