Translated by Miguel Fernández Garrido.
I recall when I asked an inconvenient question during the presentation of the face-lift of the Citroën C4 2015. Ever since Peugeot took control of Citroën in 1975, the latter has been considered PSA´s ugly duckling. There was a strongly held assumption among the public, namely that Peugeot equaled quality cars, whereas Citroën equaled weird but not-up-to-Peugeot-standards cars. The inconvenient question, after I made this introduction, came when I wanted to know how had Citroën taken the fact that, precisely now that they had launched their DS range and had consequently got rid of the stigma of being “second to”, they had been stripped of it in order to launch it as a new make altogether. After a few seconds of deafening silence, an answer came: “Well, actually, if we look at the profitability between each sold Audi and Volkswagen, it becomes clear that to have a premium brand is the right thing to do”. While I was hearing this I couldn´t help but thinking to myself that if the man saying this thought that PSA would be able to sell DS cars at the price of an Audi or a Lexus, one of us was delusional.
PSA has a plethora of brands they could resurrect if they wanted to: Simca, Panhard, Talbot, and so on. But no, they´d rather dissociate DS from Citroën, it makes no sense.
The most ironic thing of all is that they have created a new brand that bears the name of a model that revolutionized automotive history, the Citroën DS, that will however have none of the original car´s main features. To add insult to injury, now that the divorce between Citroën and DS is definitive, Carlos Tavares has officially announced that they will stop making hydro-pneumatic suspension systems in order to cut costs by the time the Citroën C5 ceases production, something that will most likely happen in 2016, after the presentation of the new model in the Paris car show.
Smart move: create a premium brand while at the same time cutting costs, as if the customers weren´t going to notice. This is the same thing GM did with Saab: they bought themselves a premium brand to enter the European market, they started to keep production costs cheap, and this resulted in things like the Saab 900 GM, built using an earlier generation Opel Vectra frame and the infamous 3.0 TiD engine. The result was that the only business left in that venture nowadays is the sale of parts for the few surviving cars.
When DS killed the Citroën DS
In the 2009 Geneva auto show Citroën introduced their DS Inside concept car, which was the seed of the DS 3 that we all know. It was a huge sales success, specially in its country of birth where it sold like hot cakes and it beat all of its competitors. After the DS 3´s success, Citroën launched the DS 4 and the DS 5, but the inconsistencies began:
- First of all, despite the fact that they use the name DS, they disowned the original Citroën to be so named, by saying that they want no connection with the classic model, like their competitors with the Fiat 500, the VW Beetle, the Mini, etc. They claim to be looking forward, not backwards. Why do they call it DS then?
- When they realize that the DS 3, DS 4 and DS 5 start to gain traction in the collective psyche as premium cars of sorts, PSA announces that Citroën and DS will split and become two separate brands, as if the posh DS people wanted to flee from the Citroën outcasts, when the truth is that Citroën and DS have always been an inseparable couplet -maybe not so much in Spain, where the car has always been know as “Shark” (tiburón), and even classic car aficionados do not know that the real name of the car is DS, or ID for the mos basic versions.
- To make matters more confusing, after the DS 4, which was a model halfway between a SUV and a compact car that used the chassis of the Citroën C4, the bigger, heavier and more luxurious DS 5 is launched. However, instead of using the superb chassis of the Citroën C5 -one of the best in the market for sedans 4.5 meters or longer- they stretch the C4 chassis all that is humanly possible. The result is disappointing, as I could conclude from testing the DS 5 with the 160 HP Hdi engine. A beautiful car in the outside, with an interior that shows great attention to detail and a good engine, the car´s frame is unable to efficiently handle the inertia generated by the car´s massive body. The more I drove the car during the test, the more I couldn´t help thinking what a fantastic car it would be if it had the C5´s chassis and its hydractive suspension.
- The last straw is that, now that PSA want people to be clear about the fact that DS and Citroën are no longer associated, they do so by using the Citroën DS´s 60th anniversary and its place in automotive history as a revolutionary vehicle that was ahead of its time. If that was not enough, PSA announced that one of the Citroën DS´s distinctive features, probably the one single feature that contributed to elevate the DS to its mythical status, namely its hydractive suspension, will not be produced anymore in an effort to cut costs.
The DS and the hydro-pneumatic system, an inseparable couplet
When the Citroën DS was introduced in 1955, something never-before-seen happened. One car incorporated so many technologically advanced features that the competition in the car show paled in comparison, and now no one remembers other cars that were introduced in the 1955 Paris car show: the DS was the only one that mattered. It wasn´t until the advent of the NSU Ro80 twenty years later that such a plethora of substantial technological innovations were to be found in one single car -nowadays, a “technological innovation” does not mean much more than the touch screen being an inch wider than previously.
Citroën´s audacious cars bankrupted the company twice. The first time, after the development of the famous Traction. The cost of its production and development -and the constant breakdowns of the first units, rushed into the market in order to start getting immediate returns for the heavy investment- made André Citroën utter its famous “those who have so far sustained our cars, are now sustaining our company”, and was replaced in 1935 by Pierre Michelin as head of the company shortly before his death, although the French government and the Michelin tire company had taken control a year earlier.
The Citroën DS was a revolutionary car that however made the company bankrupt for a second time. It was a sales success but its development and production costs were so huge that Michelin decided to launch it even if the car was not fully developed and with no time or funds to include an engine that was on a par with the rest of the car. The development of a new revolutionary suspension system was more than partly to blame for these financial hardships, so much so, that the machinery available at the time was not adequate for the precision that was necessary for the making of each of its components, which spelled trouble for the first units that were produced.
The first Citroën DS boasted a spectacular design, but it would not have achieved its status as a myth if it wasn´t for its hydro-pneumatic system that governed brakes, steering, suspension and transmission.
Thanks to the hydro-pneumatic system, a car with one of the oldest engines with a modest performance became one of the most desired, and it was ahead of its competitors for almost 20 years.
Later models such as the Citroën CX were also ahead of their rivals as far as dynamic behavior is concerned. Even nowadays it is difficult to follow in the wake of a Citroën Xantia Activa on road full of bends with a similar car, only twenty years younger. The trick? The hydro-pneumatic system.
The hydro-pneumatic system: too much to handle for the mediocre
There are many factors that contributed to the death of the hydro-pneumatic suspension system.
For anyone who has driven a 1955 car -any car, even a Rolls Royce or an Adenauer Mercedes– and has had the possibility to drive a DS 19 it is clear that the DS does not stand comparison in terms of smoothness of the ride, comfort, brakes, steering, safety…
And this is clear also for anyone who has driven a GS, a CX, a Xantia… it is true that Citroën also made their share of blunders, such as the low quality of these cars´components, but it is not true that the hydro-pneumatic system was the primary source of trouble in these or other models like the BX or the XM and so on. The problem with Citroën is that they have always been guilty of leaving business unfinished. The DS was denied a brilliant engine, the CX a good electrical system and good plastic components, the XM a good quality of build… and so on and so forth.
Citroën´s hydro-pneumatic suspension has been grossly misunderstood, mainly because of the foolishness and ignorance of most of those involved in the process of getting an idea to take root in our subconscious.
On the one hand the journalists did not quite grasp how the system worked and they held against it that it isolated the driver too much from the tarmac… it was all the same if the CX embarrassed a Mercedes W124 in the track or in the safety tests, the CX was the worse car because of its driving feel, as if “hovering” over the road.
On the other hand, there was the mechanics´ knowledge or lack thereof, something I have personally suffered. Even nowadays, when cars are managed by electronic systems, you still see puzzled faces when you ask a mechanic to test a component with an oscilloscope. Anything other than a hammer or a 10-11 wrench is gibberish to them. Imagine what happens when a mechanic removes a wheel and instead of a spring, he finds a ball made of steel and he is then told that inside this ball there is high-pressure liquid nitrogen separated by a membrane from a green fluid, and that that sphere does the job of both the spring and the shock absorber… if he does not kill himself right then and there it is only because he won´t find anything to tie a rope to!
Finally, there is the mediocrity of our own brain. Millennia of human evolution to believe we are the smartest in the universe, but if 10 million flies say to us that shit tastes delicious we end up eating shit… luckily for us, flies can´t talk, Or can they?
According to Tavares, the comfort and safety provided by the hydractive suspension can be paralleled by modern pneumatic systems and electromagnetic shock absorbers. In my time as manager of the Porsche Center in Corunna I was able to test the car with the best pneumatic suspension in the world, the then just released Porsche Panamera with dual pneumatic chamber and the most modern and precise suspension management mechanisms. I was also able to test a Citroën C5 Tourer V6 Exclusive. I can attest that the Porsche was a much better driver for reasons that had nothing to do with its suspension: a more rigid frame, a lower center of gravity, wider front and rear tracks, a more powerful engine, a more precise steering… but if we only focus on the suspension, the Citroën´s was better, as it absorbed terrain irregularities much better while keeping the car glued to the ground thanks to the most efficient active stabilizers I have been able to test so far, no less.
Citroën C6 vs BMW in Top Gear
I´m not a big Top Gear fan, I think it is as close as a car show can get to a celebrity gossip show, but I must admit that it is a good piece of entertainment thanks to which people occasionally talk about cars in a country where we are more concerned about our football team losing than about driving on completely bald tires.
Also, some of the tests they come up with are very ingenious, and this is a case in point. The test consisted of recording a horse race on a race track with the cameras mounted on both a C6 Citroën with hydractive suspension and on a BMW Series 5 with an electromagnetic suspension and shock absorption system. The images taken from the C6 were perfectly stable, whereas it was impossible to make out anything from the images got from the BMW cameras. Thanks to my friend Diego I was able to find the video and you can find it below, just before the photo gallery.
To sum up, the supremacy of the hydro-pneumatic suspension has lasted exactly 60 years -although to be accurate it had been introduced even earlier in some versions of the Citroën 15 CV, but only in its rear wheels and as a trial for its use in the DS- and it would continue to reign supreme if it was not for the fact that a modern driver is more easily and more cheaply enamored by an app for his or her cellphone than by an unrivaled suspension… who knows?, in five years time we may not drive anymore, we will be driven by the car, and then we would do better to watch comedy videos in youtube than to enjoy the landscape and the drive on a mountain road.