One can, of course, drive a car that has steel springs and hydraulic dampers on all four wheels – the wheels do bob up and down when driving down the road and manage to stick to the black stuff reasonably well. Over the past 40 years there has been a marked evolution of these suspension systems – up to the point that they are not really simple anymore. However, I still have the distinct belief that all kinds of hydraulically actuated and – more importantly – interconnected suspensions deliver.
Agreed, Moulton’s first effort, the ADO16, was outclassed when the modern hatches of the 1970s – namely the Alfa Romeo Alfasud and VW Golf, not to mention the Citroën GS, came along. But then, Hydrolastic was developed into Hydragas – integrating the major achievements of the 3litre towards more effective damping into a seriously refined setup. Even the much-disliked Allegro (count me in) offers a very decent ride quality from the start, despite Moulton not being happy with the under-developed damping that was installed in the first series. The 3litre and ‘wedge’-Princess can still hold their heads high with regards to ride comfort combined with a sure-footed drive on twisty, bad roads. In a strange way – when trying to ignore the slight floating sensation – they do feel way more modern than they should really do as 40-50 year old classics.
How about Citroën, though – one of Moulton’s big inspirations? Some have claimed that he sort of copied the French Hydropneumatic suspension and created a cheaper to build version of it. That is, of course, rather inaccurate, as he created a very original design by taking some of the best ideas from 2CV (the interconnection) and DS (the hydraulic actuation) and combined them with his own ideas. He did not dismiss Citroën’s efforts though and – to a point – Citroën impoved its own design where it was lacking compared to the British system.
Enter the Citroën XM: the classic Hydropneumatic suspension was always intended to give the best possible ride comfort, combined with safety and stability under all conditions. Creating a car with inspiring handling characteristics was not a key objective – at least not for the cars that actually went on sale. Already in the 1960s Citroën worked on active anti-roll suspension systems, knowing the weaknesses of the DS all too well. With the XM, a simpler, yet very effective system was introduced: Hydractive. This added the things that made Hydrolastic cars so entertaining to drive – when rushed, the suspension firms up, while still maintaining the virtues of original Hydropneumatic. Reacting to electronic sensors, Hydractive switches between soft and firm damper and spring settings very quickly and seamlessly.
After reading up all sorts of technical information on Hydropneumatic, curiosity got the better of me – and a late XM estate was added to the fleet. Two years and some 20,000 miles on and I am hooked. This is my every-day 3litre! Apart from being driven at the other end, the XM reminds me of the 3litre every day I drive it. As with the old car, it is most relaxing to drive for any kind of distance – and it does not all fall apart when really pressing on on a bad, bendy British B-road.
It is all there, more refined, quieter, faster and more economical, as you’d expect with nearly three decades of development between the two cars. For sure, listening to the baritone of the 3-litre V6 engine in the XM on the open road, it is just missing the view of acres of polished walnut that really keeps me from feeling like I’m driving the old ADO61…
With just 388 estates made with the belt-driven 24-valve engine, I feel really lucky to claim one to be mine.
I was, of course, aware that, for more than a decade, one of the late Dr. Alex Moulton’s favourite cars was a Citroën XM – a saloon, but fitted with the same smooth 24-valve V6 engine as my estate.
Guess what? I think he was right after all!