The European 4x4 market in the late 1970s was essentially limited to expensive offerings like the Range Rover, the Land Rover Series III and the Mercedes Geländewagen. Buyers who couldn’t afford those flocked towards the Lada Niva, a cheap and seriously capable 4x4 launched in 1976 and still in production today.
In its first few years of existence the Niva had almost no competition. Fiat fired first in 1983 with the Panda 4x4 and again in 1986 with the Lancia Y10 4WD i.e. (based on the Panda 4x4). Volkswagen followed suit in 1990 with the Golf Country.
Citroen’s turn came in 1991. They killed two birds with one stone that year: they facelifted their AX line and introduced two new models to inaugurate it, the GTI and the 4x4. Both were powered by the same 1360cc four-cylinder gas engine but the 4x4’s was detuned to 75hp (vs. 95hp for the GTI). It took 12.9 seconds to reach 62mph.
Both three-door and five-door AX 4x4s were available. This gave the car a slight advantage over the Panda and the Y10 since they were only available as three-doors. Compared to a standard AX the 4x4 sat 2.5 centimeters (about an inch) higher off the ground and had specific plastic trim on the side. A discrete 4x4 emblem on the hatch gave away the presence of a rear axle.
The AX 4x4 was the most expensive affordable four wheel drive on the market. In 1993 a three-door cost 80,900 francs and a five-door cost 83,900, significantly more than the Fiat Panda 4x4’s 62,800 francs. By comparison, a base model Golf sold for 73,900 francs that same year.
Under normal driving the 4x4’s rear wheels spun freely. The rear axle was hydraulically engaged at the hit of a switch located on the center console. Because the system had no central differential Citroen recommended not driving over dry pavement for prolonged periods of time with the four wheels engaged. While the AX 4x4 was excellent on slippery terrains and dirt roads, its limited ground clearance meant that it couldn’t be used for serious offroading like a Niva or a Panda.
The four wheel drive system made the AX 4x4 the heaviest of the lineup, tipping the scales at 825 kilos (1818 pounds), or 300 pounds more than a base AX. Another disadvantage was that body had to be modified to accomodate the rear axle, eating up precious trunk space.
Like many French cars the AX was available in various special editions that ranged from economy to luxury. The 4x4 wasn’t spared from this and the Piste Rouge edition was introduced in 1992. It was a limited edition of 400 cars that were better equipped (and consequently more expensive) than a standard 4x4, though an A/C was still not available. It was only built in red and with three doors and kept the same 13” wheels as the standard model. A sunroof, a three-spoke steering wheel and tinted windows all came standard and it had the AX Sport’s bumpers with integrated fog lights up front.
Production of the 4x4 carried on until July 1996. By that point Citroen had launched a replacement for the AX, the Saxo, and AX sales slowly declined until the final one rolled off the assembly line in 1998. The AX 4x4 is far from common today but there are still some putting around the mountainous regions of Europe.
All photos copyright Ran When Parked 2011.