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Motornet: Picasso - The Icing On Citroen's Cake

Citroen's new ovoid Picasso raises both eyebrows and interest as an unlikely wedding companion, but proves more than skin deep in the driving department.

Once upon a time, I used to go to 21st birthday parties. Now, it would seem I only get invited to weddings. Not that I mind, but it's never simple getting to a wedding. They're never anywhere near home and getting there can take some organising.

And that’s why, one fine sunny Friday in late May, I find myself behind the wheel of a brand new Citroen Xsara Picasso on my way to Hamilton. The Picasso is not the sort of car that leaps to mind when you think 'road trip'. At the same time, it doesn’t seem an inappropriate car to be driving to a wedding. After all, people often get married so they can start a family – and there’s no doubt that it’s the family market the Picasso is aimed directly at.

Whether or not a married couple with young kids could stump up close to 37k is a moot point. From the fold out shopping bag holder (modubox!) in the boot to the drop down meal trays behind the front seats, the Picasso says 'family' with a capital F. Though classified as a mini MPV (multi purpose vehicle), the Picasso is nothing if not stylish in the looks department. It’s a lot smaller than a full sized competitor – like the Toyota Previa – but rides higher than the five door compact Xsara on which it is based.

Heading north from Wellington, I quickly adjust to the slightly unusual driving position. At first it feels a little strange. You sit much higher in the Citroen than a contemporary car, though it doesn't appear especially tall to look at. The hallmark of good design is an integrated appearance and the Picasso has this in spades. It really is an attractive looking 'bubble' car - which is more than can be said for some if its competitors.

The one significant advantage that an MPV has over its more commonplace hatchback siblings is space. The interior is cavernous and proves extremely versatile when it comes to shifting not only people but also everything from camera equipment to boxes and luggage.

Around town, the manual transmission – cleverly mounted on the centre console and at exactly the right height and reach – proved tricky to master. It's just too notchy, meaning that jerky gear changes are the order of the day unless you really concentrate. In fairness, the half an inch of accelerator travel is a contributing factor but the combination proves just a bit annoying.

As I settle in to the six-hour journey though, and as familiar landmarks begin to whiz by, I start to appreciate the many attributes of the Citroen as an open road tourer. For some reason, gear changes out on the highway are smooth and hunting through the five speed transmission is a pleasurable experience. The lower North Island's narrow roads can make for frustrating overtaking, but the high driving position provides significant extra visibility at crucial moments.

The 1800cc engine is no ball of fire, but at no time does the Picasso feel underpowered. The motor revs quite freely and produces 85kw at 5500rpm and 160Nm of torque at 4000 rpm. Not amazing figures for a car weighing 1245kg, but enough to achieve reasonable performance in this class - 0-100 in 10.8 seconds according to the manufacturer.

By Bulls, I am conscious that time is moving on and I have a deadline to meet. Throwing the fuel economy figures to the wind I concentrate on taking advantage of the increasingly empty roads. Settling in with a small group travelling at a consistent speed the Citroen performs admirably. Maintaining pace with a late model BMW coupe and Holden Commodore proves relatively effortless. Yes, the added power of these cars proves valuable in some overtaking situations, but the Citroen takes everything in its stride and is a lot less disadvantaged than you might think. During a long overtaking lane not far from Taihape, the Picasso maintains a constant uphill speed while other modern cars quickly run out of puff.

The handling of the Picasso is a revelation. I have always had a sneaking suspicion that excessive body role would ruin this type of car for any meaningful driving experience. It would seem that my fears are quite unfounded. The Picasso tracks straight and true through the apex and expresses quite neutral handling characteristics in all situations except when pushed to the limit when under steer is the name of the game. Well weighted, direct steering gets a big tick from the drivers seat.

Citroen's have always had a reputation for excellent suspension and the Picasso is no exception. The ride is sublime. Firm enough to provide reliable handling, the suspension soaks up road perfections like it was the easiest thing in the world. Vive la French!

As nightfall arrives and I make my way past the big lake and on to the consistently good Taupo to Tokoroa highway, I take stock of the cars many features. The climate air has proved both easy to use and effective while the single in-dash CD is high enough on the central console to make changing a CD on the move reasonably safe. The on-board computer tells the driver everything from how many kilometres you can travel to empty to the average speed travelled. The seats, well, they prove faultless. I remain unconvinced of the merits of the centre dash digital display though. From a design perspective I can understand it, but, call me old fashioned, I prefer a speedo - preferably analogue - to be dead ahead when driving. And the lack of a tachometer was plain annoying....But, the ABS equipped brakes work well and the presence of four front passenger airbags is reassuring.

As expected, picking up the pace has increased my fuel use significantly and I pay for it at the pump, but it was worth it. I arrive in Hamilton to smiles from the other half who didn't expect to see me for hours. Incredibly, I feel like I have just driven round the corner rather than over 400 kilometres.

The next day proves typically crazed and there is much to do before the wedding. The Citroen lives up to its MPV status as a transporter of both people and luggage as well as rescue vehicle to a groomsman who found the suit hire company had failed to include the all important white shirt.

Later, when the pressure is off, the nuptials finished and the other half finally relaxed now that little brother has safely tied the knot, the Picasso proves a talking point with many of the wedding guests. 'Yes, a Citroen' I say, 'from France' to the curious and the intrigued who ask questions of the stylish silver Picasso. As the evening progresses and the speeches are completed, the all important cutting of the cake is about to take place. I can't help but reflect on the merits of the Citroen as the happy couple take the first slice from the tiered extravaganza. There was never any question that the Picasso would prove ideal as a car for those with a family in tow, but who would have thought it would cut up the highways with quite so much panache?

It would seem that couples, married or not, can now buy a car that meets all their impending family requirements but still manages to produce a grin while mixing it up on the open road. A clear case of having your cake and eating it too, wouldn't you say?

Specifications - Citroen Xsara Picasso

Engine - Four cylinder, 1749cc, 16 valves, multipoint fuel injected motor producing 85kw (117bhp) at 5500.

Performance - 0-100 km/h: 10.8 seconds (manufacturers information)

Transmission - Five speed manual

Tyres - 185/65 R15 tyres on 15" alloy wheels

Kerb weight - 1245kg

Price - $36,990


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