Musings on the Motoring World

What Citroën needs to build for the next 100 years

Hang around car circles long enough and you would have heard Clarkson’s famous “you can’t be a petrolhead until you have owned an Alfa” quip. That being the case, if a heart for Alfas will inject a little octane into your veins, then a curiosity for Citroëns would be administering a dose of octane for your membrane.

Now, Citroën is not the first word that appears on the autocomplete function of your browser, and truth be told it isn’t at the top of many minds either. To mainstream buyers, its appeal is as perplexing as its creations. If it was a person it would be the class clown or Johnny Depp for you never know what they are going to do next.

Pioneering front-wheel drive? Monocoque construction? Hydraulic suspension? Citroën’s history is a diverse collection of off-beat and eccentric models that no other can match. So when Citroën unveiled a concept car that looks part-smartphone and part-lunar rover to commemorate their centenary, should we be surprised at its unconventional design or pleased that it doesn’t meet expectations in the first place?

Love it, hate it, or be confused by it, the 19_19 Concept is undoubtedly a stunning piece of imagination that lives up to Citroën’s own vision of a “deliberately unconventional, future looking, and constraint-free” concept. It looks far-fetched enough that you can’t accuse it of taking after existing designs from Citroën’s own back catalogue, or that of any other car maker.  

Is it an SUV? Its 30-inch tyre-wheel hybrids certainly take after off-roaders, but its capsule-shaped body lifts inspiration from sleek cars of science fiction, sporting a pendular suspension system that ensures the cabin stays suspended above the contours of the road. Just don’t expect it to deliver a sporty drive, in fact, Citroën doesn’t expect anyone to be driving with its autonomous drive systems and onboard entertainment projectors.

The 19_19 is a refreshing demonstration of what makes Citroën one of the automotive world’s treasures. On one hand, they are responsible for beautiful, if eccentric, creations like the original DS and the DS5, on the other they gave the French peasantry the budget 2CV and Saxo, and not forgetting changing the world with the likes of the Traction Avant and GT by Citroën.

Unlike BMW who celebrated their centenary with a sports sedan, ór Mercedes-Benz who highlighted 125 years with a hydrogen-powered luxury sedan, there isn’t one objective aspect that runs through its history that you can define Citroën by.

Are they a luxury car maker? Well their most iconic creation, the DS is a world away from the Traction Avant, 2CV or the C6. Unfortunately, that avenue grows small by the day as parent-company Peugeot seems intent on moving into luxury-premium territory with their new product range. Are they an SUV maker? Only recently, but even so, it hasn’t delivered them much success, and again, Peugeot seems to have that base covered.

As much as the 19_19 is an unmistakable product of Citroën’s lucid minds, in reality, the company – under the stewardship of Peugeot – is facing an existential crisis. Since the turn of the century, PSA had repositioned the Citroën brand as the hip, forward-thinking, design-led relation to complement Peugeot’s rational mainstream model line-up. In essence, Citroën was to be the PSA Group’s creative-right side of the brain to be an accompaniment to Peugeot’s analytical-left. That doesn’t seem to be the case nowadays.

Since introducing the straight-cut Peugeot 308 in 2014, and separating Citroën’s DS range into its own sub-brand in 2015, Peugeot has been charting a course that encroaches into the DS’ niche. With the French giant’s recent acquisition of Opel/Vauxhall from General Motors and rumours of bagging Jaguar Land Rover from Tata, it seems that Citroën’s own market niche is been eked away by its own masters.

Peugeot seems content on turning Citroën into a maker of funky little city cars for debt-laden fashion-conscious youth, and if any businessperson would tell you, aiming low always turns out to be an unsustainable self-fulfilling prophecy.

With a company that is growing crowded with no clear cut direction, like how the Volkswagen juggernaut managed several intersecting brands, what waters should Citroën steer towards if it were to survive the next 100 years?

The obvious answer would be SUVs, but as we have mentioned earlier, Citroën doesn’t, and shouldn’t do the obvious. With the mass proliferation of SUVs in the market and Peugeot’s own growing SUV portfolio, the market itself is fast approaching peak saturation and even Citroën’s latest SUV efforts seem a little lacklustre. Out of the question as well are the luxury segment and mainstream sedans, which are either markets that are too brand-elitist or shrinking at an unsustainable rate.

Rather than trying to follow the trend and find a footing, Citroën should divert from the rigid tastes of the European market, tap into their knack for thinking outside the box, and head straight for the luxury MPV segment. As explored in detail here, the luxury MPV market is one that is growing in prominence with plenty of potential for growth in the lucrative Asian markets.

Considering that Peugeot seems bent on building stylish and enthusiast cars like the new 208, 3008, and 508, a traditional MPV would be at odds with its overall direction and the direction of the market they are plying in. Adding to that, building an MPV isn’t stepping into unfamiliar waters for Citroën. After all, with the likes of the Picasso series, Citroën has a proven reputation of building MPVs that are actually interesting with its imaginative and captivating interior, and not the usual dour people-shufflers of the castrati. Citroën even managed to make a nine-seater 2011 homage to the unsightly pre-war TUB panel van that actually looks cutting-edge cool.

If futurists are correct of what the next 100 years have in store for the automotive world, Citroën’s creative eccentricity when it comes to interior design and unconventional designs might be the right sort of mix for a luxurious people carrier that passengers would actually want to spend time in. Who knows, when the roads are populated by machines with minds of their own, owning a Citroën would mean something other than a mere curiosity.

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