“Citroën is all about boldness: taking calculated risks and being different,” says Linda Jackson, the U.K. born CEO of the thoroughly French OEM.
One of those risks could see its increasingly quirky cars possibly re-entering the U.S. market. But they will not have Citroën’s sophisticated hydraulic suspension. Figuring prominently in its current extensive R&D program is an all-new suspension system for global markets. Jackson promises it will provide the ride comfort levels that have been one of Citroën’s core assets since the arrival of the revolutionary “oléopneumatique”-suspended DS in 1955.
The iconic DS was a car that epitomized a brave independence of design and engineering that followed the 1930s front-drive Traction Avant and the 1940s softly- sprung 2CV. Now there are other very interesting models in prospect.
Citroën, now in restructuring, is at a “very key moment” explained Jackson, whose finance background with the company gives her a keen appreciation of all facets of design and manufacturing.
“We are redefining our positioning," she noted. "We have taken what we are good at—creativity, audacity, and the hint of impertinence that we have shown over our 96 years’ existence!”
The latter could be applied to the launch of Citroën’s standalone brand (launched in China in 2012, Europe in 2014) called DS Automobiles that aspires to a truly premium label comparable to the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Audi, states Jackson. However, she sensibly adds that it may take 15 - 20 years to get there.
Peugeot, Citroën and DS will all remain part of the PSA Group within which vehicle architectures, engineering and components are shared, although some can be used exclusively.
All-new suspension still secret
Which is why Jackson put in a bid for the new suspension, still on the secret list, and currently an exclusive just for Citroën applications. It will be cheaper to manufacture and maintain than a hydraulic system.
“The technology we are developing will deliver what I call the ‘Citroën ride’, she noted. "We are working with partners but I am unable to go into details at present.” She describes the system as a “French invention” that will be extended across the range to all models. The aim is to make it a standard fit if manufacturing cost targets can be met.
At present, only the C5 uses a hydraulic suspension and it looks to be the last Citroën to do so.
Together with design and what Jackson terms “useful technology,” comfort is one of three defining aspects of Citroën. “It’s reinventing what Citroën was good at but comfort is not just about suspension, it also encompasses seats, storage and the way you drive," she asserted. "We are in the market mainstream but we have to ensure that we differentiate by using our creativity while making sure that our customers have a stress-free life.”
Although it will not have the premium level aspiration of DS (the letters are a short form for the French déesse, or goddess), Citroën must ensure that “quirky” also embraces quality and demonstrates this by moving up the international customer satisfaction car survey lists. In Europe, Skoda has shown what can be achieved; at present, Citroën is in the “could do better” category.
But it will be helped by a major change in chassis/architecture. Jackson calls body types “silhouettes” and by 2017 these will be down from the present 14 to seven worldwide, (not including the small C1 that is built in partnership with Toyota). By 2020, Citroën plans to be represented in all segments – A to D – which will include an SUV.
Three new models will be launched over the next two years and one in each following year into the 2020s, all designed and engineered for its current main markets of China, Europe and South America.
Citroën is also planning what Jackson terms an “ambitious” program to reduce the average life of each model to only about four years, helping to take sales from about 1.2 million now to 1.6 M by 2020.
Manufacturing for specific markets is not on, she says, but some variations are necessary, such as long-wheelbase models for China, and providing chassis modifications to achieve raised ride height to cope with South American roads.
Back to the U.S.A.?
The possible move into the North American market would be a PSA Group decision. Peugeot ended its North America sales in 1991 and Citroen officially in 1974. Jackson described North America as a “difficult” market for reasons that include distribution. But depending on just what it designs and builds over the next five years, Citroën could establish a significant niche presence in the US.
The successful C4 Cactus is an indicator of what can be achieved with a quirky but wholly practical and efficient model--it weighs 200 kg (441 lb) less than a regular C4 hatchback. The Cactus caused a surprise (and some cynicism) at its launch because its flanks were clad by “Airbumps” (see http://articles.sae.org/13669/) made of unpainted thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), to give protection against low-speed impacts and scratching, and to project a “personal identity.”
Cactus has proved successful in the marketplace and indicates what an acceptable aesthetic risk can achieve in the traditionally conservative family car sector. Airbumps and/or other differentiating features may be used on the sides of upcoming Citroëns.
The plug-in hybrid crossover Citroën Aircross concept, unveiled at the 2015 Shanghai auto show is another pointer to what else the company’s designers regard as the emerging “boldness” referred to by Jackson.
As for the need for “useful technology,” Jackson plans to ensure that Citroën offers what buyers want, and understands what they don’t want. For example, the Cactus has no engine water temperature gauge, and Jackson won't sanction any technology for technology’s sake or gimmicks. Although not in those categories, PSA’s Hybrid Air technology remains in limbo.
As well as its new suspension, Jackson lists salient R&D areas as powertrain, including electrification (but not fuel cells) and continuing reduction of CO2 emissions, although she sees diesel as becoming less significant. Connectivity in terms of driver aids such as enhanced satellite navigation and autonomous systems are also on the agenda.
Recently, Jackson walked round Citroën’s collection of its past classic models, including the CX and exotic Maserati-engined SM coupe, to consider what made them special.
She doesn’t see such models being replicated today but some of their aesthetic and technology cues might be developed and incorporated in future models.
“I think it would be wrong to ignore our history and not be inspired by it,” she said. But it’s definitely au revoir to oléopneumatique.