The formerly minority-interest French player Citroen is on course for a bigger presence and relevance in Australia. In June last year it was given new distribution arrangements here, via the giant multi-brand retail group Inchcape, and these have already started to push sales up. But it will be new models that do the heavy lifting.
We sat down with Citroen’s global CEO, Linda Jackson, a British native, to look at the company’s direction.
Two crucial new models are on the way here, both crossovers. The first is already launched in Europe, the little C3 Aircross. Next is the bigger C5 Aircross.
The C5 Aircross was recently launched in China, but the ones sold in Australia will be built in Europe. Jackson doesn’t believe in launching more than one major model in each region each year. It doesn’t work, she says, because dealers get overloaded and the message of each car gets confused.
So it was the C3 supermini here last year, the C3 Aircross this year and the C5 Aircross about a year later. In mid-2018, Australia will also get a facelifted C4 Cactus.
Citroen’s lack of commitment to crossovers has hurt it up to now, but its catch-up looks swift. The C5 Aircross was 42% of the company’s sales in China for the whole year in 2017 – and yet it was on sale for only the final three months. The small C3 Aircross also had a quick start in Europe.
Jackson didn’t come through the engineering or marketing route to the top job. Her background is in finance. But on her watch she’s allowed the engineers, designers and product strategists to develop a distinctive and coherent range, with a clear position.
They don’t go down the ‘sporty’ route of so many rivals. They’re friendly, useful, comfortable and distinctive-looking in a non-aggressive fashion.
Look at the C3 supermini, the Cactus, and the two Aircross models and you wouldn’t confuse them with other manufacturers’ cars. “We’re competing against Koreans, Japanese, Renault, Ford. So we need to go for a design that stands out. And we’ll try to be the reference for comfort in the mainstream.”
She talks about taking potential new designs to customer clinics. “Classically you want as many people as possible to say they like your design and no-one who dislikes it. I accept we’ll have some who do dislike our cars, as long as we have enough who overcompensate and really like them. In order to create our difference we must manage that balance.”
The C3 Aircross isn’t just another me-too baby crossover. “We gave it the interior modularity of an MPV.” True – the seats have an array of slide-fold options and there’s lots of handy storage. In Europe the C3 Aircross actually replaces a small MPV called the C3 Picasso.
That said, the most oddball of the Citroens, the C4 Cactus, is just undergoing a facelift and has gone more mainstream. Jackson says that the original had to cover for the fact they had no small crossover, and also that they did in Europe have a conventional hatch called the C4. “But the C4 is now at the end of its life at the same time as the C4 Cactus needed its mid-life changes.” The C3 Aircross now does the job of a crossover, so to avoid duplication, the new Cactus does the job keeping the original’s audience while attracting the old C4 customers. “So we worked on the design and comfort.”
To do that, Cactus’s rugged and conspicuous contrast-colour airbumps have been toned down, and the interior materials improved. It has clever new part-hydraulic springs, very soft new seats and more soundproofing.
She also wants to do a big saloon or hatch, after the crossovers. “We have to have a large car for Citroen. To be credible as a global manufacturer you need a range of cars from small to large.”
In the past, Citroen’s sales, especially in Europe, have been diesel-biased. but that’s changing fast. “The C3 Aircross has begun at 77% petrol in France.” There are no specific bans on the newest diesel engines, but the mayors of Paris, London and other cities have aired anti-diesel opinions. Jackson says, “The change is led by political debate and people are afraid of residual values of diesels after three years.”
As to electrified powertrains, she isn’t too gung-ho. I mention I’m off to drive the new Nissan Leaf the day after we meet. “We won’t build specific dedicated electric vehicles. We’ll do electric, diesel petrol and plug-in hybrid, but off the same platforms. We’ll have several power modules, depending on segment, and the customers will decide. But we’ve researched it and when customers have had an electric vehicle they never want to go back.”
Jackson makes a big point of listening to the customers. She instigated a major project called Citroen Advisor. It began in France three few years ago and reaches 48 countries this year. She likens it to tripadvisor for cars and dealers: customers can go to this site and rate their car and their dealer, and the ratings are visible to everyone. But it’s on a site hosted by the manufacturer itself.
“There are more than 200,000 opinions up there already. So we’re really increasing transparency. If a customer gives a low score the dealer gets an alert. So it’s a chance to re-satisfy a customer – one who they might otherwise not even have known about.”