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What’s going on with Citroen’s DS?
The Champs-Elysees was jammed this weekend with 700 historic Citroen DSs. All these ‘Goddesses’ arrived in Paris to mark the 60th anniversary of that wonderful car.
There were some new DS 5s hanging around, too. That’s because, right now, DS is launching itself as a separate marque from Citroen. By 2020, the bosses say, this will be a thriving third brand under the PSA umbrella - Peugeot, Citroen and DS. And there will be six DS models lines on sale.
Why bother? Because around half of all the profit of the whole global car industry these days is made by the premium brands. Five years ago Citroen launched the DS3, a cleverly but inexpensively jollied up version of the C3 supermini. It sold better than they’d expected. So, almost by chance, PSA realised it might be able to get a slice of those very tasty premium profits.
But a premium brand has to be consistently premium. So it became clear DS could really fly only if moved clear of the mass-market Citroen.
So, partway through its life, the Citroen DS5 has been facelifted and re-named DS 5. The current DS4 and DS3 will soon get the same treatment. No more Citroen badges.
But three cars isn’t enough. In China, DS also has three, but a different three. There’s the same DS 5, but also the DS 5LS saloon, and the DS 6 crossover (pic 2, above). The DS name is new there, but the initial signs are promising. Sales have started well, and Chinese buyers like European luxury names, especially French ones: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, et cetera.
Unfortunately the 5LS and 6 are built on obsolescent platforms and wouldn’t be suitable for global duty. So none of the present European or Chinese range will make up part of the promised global lineup for the end of 2020. They really will be all-new.
Do they have a chance? The company’s bosses say it will be a 15-year haul to get DS established as a proper premium player, pointing out it took Audi at least that long. “Fifteen years is only two generations of cars,” says DS sales and marketing chief Arnaud Ribault.
What will they be?
“We are looking at the world premium market. The most important parts are SUVs and sedans in the B, C and D segments,” Ribault says. In industry jargon, B is supermini size, C is mid-size hatch and D is Mondeo size. Car development chief, Eric Apode, later confirms to me that two of the six will be SUV crossovers. He says the new cars will start launching at the rate of two a year from 2018.
Apode says that the cars won’t match exactly the sizes and silhouettes of their German competitors, just as they don’t now. Look at the DS 5 as an example. It isn’t a normal hatch or estate, as it’s taller and not optimised for space, but it isn’t an MPV or SUV either. Same with the DS4, which is taller than a hatch but has a coupe-ish roof, yet has five doors. Sure, the DS4 hasn’t stormed the market, but no harm in trying eh?
“It’s our duty not to copy,” says Apode. “That would be a failure. Our customers say, ‘If you do a copy of an Audi I’ll buy a real Audi.’ We must invent our own story, and do what’s best for our avant garde philosophy.”
Avant garde is a phrase that crops up whenever the DS people start to say what they’re about. It’s French and it’s untranslatable, but we know what it means when we see it. That’s what they want for DS: progressive, creative and French.
Apode says DS will normally be the first to get new technologies in the PSA Group, ahead of Citroen and Peugeot. That will include plug-in hybrids, driver assistance systems and eventually near-autonomous driving, and market-leading connectivity.
He also says that at least for the bigger crossover there will be mechanical 4WD, which is absent from the group’s cars at the moment - there’s only the electric rear drive of the Hybrid4 versions.
I’m a bit of a sentimentalist about old Citroens, so I ask Apode about the chances of DS going ahead with the gas/oil suspension pioneered by the 1955 DS. He says no, “but we will have advanced suspensions using electronics and cameras. We will be at the forefront of comfort.”
Another area DS will be absolutely top-of-the-class, he says, is economy and CO2. Don’t expect V8 engines or sports cars from DS, say the bosses, because those aren’t growth sectors. Anyway, as sales chief Ribault says, “We never had a V8 or W12 and that’s the territory of the Germans - they’re the best, and we won’t go there. We’ll look for power, but not 500bhp, not even 400.”
DS absolutely has to make waves with its design. Brand design chief Thierry Metroz says that for DS it’s 70 percent proportions and 30 percent the surface design. He talks of ‘simple, generous surfaces’.
As with French fashion, he says, cabin materials will be crucially distinctive. Not just textures and leathers, but extended pieces of granite and crystal. They did it on the Divine DS concept car (pic 1, above) and they’ll do it in production before long, he says.
None of the DS bosses will talk about a target for the number of cars they’ll actually sell. Fair enough.
If to meet an arbitrary target they start pushing them through the dealers, they’ll collapse the secondhand values. And they know that those values are a key indicator for a successful premium brand. Whether they have the discipline not to discount is another matter of course.
So there’s lots of big talk from DS, but right now it’s still still a rather tiny operation. In 2014 it sold 118,000 cars, and will grow a fair bit this year thanks to the Chinese factory coming on stream.
But Audi and BMW/Mini sell two million a year each. The challenge when you’re that small is to find your customers when you can’t afford to make much marketing or advertising noise.
“We don’t have the ambition to develop DS awareness in everyone,” says Ribault. “In this era, with targeted digital campaigns we can be smart.” They’ll also have to be patient.