Reviewed: The Citroen Xsara Picasso Camper Conversion
I saw three people walking their dogs in the park last week; there was a sturdy man with a labrador, a young lady with a Jack Russell and a mum with a sausage dog and a pushchair. It struck me how similar dogs and cars can be.
I bought a Citroen Xsara Picasso to convert into a campervan. It has probably never won any of those car industry awards. Words like sporty, hot hatchback, sexy, and muscle car, have probably never before occurred in the same sentence as Citroen Xsara Picasso.
Let’s face it: It’s a mum car. It’s a car for a busy mum to pile half a nurseryload of kids into, while they scream, fight with each other, eat things they really shouldn’t and generally spread their sticky contagion onto everything they touch. And some things they don’t.
The Citroen Xsara Picasso is not associated with adventure, excitement, road trips (except to see Nanna), or campervan conversions. Historically, that life prospect has always gone to the rather more upmarket middle class MPV people carriers – the seven seater Ford Galaxy, Seat Alhambra, and Volkswagen Sharan trinity, as well as the Delica, Previa, Lucida and Emina. As one step down from the stunningly expensive “VW Anything with the letter T in the name,” the adventure potential of seven seaters first became a phenomenon in Australia and New Zealand, where car camping is quite common and popular, and has since spread to Europe, as people carriers have now been around long enough to occupy a more reasonable price point than, say, ten years ago.
After much serious consideration of all the vehicles listed in the previous paragraph, and one that wasn’t (the Mazda Bongo/Ford Freda badge bouncer), I decided the ones within my price range were all crap, old, probably dangerous, possibly ex-taxis (due to the extreme mileage) and definitely not worth a second glance. I halved my budget and bought a Citroen Xsara Picasso for £695. Now all of my friends laugh at me when I visit them. But that’s fine because I’ve got an awesome car campervan and they don’t. They all wonder why I sold my VW Golf. They just don’t understand the economics of the shit car, a minefield I’m far more comfortable with than all that car finance nonsense that I had with the Golf.
The pedals and driving position are more like driving a Transit van than any car I’ve ever driven, this is added to by the gear stick and handbrake placing. The engine sounds van-like when you start it as well. The acceleration is poorer than the VW Golf, but if you over-rev and pull off the clutch quickly you can still outrun most things at the traffic lights. The clutch’s bite is quite high and it corners like a drunk sailor – I’ve never had to take a corner so slowly in any car ever. The top speed (as tested on the German Autobahn where there’s no upper limit) was 148kph (approximately 92 mph – I converted the speedo so I didn’t get any speeding tickets whilst abroad), after that, the vehicle starts to feel very out of control and I got the distinct impression that the metal panels would bend out of shape and parts might start flying off if I went any faster. Aside from that, the noise from the engine got ridiculously loud, which is usually a bad sign, so I slowed it down. A good motorway cruising speed in Europe was 126kph (78mph), and the car seemed to like to sit at this speed, so it’s certainly twice the acceleration and speed than most of the campervans I get stuck behind on the roads in the Peak District National Park when I go home to see my aunts. I would have preferred to take my VW Golf, whose statistical top speed was 136mph (about 250kph), as I’ve always wanted to go to the Nurburgring but there was no point in the Citroen Xsara Picasso. However, I sacrificed mechanical perfection for accommodation space which I still believe is a bit of a priority in a campervan. It’s just a shame that with all our motor vehicle technology, it still has to be a trade off.
I only put the simplest conversions in when we went to Europe – there was blackout blinds for the windows and a bed. No storage, no bathroom facilities and no kitchen.
I did the windows with silver insulating bubble wrap, which is £7.99 from Homebase or more expensive from other DIY places. I basically cut out the shape of each window and attached the window shades using gaffer tape. I’d bought velcro to do them better but didn’t get a chance to put it in before we left. The pros of this method was that it was cheap, easy, and the silver reflected the sun. The cons were that the gaffer tape made one or other shade fall off a window every night due to condensation, and the shades stopped adequate ventilation even when the windows were open. Since we returned from Europe, I’ve put real curtains into the ‘van instead.
I bought a cheap memory foam mattress topper from Ebay for £17.99 to put in the back to sleep on. It was cheaper and comfier than getting a bunch of roll mats, and was cheaper than a double air bed (and more convenient). My partner is 6 foot 2 inches so it certainly has sleeping leg room. I liked how cosy it was, but it did mean we had no storage, something I’m working on before I go to Morocco. I would say one of these mattresses on a wooden bed frame with underbed storage is the best plan.
We stored all our stuff by moving it onto the front seats at night. I’m still amazed that we didn’t get robbed since we usually camped in motorway service stations or the occasional German Parkplatz. Some of our stuff stayed in the back footwells, and towards the end of the trip it was hard to stretch out to sleep because we’d acquired stuff on our journey and storage was woefully inadequate. I’ve bought some shoe holders that I’m going to cut up to make back-of-seat storage for smaller items, and combining this with a storage-friendly bed frame will make our camper more suited for longer travel trips.
As an additional bonus, after being told by one garage that it was almost a write-off, allegedly needing more repairs than the sum of its car parts, our Citroen Xsara Picasso car camper recently passed its MoT (road safety test) which means it’s going to be able to go on exciting adventures for another entire year!! The moral of the story? Cheap cars are great. And never trust the first opinion if they tell you it’s going to cost over £1000 to fix your car. It actually cost us £250, which is less than we could buy another old banger for. Yay for campervan bangernomics!
Since passing its MoT, we took it to the Lake District to Scafell Pike to see whether it was also going to be any good as a day van for outdoor activities. With two rear seats removed, there was plenty of room for all our waterproofs, crampons, walking boots and gaiters to dry out while we drove home, and the rear hatchback style boot door was perfect to shelter us from the torrential rain as we undressed out of our outer layers when we got back from our abortive mountaineering. After giving up on Scafell Pike (the footpath was washed away, heavy mist was closing in on us, the map got wet through and disintegrated, the GPS signal was lost, and it was too rainy for me to get my phone out to take pictures) and turning around when we were halfway up, the Picasso gave us a nice space to warm up, dry out, and find a route to somewhere that served decent and cheap food, then it gently propelled us home again.
As a side note, despite what all those “respect the mountain” websites say, you don’t need crampons and an ice axe to tackle Scafell Pike in February, you need galoshes or a snorkel and wetsuit.
If we’d done all that in a normal car, it would have still been drying out a week later, but the Citroen Xsara Picasso has enough room inside that it takes a lot of water to make it get damp, and when it does, it dries out easily if you drive round with the windows open. Even after an overnight sleep with two adults in the back it is relatively easy to de-mist, and the damp never seems to linger, unlike in my VW Golf, where the seatbelt used to get mouldy from the damp – and we only ever slept in it the once.
Remember those dogs I was talking about in the first paragraph? Our car was the mechanical equivalent of a sausage dog – smaller, easier to park but with wider cornering and less living space than a real campervan, and without the yappy bite or the hardcore acceleration of a higher performance car. But it did the job and it was cheap, and now we know what to work on before we go away again, and just how simple a campervan trip can be. Certainly if you only want a weekender, the Citroen Xsara Picasso is underrated and has a lot of potential, and I’d choose it over a tent in a heartbeat. The only thing I’d change? The annoying internal lights. And a working CD player. But we bought a boom box to workaround that.