Past Mas­ter

A hy­drop­neu­matic hot hatch might sound like a con­tra­dic­tion in terms but, as Alex Rob­bins finds out, it’s any­thing but

Auto Car (UK) - - THIS WEEK -

Citroën’s BX GTI 16v reap­praised

The sus­pen­sion’s give and soft­ness make the BX un­like any other hot hatch to drive

Have you heard of the Citroën BX GTI 16v? I’ve no doubt that you, as an es­teemed reader of this au­gust pub­li­ca­tion, have. Time was, nev­er­the­less, that you could ask that ques­tion even of a proud car en­thu­si­ast and be met with a blank stare, such was the ob­scu­rity to which the BX GTI 16v plunged at the nadir of its ex­ile to the bar­gain bin.

That it was even there is a pity. Num­bers were culled dras­ti­cally as the hot BX’S cheap­ness en­cour­aged many a Peu­geot 205 owner to buy one, strip the en­gine out and scrap the rest of the car. After all, tak­ing a car with a sus­pen­sion sys­tem op­ti­mised pri­mar­ily for com­fort and turn­ing it into some­thing with a propen­sity for be­ing thrown hard at cor­ners can’t re­sult in any­thing worth sav­ing. Can it?

Climb­ing aboard to­day, it’s easy to be dis­parag­ing at first. The in­te­rior is a sea of brit­tle plas­tics, and the door han­dles feel as though they’ll snap in your hands, while the driv­ing po­si­tion perches you high up in the car and places the large, heav­ily canted steer­ing wheel low over your knees. But look deeper: that wheel has a di­rect ef­fect on the front wheels, shift­ing the nose around deftly; the sus­pen­sion, while com­fort­able, is stiffer than in many hy­drop­neu­matic Citroëns; and the en­gine thrums en­cour­ag­ingly. This bodes well.

Let’s talk about that en­gine, the part of this car for which so many of them gave their lives. It’s quite a thing. Shared with Peu­geot’s 405 Mi16, it kicks out 158bhp, right up at 6500rpm – 500rpm short of the red line. If that sounds rem­i­nis­cent of a Honda VTEC en­gine, so it goes in the flesh; in fact, there’s a sim­i­lar sense of a switch as the car comes on cam around the 4500rpm mark. The en­gine note gains a flintier edge, singing its way up to the red line, charg­ing ever harder and urg­ing you to wring its neck. The sound and the speed are lit­tle short of elec­tri­fy­ing.

But how can a car with Citroën’s roly-poly sus­pen­sion sys­tem cope with such a rorty pow­er­plant? Bet­ter than you’d think – miles bet­ter. In fact, the sus­pen­sion’s give and soft­ness make the BX GTI 16v quite un­like any other hot hatch to drive. Sure, there is a bit of lean in cor­ners, and un­der heavy brak­ing the tail rises de­spite the front end’s anti-dive prop­er­ties, but the ex­tra squidge ab­sorbs mid-cor­ner bumps, mak­ing the BX GTI 16v re­sis­tant to de­flec­tion.

To­gether with the quick, pre­cise steer­ing and free-shift­ing gear­box, it makes the BX GTI 16v flow from cor­ner to cor­ner, its strong brakes scrub­bing off just the right amount of speed each time, and that mag­nif­i­cent en­gine haul­ing you out with just a whiff of slip from the in­side wheel. The car dances on its toes – light, nim­ble and pre­cise, but al­ways with the back­drop of that mus­cu­lar, rev-happy pow­er­plant.

With dy­nam­ics like these, it’s a car that de­serves far more recog­ni­tion than it once had. For­tu­nately, that’s the case to­day, with BX GTI 16v prices on the rise. Find­ing one isn’t easy thanks to their paucity; own­ing one re­quires fre­quent fet­tling, as is of­ten the case with older French cars – though it should be noted that the BX is gen­er­ally eas­ier to keep in good or­der than some other Citroëns.

Do all this, though, and the re­wards are great: a 1980s hot hatch not yet caught in the cur­rent mael­strom of mad prices; what’s more, one of the more un­usual, and one that’s as ex­cit­ing as they come.

BX glides from one cor­ner to the next

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