Automotive history

BMW’s XM wasn’t the first – or the most extraordinary

by Nik Berg
2 December 2021 2 min read
BMW’s XM wasn’t the first – or the most extraordinary
Photos: Citroën

BMW’s latest 750 horsepower concept SUV is not the first quirky car to wear the XM badge. That honour goes to Citroën’s 1989, Bertone-designed hatchback and estate.

Frankly, it was no less avantgarde than the BMW at the time it appeared. Replacing the sleek CX and continuing a line of luxurious gallic barges that began with the DS, its sharp angles were a marked contrast to the softer styling of its forebears.

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Tiny headlights and a chiselled snout gave the XM a small frontal area to aid aerodynamic performance, while the cabin was bathed in natural light thanks to a rather unnecessary arrangement of no less than 13 windows.

Inside, the XM was actually quite conventional by Citröen standards. Gone were the peculiar floating-and-rotating drum speedometer and tachometer, replaced by regular dials, and the one-piece dashboard was simply modern rather than crazily futuristic.

Citroen XM interior

At least it still had a single-spoke steering wheel (complete with buttons, though an airbagged four-spoker was introduced at the car’s mid-life facelift), and the seats were suitably soft and over-cushioned to complement that legendary ride comfort.

The XM, of course, continued to use Citröen’s hydro-pneumatic suspension system, with its combination of pressurised nitrogen gas spheres and liquid hydraulique minérale in the dampers. For the XM the system was christened Hydractive and used a computer to control the suspension firmness for the first time. With sensors detecting wheel speed, accelerator position, braking effort, body movement and steering wheel angle the ECU was able to adjust the suspension in as little as 0.05 seconds.

A stiffer Sport mode was also available at the press of a button, but most drivers would prefer the combination of a wafty ride over bumps in the regular mode that would still tighten things up in the bendy bits. The result was so effective that Autocar called the XM “the best riding car in the world” and it was voted European Car of the Year in 1990.

The XM certainly didn’t win accolades for its powertrain, with the relatively frugal but clattery 2.1-litre diesel being popular but lethargic, and the 2-litre turbo Constant Torque petrol unit never quite living up to its moniker. The best of the bunch was the 3-litre V6, which was smooth, if not especially swift, but suited the XM’s nature. The five-speed manual transmission was a rather rubbery affair, so the automatic was the choice for the most relaxed drive.

Citroën made almost 334,000 XMs before production ended in 2000 – a far greater achievement than its own successor, the similarly elegant C6, which sold fewer than a tenth as many. But even in its home country the XM is a rare sight today, the cars often falling foul of rust as time makes fools of its galvanised panels, or suffering from electrical gremlins.

The truth is it also failed to quite capture the hearts of car enthusiasts in the way that the DS and CX did. Perhaps buyers had changed by the late 1980s, or perhaps the sharp-snouted and curiously-detailed Bertone styling was a stretch too far. Is that an aesthetic lesson BMW will learn the hard way with its own XM? Time will tell.

Via Hagerty US

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