Citroën gears up for a new Irish market assault

Can the French brand find a road to success across the luxury and affordable markets?

Citroën has, to an extent, come home, in that it has returned to the Gowan Group, to sit alongside its Stellantis Group sister brands, Peugeot and Opel. Gowan had been the Citroën distributors for Ireland from 1982 until 2009, when Citroën itself stepped in to take over the Irish market operation. That lasted only until 2015, when Citroën sold the Irish operation to the IM Group, which is best-known for handling the Subaru brand.

Now, that most French of car makers is back at Gowan, under the prosaic title of Citroën Ireland, and Colin Sheridan has been handed the managing director's reins. Sheridan was head of sales and marketing literally across the hall at Peugeot, and before that was part of Skoda Ireland's operations, dating back to the Czech brand's stay as part of Motor Distributors Limited (MDL – better known as Ireland's Mercedes importer). In that, he is rather like Citroën itself – Citroëns were once upon a time imported by MDL.

Sheridan's task, then, is to switch Irish buyers back to the French brand. While sales have actually increased a little so far this year, Citroën languishes in 19th place in the best-sellers list, while its French cousin Peugeot is in seventh, and even Opel – which had suffered severe underinvestment until Gowan took on that franchise from a departing General Motors – is in 15th.

How then to revive one of the most storied brands in motoring history? “I think this is all really product-lead, and it’s about timing,” Sheridan says. “Look at what we have coming – the new C4 in combustion and electric forms; the electric version of the Berlingo, both as a passenger MPV and a commercial van; and the new C5-X. So product is a huge driver in any brand, and we certainly have a lot happening over the next while.”

While models such as the C4 and Berlingo will be bread-and-butter staples for Citroën Ireland’s 23-strong dealer network, the large and luxurious C5-X will be a different proposition and could lead Citroën down a winding garden path it’s tried to walk before, with limited success.

Tug of war

Ever since the original DS saloon was launched in 1955, Citroën has been a brand pulled in two directions – towards the cheap-and-cheerful end of the market, with historical models such as the 2CV and Visa, and more recently the Saxo and the C1; and yet tilting at luxurious German windmills with cars such as the C6 and previous C5.

Neither of those latter two, in spite of some solid critical notices, were a success. That led to Citroën hiving off the DS badge as a separate luxury brand in its own right (Gowan has taken on the franchise for that, too) but the C5-X – something of a halfway house between a saloon and SUV, and an estate – seems to be treading on that ground again. Can Citroën – or any French brand, for that matter – find success with a larger, more expensive model?

“We are a core brand for the Stellantis Group,” says Sheridan, referring to the massive conglomerate created by the merger of the former PSA Group (Citroën, Peugeot, DS and Opel) with Fiat-Chrysler. “So Stellantis has premium strategies for different models, but Citroën is a core brand, and one with a tremendous heritage, that goes back more than 100 years. That is something that warms me, and gives me great confidence. You know, it’s survived world wars, and everything else that history has thrown at it. So we’re going to capitalise on that, and really expand and grow. Being back at Gowan’s is part of that – Gowan’s brings great expertise and experience and longevity in the motor industry. There’s a passion in Gowan Group to bring our motoring footprint upwards.”

To do that, some expansion in the dealer network may well be necessary. While Citroën might occasionally tilt towards being a premium manufacturer, in reality it’s very much a mass-market brand, and so needs national coverage.

"There are points, certainly in the west and northwest – Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford, Cavan and Monaghan too – where we need more representation. There are only two dealers in Cork, so these are the opportunities that prevail. People like to buy locally where they can. I mean, for instance, Kilkenny people maybe don't like to travel to Waterford to buy a car, but maybe that's for hurling reasons more than anything else."

Plugin gamble

One issue for Citroën might be that it’s betting big on plugin-hybrid models, just at a time when legislation seems to be turning against such vehicles. While the mid-size C4 will come with a choice of combustion engines, or purely electric power, the larger C5-X will be available with either petrol or plugin-hybrid power only, just as the EU is on the cusp of officially removing the status of “sustainable investments” from such cars, which will have an effect on how much cash can be affordably invested in them.

Sheridan is sanguine about that, for now, though. “The atmosphere for plugins is changing, that’s for sure,” he says. “And that’s been driven by reports of owners buying plugins and then never plugging them in. So there’s a difference between what the car can do, and how it’s designed, and what actually happens out there in the real world. So, yes, we’ll have a plugin-hybrid C5-X, but within 18 months to two years, it will also be fully electric.

“Just as you saw with Peugeot and the new 308 – that was initially going to be a plugin-hybrid, but then they very quickly announced that there would be a fully electric version. So we as manufacturers are able to react, and that’s part of the good fortune of being part of Stellantis – they have the research and development capability, and the necessary technical ability, to be able to do that on various platforms.

“That’s why it’s such a strong association. You know, there was a time, back in the PSA Group, when you would have said that we had a European bias. Well now we have a global bias, if there is such a thing. And that brings some capital and some equity to the business.”