Carlton Boyce sets aside his mistrust of the breed in order to drive a Citroen C5 Aircross SUV into to Wales to watch a spot of rallying.
While both rallying and Citroen have played important roles in my life (I’m old enough to have seen the Group B cars race in anger, and have owned seven Citroen GSs, a 2CV, a Dyane, a BX and a Xantia Activa with fully active suspension, and contributed to the Citroen Car Club magazine, The Citroenian, for a while…) I’ve lost touch with them both.
So, when the head of PR asked me if I’d like to join him and Citroen to watch some of this year’s Wales Rally, I jumped at the chance. And, he added, don’t worry about transport; I’ll send you a Citroen C5 Aircross SUV to drive up and back in.
As regular readers will know, I’m not a fan of SUVs and crossovers, but it’s free fuel – and the rallying would be good, wouldn’t it?
And it was. I’d forgotten just how violent and brutal and noisy it all is. The shriek of the marshall’s whistle – is there a more evocative noise for the rallying enthusiast? – prior to a rally car exploding out of the mist and the drizzle. A brief blast of popping and banging followed almost immediately by a spray of gravel and mud and, like a good wine, the aftertaste, a heady smell of unburnt hydrocarbons and hot brakes, is the most sensual part of the whole experience.
Rally drivers are binary creatures; if they aren’t accelerating then they’re braking and while I’m sure their inputs are precisely modulated, from outside it’s on or it’s off, the engine is either engine blaring at full chat, or it is crackling on the over-run as the anti-lag kicks in.
Not as loose in their attitude as their Group B predecessors, the aerodynamic appendages work in concert to slam them down after even the mildest of yomps, and the grip they have precludes the sort of sideways action that I grew up with. There’s still plenty of steering correction for sure, but the Scandinavian Flick of my teenage years is long gone, used now only in historic rallying by men, like me, who prefer style to speed, Brut to Red Bull.
And then they’re gone. All is quiet and peaceful, for a couple of minutes at least, before it all happens again.
Over and over and over again.
Yet, if the WRC (World Rally Championship) cars are as brutally effective as they are ugly, the road-going Citroen C5 Aircross SUV is neither; unholy in its refinement, this is an SUV for the man who hates SUVs.
I didn’t want to like it, I really didn’t. And yet, the bubble I inhabit on Twitter had suggested only recently that it might be the very best of ‘em all – and this from a difficult audience, largely free of the sort of Gallic baggage that might weight my opinion in its favour thanks to long summers in the mid-eighties when I discovered the twin joys of my own driving licence and Born In The USA on the (vertically mounted) radio.
So, I approached it with a healthy slug of middle-aged scepticism tinged with just a dash of youthful optimism.
The seating position is excellent, and the power just enough to give rise to spirited driving but never enough to tip over into twattishness. The automatic gearbox was as seamlessly unobtrusive as to render the manual unnecessary, and while I still had to do the usual modern-car shuffle when I first turned it on – switch off the automatic stop/start, press the Sport button for the gearbox, and turn off the Lane Keeping Assist function – the result is a delightfully unobtrusive car in which to spend four hours slogging my way to north Wales.
Do you think I damn with faint praise? Not a bit of it; few cars cosset and pamper like the C5 Aircross, a middle-market family car that demonstrates – as Citroen always used to – that luxury cannot be bolted on, it must be engineered in from the very start
Violence and noise and unburnt hydrocarbons are all very well, but the WRC regulations for 2022, the details of which have yet to be released, will insist that electricity must play a propulsive role.
Citroen’s World Rally Team principal, Pierre Budar, might have been cautious in answering the question as to whether the team would ever compete in a hybrid rally car but he was optimistic about the possibilities the changes offered if it did: while the need for a battery and electric motors might add, he guessed, another 100kgs or so to the car’s overall weight, he thought that savings made elsewhere might compensate, leaving the car’s weight roughly on a par with that of the current model; while the current regulations demand a minimum weight of 1,190kgs (1,350kgs with crew), the problem seems to be primarily in maintaining that mass, rather than exceeding it.
The rally car’s basic structure is that of the production Citroen C3, but the shell is extensively reinforced and fitted with a welded, multi-point safety cage, which adds structural rigidity as well as protection for the driver and navigator.
The lightweight carbon fibre panels that cloth the Citroen C3 WRC rally car’s shell give the (rough) silhouette of the car upon which it is based. The interior, on the other hand, is unrecognisable; race-car sparse, it has an ergonomic focus I find hugely appealing.
With the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine developing something in the region of 380bhp, performance is vivid; four-wheel-drive and a six-speed sequential gearbox help ensure that the Citroen C3 can hit 62mph in around two seconds, even on gravel.
And while I’m not alone in wondering whether the silence and civility of an electric rally car might be somewhat incongruous, I’m equally sure that the instantaneous torque an electric motor offers will lead to the sort of standing start acceleration that the Group B cars could have only dreamed of.
Might help with the fuel consumption, too. While the precise figure will vary depending on the conditions and state of tune, the team budgets for anything between 3.5mpg and 5mpg.
My road car’s performance is more humble. The 1.6-litre engine, which drives only the front wheels, has 178bhp and 184lb/ft of torque, enough to hit 62mph in 8.2 seconds and to go on to a top speed of 134mph. It’s pleasantly quick rather than scintillatingly fast, but then this is a sensible family car rather than anything more overtly sporting.
And where the WRC C3 is sparse and unforgiving, my C5 Aircross is a very nice place to be; its interior is simple and elegant, featuring a charming combination of textures and surfaces and materials. Nothing jars, and the closer you look, the better it is. Storage spaces abound, and while the sat-nav threw a minor hissy fit on the way home, the rest of the car was seamlessly and faultlessly unobtrusive, delivering when it needed to and staying firmly in the background when it didn’t.
The driving position is perfect, as is the heating and ventilation; I set the temperature when I received the car and didn’t touch the controls thereafter. You might think that unremarkable, but at a time when such flawless calibration is still a rarity, these things matter and make a disproportionate impact on a car’s everyday usability.
And, while the Citroen C5 Aircross SUV might be a bit of a mouthful, it is a very usable car indeed.
Snapshots of the weekend stay with me. A police car streams along the road above the seafront at Colwyn Bay, blues-and-twos firing as the rally cars accelerate hard far below them, flames streaming into the sky as they pass the starting point.
The rain falls, soft and persistent. I’m wet and cold but that’s British rallying, isn’t it?
A mechanic sprays degreaser onto his hands prior to applying a sticker to the cockpit of the Ogier’s Citroen C3 WRC car.
A scrutineer records the serial numbers of the suspension sub-assemblies as they’re removed from the car and placed onto a storage rack.
Each car collects around 30kgs of mud during a stage. How they know this, I’m not sure but they do know it, and account for it, and remove it all. No matter how big your budget, and no matter how good the food and coffee your VIP guests enjoy while watching edited highlights of the day’s action on a big screen, it still comes down to boots on the ground, getting your hands dirty, and roiling around on the floor in a pool of mud and water.
The cars show real weight transfer on the stages. This, plus the hugely variable friction surfaces and the speed with which they cover ground, mean that no discipline tests a driver more than rallying.
The Citroen C5 Aircross is so remarkably comfortable thanks to, as Citroen somewhat hyperbolically puts it, Progressive Hydraulic Cushions suspension and Advanced Comfort seats. Long known for the comfort of its cars, Citroen used to rely on hydropneumatic suspension, a system so reliable and effective that Rolls-Royce and Maserati used it under licence, and Mercedes-Benz used something so similar as to be effectively the same thing.
But ordinary folk, folk like you and me, were scared of it. A car that rises and sinks on command is a much more useful trick than you might think, but while the Citroen GS’s ability to withstand a front tyre blowing out at speed while remaining under complete control was a potentially life-saving one – and its party trick of being able to drive with a rear wheel completely missing an interesting one – it scared off mechanics more used to dealing with the simpler, but less effective, MacPherson strut front suspension and the like.
The problem was twin-fold: pressures of up to 180bar can be dangerous if not handled properly, and the complexity of the system led to many scrapping perfectly good cars as they struggled to find anyone who was prepared to tackle the labyrinthine pipework at anything other than main dealer prices.
The new system is much simpler. Conventional springs and dampers are supplemented by hydraulic bumpstops in both compression and decompression, which allowed engineers more latitude in tuning the car for comfort, safe in the knowledge that the hydraulic bumpstops would take care of the extremities of suspension movement.
And dual-density foam in the seats allow for the initial pillowy feeling to give way to a firmer, more supportive underlayer. Other than an interesting use of fabrics and textures, I didn’t notice the seats at all, which is about as good as it gets, isn’t it?
Oh, and the three individual rear seats are of equal width, and slide, recline and fold in isolation. They also fold down to form a full-length load platform and up to 1,630 litres of load space.
Can we talk about tyres? The World Rally Championship regulations offer the teams a choice of five tyre compounds: soft, medium, hard, gravel and studded for use on snow and ice. The latter was in short supply up here in Wales in October, so only the choice was whether to run soft or medium tyres with the C3’s gravel suspension.
All are made by Michelin, and so keen is the company to maintain its competitive advantage that it guards its tyres fiercely, levying a €1,000,000 fine for every tyre a team doesn’t hand back, used or new. With a wheel and tyre combination weighing between 21 and 24kgs, most drivers prefer to carry just the one spare wheel, especially during rallies such as Wales where the surface is more forgiving than some. That fine means they’ll carry the punctured tyre back in the car with ’em, too.
Sébastien Ogier, driving car number, looks like he’s overcooked it coming into the service lane. The 35-year-old Frenchman races up to the Citroen service tent at high speed before nonchalantly flicking it into his bay with the handbrake just at the point we think he’s gone too far. He and Julien Ingrassia clamber out of the car, the navigator eating a sandwich from a plastic clamshell.
Watching the Citroen team service the cars in Llandudno was a joy; with a limited time to do so, and only six mechanics allowed to work on the car at any one time, there was an economy of choreographed movement that was a joy to watch. One technician, for example, rolled a wheel and tyre combination to the offside rear corner of the car, and bounced it with a flick of his wrist, just the once. And when it reached the correct height he simply nudged it forward onto the hub. If one simple movement sums up the professionalism and efficiency with which these guys operate, then it was that.
Overseen by an FIA-appointed scrutineer, there was no shouting, no sweating, not even a single fumbled spanner. With a crew of motoring journalists getting in their way, they still found time to clean the car; the clock counted down the remaining time and sounded a siren and started to flash red with three minutes to go. With one minute, 34 seconds still to run, the car was buttoned up and on its way.
Oh, and every tin was covered with a Total sticker, the lubricant company being just one of the team’s sponsors. Every tin, that is, bar the water dispersant because nobody puts WD-40 in the corner…
For all their cleverness, I’d have liked more lumbar support from the front seats. I’d also like proper, all-wheel-drive, too; while my experience of Grip Control, especially when used in conjunction with snow tyres, is that it provides as much mobility as most drivers will ever need, my predilection for snowy fun above 66°33′ means that I like to be able to call upon all four wheels to contribute.
But, that those twin omissions might be the only thing standing between me and ownership – and the latter is probably an unnecessary overreaction – speaks volumes as to its correctness and fitness of purpose.
Utility and comfort are rarely bedfellows, yet the C5 Aircross seamlessly combines the two in a way I wasn’t expecting. I liked it, a lot.