A lot can happen in two years, and since we’re examining the fortunes of PSA’s Distinctive Series, it might be useful to revisit this piece from Driven to Write’s early days to see what we thought then.
Is Citroën’s ‘Distinctive Series’ the final frontier for the legendary French automaker? [First published 16 January 2014].
Lately, France’s PSA group became the automotive Blanche DuBois – lurching with mounting desperation from one apparent suitor to another following the collapse of their core market. Yet amidst the gloom, a hitherto unimaginable success story seems to have unfolded, involving the marque most analysts had written off as beyond saving. Could Citroën, PSA’s trouble child since 1976, belatedly, and against all odds, find itself at the forefront of a marketing coup?
According to the UK’s SMMT, sales of Citroën’s ‘Distinctive Series’ models have increased by over 40% year on year in the UK alone with the DS3 model becoming the best selling Citroën in these Islands. Citroën’s own PR claims that up to 30% of all Citroëns sold in the UK are now DS models. PSA are reported to have sold over 200,000 DS models worldwide since the DS3 was launched in 2010 and now plan an ambitious expansion of both the DS line up and the core Citroën range – especially in China.
In France, the story has been similar, DS3 sales accounting for a quarter of the volume for the C3 range. “This is twice as much as what we aimed for, the DS line is a huge success,” Citroën’s Frederic Banzet told Automotive News in 2011. It’s been years since the Double Chevron has been at the vanguard of anything, but as rivals rush to preview their own upmarket offerings, it does seem as though we are at the cusp of a new front in the mid-market car-wars: the mad rush to premium. So has Citroën got the jump on everyone?
After 30 years of being remorselessly suffocated by their conservative masters at Peugeot, the Double Chevron has become PSA’s ‘Primark’ brand. Facing a contracting market, PSA management saw a chance for the marque; one that resided in the only untarnished nameplate in Citroën’s back catalogue. So thirty four years after ur-DS ceased production, Citroën resurrected the name for the ‘Distinctive Series’ and from Grenoble to Gateshead, Citroën-istes leapt for the smelling salts.
And with good reason. While no slavish retro-homage, the DS3 presented little of note apart from a lack of taste. Furthermore, it advanced nothing – apart from the influence of marketing over engineering integrity. Because if the original DS was intelligent, the very least one could have hoped from its reinvention was that it would be smart. With the advent of DS3, it was apparent that the new DS models would forgo genuine innovation and the concept of a logical imperative. Those of a sensitive nature averted their eyes and wrote obituaries for the marque – (this scribe amongst them).
After all, placing the original DS in context isn’t necessarily the job of a moment. A car that embodied a design and engineering philosophy; one PSA appears happy to use for PR purposes when it suits them, but has otherwise thoroughly jettisoned. La Déesse also partly defined an entire era for France itself, heralding such technological breakthroughs as Concorde and the TGV.
Has any production car before or since advanced the ideal of functional evolution with such daring and striking form, while becoming a commercial success? Philosopher Roland Barthes wrote a eulogy to the car in 1957 where he compared it to a stellar object – the car that fell to earth, if you will. Eminent automotive writer and intellectual, LJK Setright, latterly described it as the most modern car ever made. No production saloon was as far sighted in its engineering philosophy. Sharing with the Mini and the E-Type Jaguar the sociological and historical baggage of an all-time, epoch-defining legend, few cars cast such a patrician shadow.
Those of a more optimistic mien hoped the new Distinctive Series would represent a renewal of Citroën’s reputation for daring – if not in engineering, at the very least, in style. The DS3 was no epoch-maker, but it quickly established itself as something of a MINI rival. But at these lower echelons the margins are tight and the room for innovation slim, so it was easy to be DSmissive. But the later DS5 has merely furthered its ‘never mind the vacuousness, feel the pleated upholstery’ ethos.
Dispiriting as that was, its engineering specification compounded the DS venture’s veiled cynicism; its Peugeot 5008 floorpan ushering in the abandonment of Citroën’s unique oleo-pneumatic suspension, the last remaining vestige of technical difference Citroën was allowed to maintain. The press pack speaks of DS5 “bearing the DNA of innovation and distinction“. One has to ask where? Because apart from the flash, tinsel and watchband seats what does the DS series bring to the game?
One of the marketing phenomenon’s of recent times has been the rise of ‘premium’. Since we’re all middle-class now, we’ve developed suitably aspirational tastes to match. Perhaps it’s the ‘Tesco-isation’ of the commercial landscape, but now even Lidl; the ne plus ultra of budget brands produces a premium range. So if Citroën peddle tinselled versions of their mainstream models, are we getting our lingerie in a twist for no good reason? After all, Citroën is merely tapping into the market’s desperate need to feel special. Another aspect which may explain PSA’s apparent success is this: While Citroën’s mainstream rivals are straitjacketed by the lower middle-class pretensions of their brands, the double chevron has always been classless.
The Mainstream is in crisis across Europe, and having failed to address the twin evils of a contracting market and chronic overcapacity, their options are narrowing. The last resort now appears to be the premium lounge, where the lighting is tasteful and the service always complementary. The cost base is similar, but the available margins are rewardingly higher.
This year’s Frankfurt Motor Show saw two of PSA’s mass-market rival’s preview their take on the Distinctive Series. Renault showed their ‘Initiale Paris’ line with a luxurious MPV/SUV that previews a forthcoming Espace model. Now Renault has been here before, having previously burnt its fingers rather badly with the Avantime and Vel Satis models – both of which were abject failures. Is it likely that they’ve nailed the recipe this time round? Answers on a postcard please.
Ford, in turn has premièred its Vignale brand – aimed at a similar customer, prepared to pay through the nose for a slice of one-upmanship. Ford projects about 10% of its European sales will consist of Vignale-badged cars, equating to about 5 percent of its global sales. Yet Ford too has quite recently retreated from the premium market, having offloaded the ‘Premier Automotive Group‘ marques as recently as 2008, which does suggest they might have been premature in so doing.
Success however remains predicated upon whether such a market will continue to exist. This is by no means certain, since throughout Europe the middle-class is being squeezed remorselessly under austerity. It’s increasingly likely these trinkets will be reserved for the emerging middle-classes of China, Russia and the like, while we slurp the thin gruel of the Dacia’s and Datsun’s.
Can it work? It’s too early to tell and certainly with PSA’s future in doubt, it’s probably best to stay on the fence for now. Meanwhile, Fitch Ratings had this to say in an investor statement earlier this year*; “We believe this strategy makes sense overall but carries substantial execution risk and could take many years to bear fruit. In particular, we are concerned that the existence of both entry-level/basic models and aspiring higher-end products within the two brands will not be easily understood and accepted by customers.” Make of that what you will. Either way, the European car wars are about to move to a new and most likely, decisive final frontier.
*Quoted from Automotive News