Fifty years ago Citroen blew the motor industry away with the DS.
Not only did the DS look spectacular, it also had a unique all-independent suspension operated by hydraulics. The press said the car was decades ahead of every other vehicle but not everyone liked the complicated mechanicals and the possibilities of costly maintenance.
Although the advanced body shape was often attributed to Italian coachbuilder Bertone, the DS was styled in-house by Flaminio Bertoni. Given the similarity of the names, the mistake was understandable.
When Citroen launched the $US4000 DS sedan in North America they compared it to a $US19,000 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow because it shared the same hydro-pneumatic suspension system.
These days it's much more difficult for a new car to make a big splash. The public is blase about the multitude of new models in dealers' showrooms.
Even so, Citroen is still trying to make a point of difference with the C1, C2 and C4.
Whether this applies to the somewhat staid looking C5 is moot. The C5's 2005 upgrade/facelift has added sparkle, but it's still not a striking Citroen in the DS mould.
The C5 has been around since 2001 and its nondescript styling was certainly due this year's ovehaul changes. There are longer front and rear overhangs and a fresh look with the boomerang head and taillights and the new Chevron corporate grille.
Citroen was also anxious to lift quality after the original C5 didn't score well in customer satisfaction and reliability surveys.
There were instances of clutch failures on diesels, rear suspension misdemeanours, alloy wheel corrosion and electrical glitches.
Yet the much-vaunted hydro-pneumatic suspension has apparently not been a troublesome issue - and it's certainly one of the model's best features.
The C5 is built on the same floorpan as the Peugeot 407 but, predated the Peugeot by three years.
With the facelifted C5 has come an increase in New Zealand sales. They're up a healthy 34 per cent in year to date statistics, although the increase is coming from a modest base.
The C5 struggles to match the 407's market status, with the sharper looking Peugeot outselling it locally by six to one. Still, the two cars are comparable, even if the prospect of identical specifications is elusive.
Though the 2.0-litre HDi diesel C5 is available with a six-speed manual gearbox, Peugeot only imports the 407 with the same engine with a four-stage auto.
And if you want a C5 diesel auto, you have to take the older 2.2-litre HDi that actually turns out less power and torque than the 2.0-litre. Call it French quirkiness.
Citroen offers seven C5 versions in New Zealand, three of which are diesels.
The entry-level 2.0-litre petrol SX costs $42,990 and, at the other end of the scale, the 3.0-litre V6 petrol Exclusive Estate station wagon auto is $62,990.
Our test 2.0-litre diesel SX saloon is $46,990 and includes seven airbags, ABS, ESP, air, alloys and cruise control. If you're into economy, there are compelling reasons for choosing the diesel.
The 2.0-litre HDi engine in the C5 produces 100kW of power at a modest 4000 revs and a whacking 320Nm of torque at 2000rpm.
Combine that with the manual gearbox and the results are stunning. Trickle the Citroen along in high gears and there's nary a murmur or protest from the four-cylinder engine.
With gearing this high, thrifty motoring is a dead cert. At 100km/h in fifth the diesel is pulling around 2250rpm, or just over peak torque.
Yet it has another gear to go, chopping the revs back to 1875rpm at 100km/h.
A lengthy average run that included more than usual town running produced 7.1 litres/100km (40mpg) but most drivers will struggle to do worse than this, and many will do better.
On the open road, the miserly C5 returned a champion 4.8 litres/100km (58.8mpg) that equates to more than 1300 kilometres on the 66-litre tank.
Putting the 407 HDi auto over a similar route resulted in eight per cent higher fuel consumption or about the differential expected.
The Citroen diesel comes with a particulate filter (FAP) that won't be seen on Peugeots in New Zealand until 2006. Despite its relatively modest engine capacity, the Camry-sized C5 HDi reaches 100km/h in just under 10 seconds and has an impressive 205km/h top speed.
In mid-range driving, the engine is responsive and flexible but performance is more relaxed than rapid.
A cornerstone of the car's ability is the superb Hydractive 3 suspension with automatic ride height adjustment. The smooth-riding and compliant suspension that works a treat on poorly surfaced roads is a legitimate reason for considering the C5.
Unlike the 407 that uses steel springs, the Citroen auto-adaptive suspension involves hydraulics. There are MacPherson struts at the front and independent trailing arms at the rear.
A near major carpet ride is the end benefit from the car's hydro electronic interface (BHI) which adjusts the suspension's spring rate and damping.
The system uses several electronic sensors to continually monitor the state of the road while analysing braking, steering and acceleration.
Ride height varies according to the speed and condition of the road. It reduces by up to 15mm in front and 11mm at the rear, improving fuel economy while enhancing stability.
The suspension isn't perfect and some large bumps feed rather abruptly into the cabin. Pumping the C5 briskly into a corner will induce understeer and the steering needs familiarisation.
BHI constantly regulates and monitors the pressure of the hydraulic system and controls the suspension. Citroen reckons the suspension needs no maintenance for 200,000km or five years.
Add brilliant seats, soft touch controls, a useful on-board computer, good noise suppression from the diesel engine and a five star rating in the Euro NCAP safety tests, and the C5 begins to look highly attractive.
The cab forward design provides excellent headroom but though front occupants enjoy plenty of legroom, accommodation in the back isn't quite so commodious. Two will travel in more comfort in the back than three.
This is an innovative car, though not as idiosyncratic as many Citroens of old. Still, the C5 gives a real sense of making a statement and keeping away from the norm.
Just around the corner is the new and larger luxury C6 express with its superb flowing profile, windows that hug the curve of the roof, frameless doors and concave rear window.
With its active suspension and electronically variable damping, the C6 is integral to Citroen's creative renewal and will be additional to the range. Until its arrival, however, the C5 carries the French marque's executive flag.
Review by Donn Anderson