Why I’m Not Converting Another Citroen Xsara Picasso into a Car Camper

I really loved my Citroen Xsara Picasso as a campervan, especially because you can pretty much do anything to kit it out, and not worry about wrecking it. In December, the famously unreliable French mechanical engineering let me down when the Picasso’s gearbox and engine broke so I had to give it to the scrap merchant for £20, and I bought a Rover 75 because it was cheap. Some plans I’d had for this summer for the Picasso were to put vents in the sides (by drilling holes in the non-petrol side) and to fix the storage situation.

I want to talk today about why I did my car camper conversion the way I did it, why I will probably not buy another Citroen Xsara Picasso to camperify (it was great for what I wanted but it does have a lot of limitations) and I also want to go through some of the considerations you need to think about whilst planning your camper conversion.

When I bought the Citroen Xsara Picasso to convert back in 2014, nobody had done such a thing before and the only mentions of it on the internet were people joking about what a stupid idea it was. I feel proud that I started something that (it turns out) so many people are interested in doing, and I am glad that my posts about how I converted the Citroen Xsara Picasso and my review of the Picasso are helping other people achieve their dream of having a car camper. This did mean though that when I did mine, there was absolutely no information specific to the Citroen Xsara Picasso to give me any idea about how to go about converting it. I took inspiration and ideas mainly from Toyota Previa Delica Lucida conversions, obviously the Citroen Xsara Picasso is much smaller and there’s a limit on how much space 2 human beings (6’2″ and 5’6″ respectively) need. If you are 5’4″ or under, you can convert a Citroen Xsara Picasso and have acres of space because your clothes, shoes, sleeping area etc all take up less space. Even in the most practical Previa Delica Lucida conversion that I’d admired and used as guidance, the tallest occupant was 5’8″, so perhaps car camper conversion is a sport more suited to shortarses rather than longshanks.  We had great times in it, although in hindsight I think we would have had a better shot at a more complex conversion in a Previa Delica Lucida (a Toyota’s a Toyota).

The main stumbling block I came up against (I did everything myself) was we were just too tall for this vehicle to be our ideal camper conversion. Yes, you can fill the back of a Citroen Xsara Picasso with a wooden framed bed, a nice coloured fitted “kitchen” unit etc, but you won’t actually have enough headroom to use this stuff because human beings bend at the middle to sit up. I measured us. I need 83cm to be able to sit up in a vehicle, and my husband needed 91cm. Since my husband is 6 foot 2 inches tall, we needed that length to sleep in, so the Picasso was not long enough for us to add a kitchen unit at the back (so you can cook with the boot open) either. From a ventilation and safety point of view, there was absolutely no point in fitting a kitchen but again if you’re short or single you won’t have this problem, you can kitchen away.

Add to that, when you’re not actually camping (which is most of the time, unless you’re retired, in which case you probably aren’t going to convert a Picasso when you could drive one of those hulking great motorhomes at 20 miles an hour around the Derbyshire Dales), having a kitchen unit in a Picasso is generally stupid for most people. It adds weight and stops you from a) carrying people in your people carrier when you want to and b) using it as a van to transport large items.

The main thing I really loved about the Picasso was its sheer versatility. There was the time I gave a ride to three people with a sick cat they found on the street, who needed to get it to a vet’s across town. There was the time when my dad died 400 miles away and, because his sister has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and thought it was all about her, I had to clear his flat in the dark on a Bank Holiday (when all the van rental places were shut), and if I hadn’t had the Citroen Xsara Picasso I would not have been able to save my antique 1920s wardrobe (four foot wide, six foot long, two foot six inches deep) from my bedroom, the only thing my dad ever bought me; it would have been taken to landfill by the council instead (crammed it in on its side, filled it with mementos, photos etc that we salvaged). There were the (countless) times I needed to take garden waste to the tip, the time my husband decided to take 500 bricks off someone’s hands (thanks Freecycle), all the large pieces of wood we transported home for furniture projects, that all made the ability to have a completely empty loading area an absolute essential. To put it into perspective, last week we bought some new fence panels and had to walk home with them because the Rover 75 blatantly couldn’t fit them inside or on top. If we’d still had the Picasso, we could have either attached them to the roof with rope through the windows (put a big towel on your roof, nothing gets scratched) or crammed them into the back to get them home. If we’d put fixed furniture in the Picasso, its storage space and passenger capacity would have been more limited.

I’d like to add something about effort vs benefit because a lot of people lose sight of this when they’re spending 6 months to a year converting a vehicle (during which time they don’t go anywhere on holiday in it). Allowing for the possibility that there are people in the world small enough to fit in the vehicle afterwards, it still takes a lot of effort to build a bed/storage unit and a kitchen/storage unit because you have to custom size it all to the vehicle and it has to be safely attached somehow so you don’t kill everyone in the vehicle in a crash.  Unless you very specifically want that exact vehicle for many years to come, you are putting a lot of work into making custom camper furniture for a car that you probably won’t be cooking in very often, or storing camping equipment in, compared to the number of times you will drive it to work (in our case we had it for 15 months, August 2014 to November 2015, and used it for four different long-distance holidays, where we slept in it for more than two nights apiece. We would have used it for more trips but I was a bit preoccupied with my parents both dying last year). I decided that since we bought the Picasso as an experiment in the fusion between Bangernomics and Campernomics, and that it was only going to run to its next MOT, there was no point in going to that much expense, effort, and time, to do something to a vehicle that was going to be scrapped in a year. I did want to work out how to put air vents into it before I scrapped it, but I was very ill at the time, in and out of hospital, so that never happened (2015 was a shit year. But I did buy the plastic air vents from Homebase and find out how to do it, although there’s no schematics to confirm that I wouldn’t have drilled through a wire or something). I also wanted to put a roof rack on top, but when I tried to get one fitted on the day I had to clear my dad’s flat, Halfords kept me waiting for ages then said it was too late in the day and that I should come back tomorrow. The store was empty of customers the whole time. I got let down at a time when something terrible was happening, so I didn’t bother going back. I’ll spend my money elsewhere thanks.

Other important considerations are a) the law b) visibility c) weight distribution/fuel consumption and d) access to and from doors.
a) I have talked about international window tinting laws for driving around the world previously. They haven’t changed, and they do also apply to any obstructions to visibility. I drove my car camper to Rome and this year I’m going to drive (whatever vehicle I end up with by July) to Spain. For me, putting anything in the back of the Picasso that would affect visibility is a hard “no.” Additionally, there’s no point making a camper that sleeps more people than it seats with a seat belt. Where are these extra people going to come from? How are you all going to breathe?

b) Visibility. The positioning of those front driver pillars (and the fact that there’s two of them) is really stupid. The car looks lovely from the outside but from the inside? Really hard to see where you’re going. In the blazing sun in Italy, the reflection from the top of the dashboard made it virtually impossible to see out of the front window. The heat was over 40 degrees celsius and my car’s fans were blowing even hotter than the ambient air because my car was a scrapper. If I hadn’t been able to see clearly out of my back and side windows, I would have had an accident. That means the only place to put a fixed kitchen/storage unit would have been behind the driver’s seat (where I can’t see anyway) and it would have had to come no higher than the window for aforementioned legal reasons.

c)The petrol tank is on the driver’s side, then it goes under the vehicle on that same side. It takes 40 litres. If there’s a fixed heavy piece of furniture behind the driver, that’s another 10-30 kilograms of weight on the same side. An uneven load distribution, being driven around in the same place all the time, in addition to anyone or anything else you put in the car, is going to affect the car mechanically.

d) I wanted all the doors to be openable and to permit access to the vehicle. This meant I wasn’t limited about how/where I parked and there were two examples of this being invaluable: firstly, when I couldn’t stop vomiting on my first day in the Highlands in August 2015, I was *really* glad of this because I could just open the door, do my vomiting, close the door, without having to disturb my husband who was trying to get to sleep. Secondly, when we came across an unexpected nudist beach in Belgium, we were able to park the car and change into swimwear whilst avoiding getting our shoes in the back of the car by opening the door behind the driver seat.

Another thing to be aware of is cabin fever, especially on a long trip to Europe or further afield. You will want to be able to go to sleep with more than two inches between yourself and the person next to you.

I think when looking at converting a Citroen Xsara Picasso, or any other smaller vehicle, into a campervan, it’s important to keep perspective of the best possible function and use of the vehicle, rather than being able to go “ooh ooh look at me it looks like a real caravan inside I designed it to be popular on PINTEREST” (seriously, why do people do this) whilst compromising on the most important things in any vehicle you sleep in – bed length and comfort, privacy and safe air flow.

Things I didn’t like about the Citroen Xsara Picasso:
1. There’s nowhere to put a freaking drink on the driver’s side, and seemingly nowhere to attach a place to put a drink because every surface is curvy and “futuristic” (from the Picasso’s design vision in the late ’90s).

2. Ours was petrol. I liked the 1.6 litre engine, but I disliked the really tiny petrol tank that was NOT designed for long distance journeys, and I really disliked having nowhere (in the curvy futuristic exterior of the vehichle) to store a jerry can. Add to that, some countries don’t allow you to carry petrol but everywhere lets you take diesel. You don’t want to sleep in the vicinity of a petrol can (I’ve done this, it’s horrible) leaking fumes everywhere, so it has to go outside the vehicle, but there’s nowhere on the Picasso to put it. This means you’re forced to fill where you can, which means sometimes you’re pushing the car to the petrol pump, and always you have the knowledge that you didn’t get a good price on fuel.

3. The lights on the Picasso we had just never worked properly. By the time I scrapped it, one headlight would not even do a side light let alone anything else and the suspension was terrible. Yes, you can fix these things, but there’s only so many times you can get it “fixed” before you just want a different car.

4. The spare wheel being under the boot seems like a great idea but it reduces the ground clearance – which in general was not shockingly bad (not a lowrider) but wasn’t fantastic either.

5. The fans blowing air didn’t work at all and the temperature control didn’t work, so when the ambient temperature was hot, the car was hot, and when the ambient temperature was cold, the car was cold. You may remember cars of the 80’s often had this problem, and this might make you think “who cares?” but when it’s 40 degrees in Rome when you wake up and sub zero in the Alps when you go to sleep, it really is important to have some sort of controllable warm/cold air coming into the car.

6. The off road capabilities were less than impressive, the cruising speed was sub-par which especially pissed me off in Germany where I wanted to be going at over 90 mph and was stuck at 75, and the brakes were nowhere near as good as on the VW Golf.  Adding weight of a full-on camper conversion to make it look like a Citroen Romahome on the inside will ONLY make this worse.

I did a hell of a lot of research into a lot of different vehicles before I bought the Picasso, and it was the perfect car to get some experience of campering with.  If you’ve never converted a vehicle and you’re not tall and you don’t buy a £600 category-C write off, you’ll probably have many happy years in this.  As for me, I am hoping that this summer I can buy a Land Rover to convert, so I’ve got a vehicle that’s a) wide enough for actual luggage storage and b) has 4 wheel drive capacity for when we’re campervanning in the snow or end up off-road both of which happened in the Highlands and in Austria. I want to take it to the Sahara (amongst other places), after all, and a Picasso was never going to be appropriate for that.  I also like the fact the Landie has a flat roof with excellent potential for luggage storage.

Car Camper Review: The Citroen Xsara Picasso

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.

Our trusty Citroen Xsara Picasso after we spent our first night in it, in central Germany.
Our trusty Citroen Xsara Picasso after we spent our first night in it, in central Germany.

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.

Even the car park was soggy.
Even the car park was soggy.  And that’s our road here, in the centre, middle distance.  It was also waterlogged.
It was raining so much that I couldn't get my phone out to take pictures once we were out of the car!
It was raining so much that I couldn’t get my phone out to take pictures once we were out of the car!

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.