Citroen SM Driving, Engines & Performance | Top Gear
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BBC TopGear
Car Review

Citroen SM

910
Published: 16 Apr 2021
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Driving

What is it like to drive?

It’s an utter delight to drive. Once you’ve got the first 30-40 miles under your belt. In that initial period be prepared to make an arse of yourself as the nose swings left-and right like a sniffer dog at a drug convention and the brakes slam your nose into the steering wheel. The SM needs a delicate hand.

There’s a reason for this. In order to reduce driver effort, Citroen fitted a very early version of speed-sensitive steering. It’s clever, and not just for 50 years ago. Hydraulic pressure is adjusted depending on speed by a cam on the steering. The rack is very direct – just two turns between locks – and with no caster angle on the front wheels, they don’t tilt as you swing into corners, so the contact patch remains consistent.

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Often car firms hedge their bets, want to do something radical and then tone it down because they worry people won’t get on with it. Make no mistake, the SM’s steering takes some getting used to, but then you really gel with it because it suits the car so well. It needs no more than a couple of finger tips and about 10 degrees of lock at any speed, for any corner. Super-light at low speed, super-stable at high speed, super-sharp around corners. No feel, but also no kickback. Vicious self-centring to catch out the unwary. But once you get used to it you wonder why no-one else adopted it.

The brakes are more challenging. Hydraulic and super-sensitive, brake pressure adjusts according to weight in the back of the car, so it lowers evenly as it slows. That’s a weird feeling, the SM sort of squatting as it slows rather than diving, rather like gently applying the handbrake. For some reason it reminds me of a swan landing on water. More concerningly the round button pedal operates like a literal full stop in the footwell – it takes a fair few miles before you realise you have to wake the brakes up slowly, apply a bit of pressure and then gradually feed in more to bring it to a smooth stop. Use them as you would normal brakes, expecting a bit of dead travel at the top and you and your passengers will be indulging in some Wayne’s World head-banging.

Having modified your driving style to be smoother, gentler, you’re now ready to experience the SM in all its glory. The 2.7-litre V6 isn’t some raspy, peaky six, but more akin to a straight six in its whirring smoothness, refinement and torque. The gearbox is a five-speed manual, but check out the open gate, the click-slick action of the metal lever rotating a metal barrel mechanism. You calmly guide the lever around, allow the engine to pull decisively from 2,500 to 4,500rpm and then calmly change up. It’s swift enough (0-60mph in 8.5secs back in the day was ahead of a Merc SLC450's 9.5secs and not far behind a BMW 3.0CS's 7.9secs), but not at all urgent or hurried. Instead it spools gracefully up to cruising speed and then effortlessly rolls along, gliding above the road surface.

Viewed from outside it looks remarkably like a hovercraft. Felt from inside it’s broadly the same. It does the most fabulous job of separating you from the road surface, chiefly by delivering this wonderfully languid ride. Languid. If there’s one key word to take away from the whole SM experience, it’s that.

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It’s not so much a magic carpet as a waterbed. But with the ripples damped out. It is a honey to drive, so graceful in its movements, a car you relax into. Hilarious around corners, where it tips and rolls and would far rather not be hurried, but you don’t because that’s not the sense you get from it. Instead get a crooner singing tunes, rest a couple of fingers on the single-spoke wheel, ease back in the seat, get on an autoroute and get gliding. This is GT motoring at its finest. And it is fabulous.

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