Drive Story : Citroën C5 in the South of France

There is an old adage that the fastest car in the world is a hire car, especially in reverse…

After a trip to the Geneva Motor Show, Andrew Elphick takes a Citroën C5 for an extended play in the Alps…

Words and pictures: Andrew Elphick

Vive la difference!

RECENTLY, I made a pilgrimage to the Geneva Motor Show – the Swiss equivalent of our own dear departed effort, but a few notches up and half the price to get in (14 CHF – £9.00 to the layman). If you have never been, it really is worth a visit and surprisingly practical – only five minutes on foot to the Palexpo exhibition hall from the airport terminal, and with budget airlines offering flights at well under a £100 return; almost justifiable to the significant other. Travelling with a group of friends, the intention was a day and a half at the show, and then drive southwards to the Cote d’Azure.

Strolling between the bread and butter offerings, interspersed with austere German tuners (carbon fibre bodied Cayennes anyone?) are the world’s great carroisserie rubbing shoulders with each other. A real treat, and well worth a trip.

However as delightful as the Salon is, Geneva is not famed for its breathtaking architecture or discount Hotel rooms, so a little time behind the wheel was required to reach Annecy. Just half hour away, this doubles if your sat-nav plunges you through the centre of the Geneva at rush hour…

After a quick stroll to the huddled hire car reception for the swap of signatures for keys, and that fatal plastic swipe; and we where on our way. Except it didn’t really happen that smoothly. The hire clerk confirmed our reservation, and then confirmed they had no cars; well they did have some just nobody knew where. Or what they were. Or when the computer server might burst into life again. However eventually two diesel Mondeos and a solitary C5 appeared – Mondeo one fresh from a rental by driving school’s ‘Maureen’, dented, dirty and down at the heel; Mondeo two far more appealing with barely a 1000km on the odometer. Finally our smoky grey metallic C5 arrived and as we turned the key revealed just 195km on the clock, and lots of electric gadgets – and who-knows-what suspension.

Complete with split climate control, colour sat-nav, very un-Citroënesque bolstered seats, chrome trim and wheel trims, everything seemed a lifetime away from the last large Citroën I owned – an XM. All stacked to the modern buyers wish list, but strangely still very Citroën too, and noticeable as soon as you turned the wheel – well some of it anyway.

At this point I was still unsure if our car was conventionally or hydraulically sprung, so I asked Tim (driving) to gently dab the brakes: the three of us were not pressed against the windscreen instantly, so we had a conventional chassis’s car (had it been hydraulic, experience would have confirmed the instant all or nothing braking). Our rear seat passenger mumbled we should have gone for broke and hired the C6 after all, I retorted we kind of had under the skin.

Now one thing that’s not immediately apparent from the rather handsome exterior is how big the C5 is: Statistically it’s a fraction over six feet wide without the rear view mirrors. These fabulous articles are the best I have ever encountered (almost negating the need to use the interior item) but they must be 10in wide each side, meaning you need an eight foot gap where ever you go. So with this in mind we headed south for supper.

Monaco’s harbour was a suitable resting point

The following morning the previously sparsely populated car park had filled and both the C5 and Mondeos shared a trait – they were both the same size as the parking space… The pilots of all three cars agreed to follow in convoy and avoid the peage on route to the Cote d’Azure (specifically Menton). Of course all being men, this lasted less than two minutes, with Garmin, Tom-tom and Citroën’s satellite navigation systems deciding they knew best. God bless the mobile phone…

A quick chat and we agreed to meet in Menton that evening regardless.

Cruising alongside the crystal clear Lac de Annecy, we put all our faith in the factory fit sat-nav. Considering we could not get it to go Angleterre even though an option existed, we silenced its verbal instructions and figured it out – which means it must be extremely user friendly and have buttons for fat fingers. The colour screen had a dash mounted a round volume style knob that scrolled the map scale in or out very quickly, with no software lag – very effective. The other strange ability happened to be that no matter what direction the front wheels were pointing, the fixed hub steering wheel meant the control buttons never moved position, ideal for your co-pilot to input directions on the move. The flip side of these numerous wheel buttons was you could never find the horn in a hurry… Seemingly strange the fixed hub actually is far more natural than you might imagine, and is a pleasant experience – the opposite of my pre-conceived opinions.

Petrolheads rejoice: there are still some great driving roads at your doorstep.

Cruising along the Routes Nationales with no CDs and French broadcasting switched to non it became apparent how quiet the C5 rode. Minimal wind noise and tyre roar (helped by the high profile Michelins) even if you could the hear HDI engine humming away. Inspired design had considered nobody would be happy if either kneecap rested against the door or console trim, or the clutch pedal was light enough for driving school duties. Handling was tidy, but not at the expense of a supple ride. In fact (and probably helped by the wide track) being a fair match for my late ’90s BMW 5-Series – very high praise.

Peeling through the Alpine villages on narrow D-Routes, finally there was a chance to find out what the C5 was capable of. A combination of steadily climbing, descending, doubling back and hairpin bends in a mixture of second and third gears was bound to let us find out in the real world. Understeer and squealing tyres would only occur under extremely severe provocation, which for a tonne and a half of front wheel drive car is good in anyone’s book.

(Later it would transpire the edge the C5 had over the Mondeo was its engine torque – to put it simply it picked up in any gear, something the off boost Mondeo TDCi struggled to do).

We stopped for a stretch of legs and a change of drivers; Robin took the wheel. Occupational ties mean Robin’s company vehicle does 20mph and has a plough attached… so driving the Route des Grande Alps to the coast would be a departure from the norm. Highway signs indicated all the passes were open so off we set, with the ski resort of Vallorie (2600 metres above sea level at its peak) looking a good place for lunch. And it was!

Small but perfectly performed, after walking off omelettes, crepes and tea and almost taking the cable car sightseeing (just 6 euros return!) we headed off. Now what was previously assumed were envious looks towards the C5, suddenly transpired to be for an altogether different reason. It seemed every vehicle had snow tyres or chains fitted; we had neither. When at 1740 metres up the Grande Alps it became obvious… ROUTE BARRED… and to prove a point the French army were there too, complete with shovels…

Room… with a view

After all small Basil Fawlty moment and the realisation we had travelled 100km out of our way on mountain passes, we selected reverse and headed back. Luckily the C5 had a very impressive (for a front wheel drive car) turning circle, another positive attribute. Heading north it transpired that all the road signs on the way up advising the closure had been covered up… those leading away from the closure warned road closures and snow pneus (tyres) required. Oh well…

The dream of Autoroute avoidance had now gone out the window, so the vitesse selection was selected on the navigation; the quickest way to Menton? Via Italy of course…

This sudden change of route had a 33-euro consequence – the Frejus tunnel. 13km long it connects Mondane in France to Bardoncchia in Italy. As you emerge into the Italian sunshine your now skating Torino (or Turin!) along the A32. A tempting diversion appeared when signs for FIAT’s Lingotto facility appeared, but sat-nav said otherwise pointing us onto the A6 Autostrada. As Robin piloted down the slip road to the services, we stopped to take stock. It was half past four, and taking lunch out of the equation we had been inside the C5 for six hours now without any arguments, aching backs or strained legs – quite an achievement.

Somehow I was behind the wheel again, so I elected to pull my usual ‘tired in an Italian services’ trick – see what the lorry drivers’ were drinking and order one! 95 cents later small half filled coffee can appeared – we all had a little sup… sshhheeessshhh! Necking this gave me the full Popeye Spinach effect, who needs Red-Bull, eh? Glancing at the colour screen, (scrolled out) we just had a straight run along the A6 towards Savona aside the coast. Except all was not as it seemed – for a start there seemed to be no adjacent carriage way (I guess it was beneath us), and oh, we were half way in the air strapped to the side of a mountain.

Imagine a mountain road, now make it one direction, throw in Armco atop a concrete wall (NASCAR style), then make it twisty as possible. Welcome to Italy! This final stretch of the A6 must be the most exciting motorway I have been on ever. Yes it’s a strange boast I know, but it really is great fun, with no dreaded bicycles for starters.

Demanding enough for you?

Finally we joined the far more restrained A10 costal bypass, until it could bore us no more, and we escaped to join the coastal road in San Remo. Another stretch of tarmac for the ‘another day list’ was the Col de Turini – a series of back-to-back hairpins (eleven in total) good enough to be part of the Monte Carlo rally, however we cruised by on-route to our Hotel. As the battered Puntos melted into battered Clios we slipped almost without realising into France, the clever swivelling headlights (the outer lamps angle the same way as the steering SM style) lighting the palms to the left, sheer game over rock walls to the right.

Eleven hours after we started our hotel appeared, complete with Peugeot 504 Break (estate) parked directly outside – a petrolhead’s vision of Karma if ever there was one! As we stepped out on the kerb a cheer (actually it might have been a jeer!) resonated from an overhead balcony and the Mondeo boys; as it transpired everybody had used totally different routes, yet arrived fairly close together.
We jettisoned our luggage and headed for the bar, Tim could drive tomorrow!

And the C5?All the car you could ever need (minus a hatchback), fine riding, responsive, supple. Even without Hydraulics it’s still a Citroën definitely not a Peugeot. In total over three days and 777km were notched up on the £121 hire. A diesel re-fill came in at 57 litres, giving us just under 39mpg across second gear mountain switchbacks, motorway thrash and boulevard cruising down to Cannes. Pretty respectable for a tight delivery mileage car carrying three adults and luggage.

The connoisseur’s Mondeo you might say – I would!

Posted in: Drive Story, The Rivals
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

1 Comment on "Drive Story : Citroën C5 in the South of France"

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  1. Steve Lee says:

    “At this point I was still unsure if our car was conventionally or hydraulically sprung, so I asked Tim (driving) to gently dab the brakes: the three of us were not pressed against the windscreen instantly, so we had a conventional chassis’s car (had it been hydraulic, experience would have confirmed the instant all or nothing braking). Our rear seat passenger mumbled we should have gone for broke and hired the C6 after all, I retorted we kind of had under the skin.”

    Complete and utter nonsense – all C5s have conventional brakes, there are no power-braked C5s Mk1, 2 or 3. You would know if it’s conventionally sprung by the lack of suspension height adjustment controls.

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