Bold and colourful designs make Citroëns stand out from the herd. This is the C3 Aircross SUV. Picture: SUPPLIED
Bold and colourful designs make Citroëns stand out from the herd. This is the C3 Aircross SUV. Picture: SUPPLIED

Andre Citroën was a visionary who, apart from founding a car company that introduced automotive innovations like hydropneumatic suspension, was also a marketing wizard who promoted his brand by, for example, placing a giant Citroën hoarding on the Eiffel tower.

It might take similar visionary savvy to re-establish Citroën in SA, which is back after the French brand quit the country at the end of 2016 due to slow vehicle sales. In our notably conservative market, buyers found Citroën cars rather too quirky for their tastes while the brand didn’t do itself any favours with substandard after-sales support, all of which contributed to low resale values.

Citroën entered SA as an importer in 2001 and became a subsidiary of PCSA France in 2010. The niche brand achieved some sales success with vehicles like the earlier-generation Picasso and about 15,000 Citroëns were sold here in the 10 years leading up to its exit.

The C4 Cactus was also a finalist in the South African Car of the Year competition, but it did little to boost the brand’s popularity. Citroën sold just 789 cars here in 2015, and when sales dwindled even further in 2016 the company decided to halt further imports, while existing customers continued to be supported via Peugeot’s network.

Citroën C4 Cactus is the hatchback which embodies the essence of Citroën Advanced Comfort, thanks in particular to its Suspensions with Progressive Hydraulic Cushions, unique to the Brand. This is the model which embodies Citroën’s cool mobility.

Xavier Gobille, the recently-appointed MD of Peugeot-Citroën SA (PCSA), may just be the right man for the daunting job of rebuilding Citroën, after masterminding the turnaround of rival Renault SA’s fortunes a decade ago.

He turned the troubled, low-volume company to SA’s sixth-largest vehicle brand with a nearly 5% market share and monthly sales of more than 2,000 vehicles.

Building consumer trust in the Citroën brand, which celebrates its centenary this year, is the Frenchman’s priority. In his few months at the PCSA helm Gobille has been at work fixing the service and support aspect by upgrading the sales network, upgrading the service staff’s technical skills, and improving parts availability.

He says 97% of parts are in stock, compared to less than 50% previously, but any customer whose Citroën is not repaired in 48 hours will be given a courtesy car. The brand returns with three new model ranges — the C3, the C3 Aircross and the C5 Aircross — all of which are sold with a five-year/100,000km warranty and service plan called Citroën Serenity.

Citroën and Peugeot showrooms will be separate but with shared service departments, and by the end of 2020 the network will grow to 35 outlets across SA.

Cabin of the C3 Aircross blends minimalism with splashes of colour. Seats across the line up are very comfortable. Picture: SUPPLIED
Cabin of the C3 Aircross blends minimalism with splashes of colour. Seats across the line up are very comfortable. Picture: SUPPLIED

As for the quirky styling, that’s something bred into Citroën’s DNA, but the improved service delivery and increased presence is hoped to lure more buyers than before into the “vive la difference” brand.

Gobille won’t predict any numbers for Citroën specifically, but aims to grow PCSA — with Opel to be added to the local stable in due course — from a 1% share of SA’s new-car market to "well over 5%".

In Europe PCSA has an 18% market share, which emboldens Gobille to predict that the company can grow to compete with leading local importers such as Hyundai, Renault and Kia.

Gobille says selling Peugeots and Citroëns from separate showrooms is important as the brands appeal to different buyers even though they share many mechanicals.

“Peugeot is an upmarket, generalist brand. Citroën is a people-minded brand with a promise to be different and to shake up the rules,” he says.

Apart from a bold design the real DNA of Citroën is comfort, he says. The cars are designed to be quiet, with comfortable armchair-style seats that are wider and better padded than normal. 

Citroën has focused its local model offensive on the SUV and compact hatchback segments, the only two car segments that have shown growth in a declining new-car market.

Packaged with the fun and funky image is a strong safety focus that sees all six new Citroën derivatives being equipped standard with six airbags, with the upper models also getting features like lane-departure and blind spot warning.

One of the unique selling points of the range-topping C5 Aircross is an innovative Progressive Hydraulic Cushion suspension that works wonders in smoothing out rough roads. But the brand, having failed here once before, may face a bumpy ride in winning over buyers.