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 photography: Andrew Elphick, originally posted in 2009

Vive la difference!

Recently, I made a pilgrimage to the Geneva Motor Show – the Swiss equivalent of our own dear departed effort. It’s 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.

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.

Pining for a better drive abroad

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 are on our way. Except it doesn’t really happen that smoothly. The hire clerk confirms our reservation, and then confirms they have no cars. Well, they do have some just nobody knows where. Or what they are. Or when the computer might burst into life again.

However, eventually two diesel Mondeos and a solitary C5 appear. Mondeo number one is fresh from a rental by driving school’s ‘Maureen’ – dented, dirty and down at the heel. Mondeo number two is far more appealing with barely a 1000km on the odometer. Finally, our smoky grey metallic C5 arrives, which – as we turn the key – reveals just 195km on the clock, and lots of electric gadgets. And who-knows-what suspension.

One well-equipped Citroen

Complete with split climate control, colour sat-nav, very un-Citroënesque bolstered seats, chrome trim and wheel trims. Everything seemes 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. Noticeable, too, as soon as you turn the wheel – well some of it anyway.

At this point I’m still unsure if our car was conventionally or hydraulically sprung, so I ask Tim (driving) to gently dab the brakes. The three of us are not pressed against the windscreen instantly, so we have a conventionally-suspended car (had it been hydraulic, experience would have confirmed the instant all or nothing braking). Our rear seat passenger mumbles we should have gone for broke and hired the C6 after all. I retort that we have, 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 used (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. And with this in mind we head south for supper.

Monaco or bust

Monaco’s harbour was a suitable resting point

The following morning the previously-sparsely populated car park has filled. Both the C5 and Mondeos share a trait – they are both the same size as the parking space… The pilots of all three cars agree to follow in convoy and avoid the péage 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 know best. God bless the mobile phone…

A quick chat and we agree 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 exists, we silence its verbal instructions and figure it out – which means it must be extremely user-friendly and have buttons for fat fingers. The colour screen has a dash mounted a round volume style knob that scrolls the map scale in or out very quickly, with no software lag – very effective.

Fixed-hub joys

The other strange ability happens to be that no matter what direction the front wheels are pointing, the fixed hub steering wheel means the control buttons never move. This is ideal for your co-pilot to input directions on the move. The flip side of these numerous wheel buttons is you can never find the horn in a hurry… Seemingly strange, the fixed hub actually is far more natural than you might imagine, and 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 becomes apparent how quietly the C5 rides. Minimal wind noise and tyre roar (helped by the high profile Michelins) even if you can the hear HDI engine humming away. Handling is 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.

Into the mountains

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 is 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 has over the Mondeo is its engine torque. It picks up in any gear, something the off boost Mondeo TDCi struggles to do).

We stop for a stretch of legs and a change of drivers; Robin takes 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 is a departure from the norm. Highway signs tell us that all the mountain passes are open so off we set, with the ski resort of Vallorie (2600m above sea level at its peak) looking a good place for lunch. And it is!

Small but perfectly performed, after walking off omelettes, crepes and tea and almost taking the cable car sightseeing (just 6 euros return!) we head off. Now, what were previously assumed envious looks, are shot towards the C5. They are not. It seems every vehicle has snow tyres or chains fitted – we have neither. At 1740m up the Grande Alps it becomes obvious why… ROUTE BARRED… To prove a point, the French army is there too, complete with shovels…

Room… with a view


After all small Basil Fawlty moment and the realisation we have travelled 100km out of our way on mountain passes, we select reverse and head back. Luckily, the C5 has a very impressive (for a front-wheel-drive car) turning circle. Heading north it transpires that all the road signs on the way up, advising the closure, had been covered up. Those leading away from the closure warn of the road closures and snow pneus (tyres) required. Oh, well…

The dream of Autoroute avoidance is now out the window, So the ‘vitesse’ option is selected on the navigation; the quickest way to Menton? Via Italy of course…

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

Somehow I’m behind the wheel again, so I choose to pull my usual ‘tired in an Italian services’ trick – see what the lorry drivers are drinking, and order one! A mere 95 cents later, a small half-filled coffee can appears – we all take a little sup… sshhheeessshhh! Necking this gaves me the full Popeye Spinach effect. Glancing at the screen, (scrolled out) we have a simple run along the A6 towards Savona. Except all is not as it seemed – for a start there seems to be no adjacent carriageway (I guess it’s beneath us), and we’re suspended mid-air strapped to the side of a mountain.

With added hairpins

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’ve ever been on. 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 join the far more restrained A10 costal bypass, and then escape to join the coastal road in San Remo. Another stretch of tarmac for the ‘another day list’ is the Col de Turini – a series of back-to-back hairpins (11 in total), which is good enough to be part of the Monte Carlo Rally. However we cruise by en-route to our hotel.

Thinking man’s Mondeo

As the battered Puntos melted into battered Clios, we slip almost without realising into France. The C5’s 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 start, our hotel appeared, complete with Peugeot 504 Break parked directly outside – a petrolhead’s vision of Karma if ever there is one! As we step onto the kerb, a cheer (actually it might have been a jeer!) resonates from an overhead balcony – the Mondeo boys! As it transpires, everyone has used different routes, yet arrive fairly closely together. We jettison our luggage and head for the bar, Tim can 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 are notched up on the £121 hire. A diesel refill comes in at 57 litres, giving us just under 39mpg across second gear mountain switchbacks, motorway thrash and boulevard cruising down to Cannes. That’s pretty respectable for a tight delivery mileage car carrying three adults and their luggage.

The connoisseur’s Mondeo, you might say. I know I would!

Andrew Elphick
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  1. “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.

    • Steve, shamefully I only found this out a few years ago! 3 AX’s an XM and a dispatch but no C5’s. Still only a week to go till this years ‘Salon’ so what do you want to know???

    • Yep the Xantia was the last with hydropneumatic brakes.
      As I found out when I picked one up in Southern England to drive back to NI, on the M6 and meet some traffic, dab on the brake and the nose suddenly dives, giving myself and the car behind me a fright.

      As a hire car, likely to have basic ‘springs’. The other clue is the presence of a handbrake lever – the hydropneumatic models have an electronic handbrake (was car shopping for a couple of months and was close to buying a C5 at one point, would look at the used car pics to make sure no handbrake lever was present!). I think the hydropneumatic suspension was mainly on Exclusive spec models?

  2. C5s are great until the individually controlled wipers fail, electric windows fail, and air con compressor leaks. The battery saver also has a habit of switching the radio off too quickly if your parked up with the engine off. All happened on our nearly new 1.6 C5. Oh and held the record for the fastest depreciating car when we owned it 🙁

    Nice looking tho….

  3. One and a half year, and 30K miles later, i have no regrets. I bought my C5 as a comfortable and stylish mile muncher and i wasn’t disappointed. She only asks for some decent quality diesel fuel, and this is not much really. In return, i treat her to decently frequent oil and filter changes.

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