October 6, 2014

Confession #57: You can laugh at Peugeot-Citroen's US plans until they actually return

Citroen DS5 (Photo: Citroen)
Please forgive those of us on the Internet for getting giddy over the phrases "PSA" and "US re-entry" in the same headline. Seeing the things French automakers are putting on the auto show stands in Europe and China these days makes us American car fans envious.

After these latest quotes from brand exec Yves Bonnefort pushing PSA's DS premium line of Citroens, there's a glimmer of hope we may finally get French cars in the US sometime next decade. Or maybe it's just another false start to trick the auto scribes and bolster the pessimists.

Whatever the reality, importing a line of upscale DS cars doesn't sound totally out of the realm of possibility in this age of premium brands for the masses.

Citroen SM (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Citroen hasn't officially sold cars in the States since 1974, when our bumper and suspension regulations didn't go well with the gorgeous SM's looks and technology. It was always a company that brought its gorgeously weird cars over at sky-high prices and appealed to those who loved its Frenchness. Citroen was never going to be a major player in the States.

Peugeot, meanwhile, stuck it out until 1991 as a purveyor of midsize French cars like the 505 that straddled a fine line between mass-market and premium. More like an Audi, Saab and Volvo rival, and think about where those three brands are now. Their last attempt came in 1989 with the Peugeot 405, a midsize sedan and wagon that proved popular pretty much everywhere in the world except the US, where only brave souls bought them and hung on to them.

Santa Barbara News-Press review of Peugeot 405 Sportwagon that briefly features me; August 24, 1990
The 405 went up against cars like the popular Mazda 626 and much more popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. But with a limited dealer network and a history of unreliability, Peugeot could only appeal to coastal upmarket types. And even then, Volvo at the time had a lock on that modest market.

The reduction of the Peugeot family's influence in January with the emergence of Chinese automaker Dongfeng and the French government's involvement in PSA had to have been the biggest wake-up call that its "Europe First" approach was simply going to kill it in the end. And even banking on China to save the day isn't a safe bet anymore. If PSA wants to be a global manufacturer, it's right in believing it can't ignore North America anymore. Even Fiat came back after 28 years in exile.

But it realized this too late for mass-market Peugeot and Citroen brands. DS, however, is a new brand, and a somewhat exclusive one at that. Audi is fast on its way to selling 200,000 cars a year in the US, not at all a niche player. And BMW and Mercedes are trying to find ways to cut configurations and personalizations on their models to boost profitability and sales. None of those moves are particularly premium.

That's where DS can come in.

Citroen DS5 Limited Edition Pure Pearl interior (Photo: Citroen UK)
A DS appeals to people who could have had an Audi 10 years ago because everyone in the neighborhood had a BMW, and they wanted something more stylish. Aside from the diesel-electric hybrid in the DS5, none of these cars are particularly innovative under the skin. But they ooze class and style on what you see and touch. This is in sharp contrast to the old, square Peugeots that were square for square's sake. Best of all, the DS line is mostly comprised of small premium hatches and small-to-midsize crossovers. And that tends to be what buyers of upscale branded cars want these days.

Bonnefort admits there are has modest expectations for a possible North American line, looking at just 30 markets, 20 of which will be in the US. But you can picture one of their DS showrooms in New York, LA, San Francisco and Miami like you could in Paris, London and Beijing. As BMW did with Mini, a carefully managed roster of dealers and tight allocation could make the DS line desirable. And actually paying attention to what an American audience likes this time could stop things from ending badly as they did before with Peugeot. The DS line has China-specific cars, and those cars like the DS 5LS and DS 6WR could find a profitable niche in the US – and made in China for all we know. Let's see how Volvo fares with that.

That appeal is important when premium brands are trying to be accessible while still maintaining desirability. With DS, there's a chance for the company to say, "This isn't for everyone."

But that's a crap tagline, so don't say that exactly.

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