Can you countenance a premium French car brand? History suggests the public are a little sceptical about such things. While there have been some obvious exceptions – such as the wonderful and innovative DS of the 1950s – the rule tends to be that the French simply can’t compete with the Germans when it comes to luxury cars.
Consider Renault Vel Satis. Or the Peugeot 607. In fact, just look back at the eclectic list of lost causes French presidents have had to lumber about in over the past 30 years. Perhaps a few have been worthy of the premium luxury position but all have been sales flops.
Against such a poor track record comes a fact that seems to have transfixed senior management at Citroën and its parent PSA: premium sales account for 10 per cent of the overall car market but 50 per cent of the profit.
And so, with due regard to Albert Camus and the The Myth of Sisyphus, the motoring elite at PSA Peugeot Citroën push forth once more into the premium market, this time not only with a new high-end model but with a newly-launched premium brand.
In a 20-minute interview, the boss of the new DS brand,
, mentions the premium profit figures twice: 10 per cent of the market, 50 per cent of the profitability of the car makers. It seems to be the private mantra selling the DS strategy to the board and probably the banks as well.
The plan is clearly ambitious but it has been done before: PSA's aim is to repeat the game plan of Toyota with Lexus. Bonnefont doesn't directly mention the Japanese firm but the timeframe of 15 years he sets out for the brand to be an established premium player with six models on the market is similar to the timeline of Lexus.
“We say we are on a journey of 15 years because we think it takes to product cycles and the product cycle in this industry is six to seven years. If you look back at how the [other big car manufacturers] have introduced premium brands in the past, it is this sort of timeframe they have had before they have established the brands,” says Bonnefont.
“We have decided to fully separate the DS brand from the Citroën brand. Today, officially the PSA Group has three brands: Peugeot, Citroën and DS,” he says.
The plan entails different models, marketing and brand strategy for DS. “The range of DS will double between now and 2020. So today we have three cars on the market: DS3, DS4 and DS5. We will have six by 2020.”
So will these new cars merely be derivatives of upcoming Citroën models? Or will they be built on entirely bespoke new platforms?
“No, we are not going to develop our own platforms but the models are fully independent. So a DS is not a derivative of the Citroën or a Peugeot. It is developed as a stand-alone product. We may share a platform, an engine and many of the mechanical parts because it makes sense for a group of our size to look for synergies, but at the same time we don’t want to have any dependency to limit our product strategy. So the DS product strategy is approved and not related to the other two brands,” he says.
“We will shop from the PSA engine range – the higher range of the powertrain. On the DS5, for example, we have an engine range starting at 120bhp and up to 210bhp. In the DS of the future, we shall probably continue to move up that line, probably up to 250bhp to 270bhp – unlikely we will go 300bhp or more as it makes no sense for us – but we will have a powertrain in that level of power. In DS we look for the fine balance between comfort and dynamism. We are not interested in brutal power,” says Bonnefont.
"We also have the commitment from the group to make DS the launching ground for a number of new technologies. PSA's Carlos Tavarez has confirmed that for the plug-in hybrid technology that the group is now undergoing, DS will be the brand launching the PHV technology for the group.
“In the new DS5 we have the new front face, putting forward the strong DS monogram, but we have also put some new technology into the car, with more connectivity. We have a great platform for connectivity with the DS Connect box. Today, we use it mainly for emergency calls but we can use it for many other services, and starting in May we will roll out additional services. For example, we will offer car tracking: if the car is stolen it can be tracked to get it back. We also have monitoring of the car, which gives you statistics on how you use the car and gives you some advice, particularly with eco-driving.”
So will DS regale Irish showrooms with French aplomb? Not in the immediate future, it seems. The Irish operation is rebuilding its brand first, getting its dealer network in order, and after that will decide how many DS dealers to appoint and where.
The firm has opened 50 DS outlets last year and plans another 70 in 2015. The focus so far is on doing it at current Citroën dealerships, setting aside an area dedicated to DS, with specially-trained sales staff but with workshops shared with its sister brand.
In Ireland, the focus remains on re-establishing Citroën on the market before pursuing any strong premium position on our roads. Yet as the economy recovers the hope would be that a couple of DS outlets would make sense in Dublin and other cities and larger towns.
Over at Citroën, meanwhile, the theme is affordability, functionality, family and funky design. If you are looking for a map of the future for that brand take a closer look at the C4 Cactus. The ambition here is to give the brand character and fun. You will never see it built again, but you may be encouraged to consider the famous 2CV as the template for its plans.
Frankly, the jury is out on whether this ambitious plan will work. For Citroën it depends on the continued success of its chief designer Alexandre Malval. He is proving one of the hottest properties in the car industry at present, so his talent is not in doubt. Rather the concern would be that he will not be lured away from the brand.
As for DS, the mantra of 10 per cent market but 50 per cent profit makes sense, but beneath that alluring top line is a customer base that’s surprisingly loyal and hard to shift. The brand image is incredibly important to them – and incredibly vulnerable. Premium buyers put a lot more emphasis on their cars than those in the mainstream. The French have a talent for luxury but have never managed to transfer that talent to the automotive market. Perhaps by 2030 we will look back in wonder at why this was ever the case.