Review and road test of the Citroen Saxo (1996 - 2003)
SENSIBLE & SAXY
BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Citroen decided to take a more conservative route in designing the Saxo - as indeed they were forced to do, given that the car had to be based largely on Peugeot's 106. For British buyers, the Saxo emerged as probably the better bet.
It shared all the little Peugeot supermini's virtues - fine handling, good performance and strong packaging - but was generally better equipped. The same holds true on the used market. Here, the Saxo is a far more reliable bet than its AX predecessor.
(1.1i 3&5dr [LX,X,SX] / 1.4i 3&5dr [SX,VSX] / 1.6i 3&5dr [SX,VSX,VTR,VTS] / 1.5D 3&5dr [DX,DSX,DVSX])
When Citroen launches a car, Europe sits up and takes notice. Models like the 2CV, the CX and the more recent Xantia have now passed into motoring folklore. Individualism has become a Citroen trademark. But not in the case of the Saxo.
For internal reasons, the designers were forced to base it on its sister supermini in the PSA group, Peugeot's 106. Conservatism was the order of the day. The Saxo's predecessor was of course the lovable AX. The car that drove along the Great Wall of China. The car so chic that it even had a bottle-holder designed for your Perrier. It was young in heart, spirit and clientele.
The Saxo, in contrast, has attended finishing school - and it shows. Where the AX was flimsy, it feels solid. Where the AX was utilitarian, the Saxo feels plush. Where the AX was poorly equipped, the Saxo can now offer almost everything you could want.
The car was originally launched in May 1996 in three-door form in 1.1i (LX and SX) and 1.4i (SX and VSX) versions. In October 1996, the five-door models were introduced, as was a 90bhp 1.6-litre automatic. The 1.5-litre normally aspirated diesel variants also made their debuts and former LX models were rebadged 'X'.
In January 1997, the two hot hatch Saxos were introduced - the 90bhp VTR and the 120bhp VTS. A year later in January 1998, the range got its first facelift, with a new grille, clear indicators, revised rear lights ad a key transponder immobiliser to replace the previous keypad system. Flagship 'exclusive' models replaced the old 'VSX' variants. A second facelift followed in October 1999, again with a new grille, bonnet and front wings plus some detail trim and equipment changes. Automatic transmission was now optional only with the 75bhp 1.4-litre engine. In Spring 2000, an entry-level 1.0-litre FIRST model was added to the foot of the range, while the trim designations were revised to go from FIRST, through Forte and Desire to VTR and VTS. Later that year, the 1.0-litre engine where used was replaced with the 1.1-litre unit. Early in 2001, the VTR got an uprated 98bhp engine. The C2 replaced the Saxo in 2003.
What You Get
From a practical perspective, whether you choose three or five doors, it has to be said that rear seat passenger space, though adequate, isn't the best in the class. Citroen intentionally traded it for boot space, maintaining (with some validity) that superminis rarely carry more than two people. So it is that the Saxo's boot capacity is substantially larger than rivals, with a generous 9.9 cubic feet - the Fiesta has 8.8 and the VW Polo only 8.6.
Any Citrophile will feel at home behind the wheel, for the switchgear comes straight from Xsara and Xantia models of similar age. Everything falls pretty easily to hand, though the wheel isn't adjustable and the electric window switches are rather fiddly to find. At least Citroen's ridiculous keypad immobiliser was replaced by a transponder built into the ignition key.
It's also pretty safe, with substantial crush safety zones and side impact protection that, until the Saxo's time, you simply wouldn't have found on such a small car. Pre-tensioned seatbelts and a driver's airbag are also included. That stiff bodyshell has also produced impressive levels of refinement, enabling the Saxo to be one of those small cars you could conceivably live with on a long journey.
What to Look For
Poor panel fit, notchy gear selection in second, ex-driving school cars, rattly trim, poor RDS radio functions, thrashed VTR and VTS models and engine clatters signifying a hard life. The 1.6-litre unit has been known to suffer poor throttle response and engine management problems.
(based on a 1996 1.4SX approx excl VAT) A clutch assembly is around £240. Front brake pads are around £70, a full exhaust about £190, a catalyst about £270 and an alternator around £230. A headlamp lens is about £70.
On the Road
Fun to drive. Just like a Peugeot 106.
The Saxo may not have been as interesting a Citroen as the purists would have liked, but the simple mechanicals and reliability make it a lot more interesting to the used car buyer. As a Peugeot 106 with more equipment for no more money, it makes a lot of sense.
Citroen Saxo (1996 - 2003) review by JONATHAN CROUCH