BY JONATHAN CROUCH
On the lookout for a Supermini bargain? Then it's hard to better Citroen's little AX. Now replaced by the bigger Saxo, it makes plenty of sense for the small car buyer, particularly as there are plenty around - at tempting prices.
Models Covered: FIRST GENERATION AX - 1987-1991: (1.0 3 & 5DR HATCHBACK [E] / 1.1 3 & 5DR HATCHBACK [RE, TGE, TRE, TRS, TZX] / 1.4 3 & 5DR HATCHBACK [TRS, GT, TZS, TZX] / 1.4 DIESEL 3 & 5DR HATCHBACK [RD, TGD, DTR]) Second generation AX - 1991-1997: (1.0 3 & 5dr Hatchback [Debut] / 1.1 3 & 5dr Hatchback [Echo, Echo Plus, Forte, TZX II] / 1.4 3 & 5dr Hatchback [GT II, Forte, GTi, TZX II] / 1.4 Diesel 3 & 5dr Hatchback [Echo, Echo Plus, TZD] / 1.5 Diesel 3 & 5dr Hatchback [Debut, Echo Plus])
The AX was arguably Citroen's first serious Supermini and was launched in 1987 with attendant hype, which included a trip along the Great Wall of China. Though under the skin, many parts were shared with Peugeot - including all the engines - the car managed to quickly develop its own unique Parisian personality, dispelling the myth that budget cars had to be boring. The model range has included 1.0-litre, 1.1 and 1.4-litre petrol engines as well as a 1.4-litre diesel (upgraded to 1.5-litres in May 1994). Of these, the diesels were particularly popular, mainly because independent tests consistently found them to be the most economical small cars it was possible to buy. The budget 'hot hatch' GT models were - and are - also in demand, with the best made between 1991 and 1992, incorporating the facelift improvements. Rest to sixty in these non-catalysed cars takes just 9.2 seconds on the way to 108mph. Yet insurance is rated at an affordable group 9. Later warmed-up variants (known as 'Fortes') gained catalytic converters but lost power as a result. The ultimate AX was the 100bhp fuel injected GTi, produced between 1991 and 1994. It sold poorly, however and suffered under group 11 insurance, so used examples are rare.
What You Get
A little car that's miserly at the pumps, but a whole lot of fun out on the open road. That suspension isn't as complicated as larger Citroens but it still irons out bumps with the composure of much larger cars. And because an AX tends to be lighter than comparable Superminis (and feels it), the car tends to feel a lot more responsive than the engine output would suggest. The 1991 facelift brought better brakes, a more modern dashboard and subtle bodywork changes. There's also improved sound insulation, which was welcomed by most buyers. You'll probably recognise these cars by their clear front indicator lenses. Unfortunately, those clever Perrier bottle holders in the doors found in the original design went west with the spruce-up.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Check for minor dents and signs of kerbing on the wheeltrims. Galvanised panels mean that rust shouldn't be too much of a problem, so any that you do find probably points to accident damage. Interior trim quality is far from the highest and should be checked for damage.
(approx based on a 1990 AX 1.0 excl VAT) An exhaust system is about £140. A clutch assembly will be around £100 and an alternator should be close to £100 (exchange). A radiator is around £100, a starter motor about £100 and a front headlamp around £85. Front and rear brake pads will cost you something like £45 each
On the Road
All the engines on offer feel perky - including the diesels. Later models got Peugeot's 1.5-litre normally aspirated diesel (there was never a turbo version), which felt faster than 5bhp and 6.5lbft power and torque increases would suggest. The straight figures reveal that it`s capable of topping 98mph and making sixty from rest in 12.7 seconds. On the road where it counts, the AX in this form is actually a serious middle-lane hustler, with overtaking requiring less forward planning than most rivals. So much so in fact, that if you're a sporty driver and can't afford to insure the GT and GTi models, you don't need to feel too hard done by. Later models, as I've suggested, were certainly quieter, a fact you can put down to either a more refined engine or better sound deadening; Citroen won't care which. Criticisms are limited to a touch of nose heaviness - the steering loads up quickly when you're cornering hard. Few potential owners are likely to drive in this fashion, however. You'll be more interested in the fuel economy of course, which Citroen claims is up to 78.5mpg in diesel variants. Most owners are more likely to achieve just over 60mpg in day-to-day use - but that's still pretty creditable.
The AX makes plenty of sense as a first car or an extra family runabout. There's little to go wrong and lots of fun to be had if you enjoy your driving. Just don't expect post millennium style refinement or trim quality. Still, "Vive la difference".