Over the years, Americans have graciously accepted gifts from the French. The Statue of Liberty, for one, was presented in 1886 as a symbol of freedom and democracy shared between the two nations. In 1949, France sent the Merci Train to the U.S. as a way of thanking the country for its efforts in World War II. Hell, even Thomas Jefferson was hooked on french fries as early as 1802. But when it comes to French cars, Americans have been historically standoffish.
Case in point: Peugeot is one of the oldest automakers in the world, its origins dating back to a steel mill from 1810. It quietly disappeared from our shores in 1991. Renault was the distant runner up to Volkswagen in import sales, but despite an alliance with American Motors in the ’80s, it’s been gone since 1987. And Citroën, that iconic brand that gave the world iconic cars like the 2CV, Traction-Avant, SM, and DS, has been gone since 1974.
But now, it looks like Citroën’s planning a comeback.
According to Car and Driver, sources within the company are planning a return to the North American market within the next few years with its upscale DS line of cars, saying that the move is “necessary” for the brand’s growth. The DS line was spun off into its own brand in 2010, and has since become a sizable hit for the company in Europe and China. Currently, the lineup has four cars: The subcompact DS3, DS4 crossover, DS5 five-door hatch, and DS6 SUV. And while this sounds just like the type of lineup to win over the crossover-hungry American market, there’s still a lot of work Citroën needs to do if it wants to win over buyers in the U.S.
Launched in 1955, the Citroën DS was a sensation, with the company taking 12,000 orders on the first day alone. And for its 20-year production run, the DS was peerless. It had Citroën’s famous Oleopneumatique self-leveling suspension, was the first mass-production car with standard disc brakes, and has been called the most beautiful car ever made. Playing up its ethereal beauty, Citroën called the car DS because it sounded like “Deésse,” or goddess, and 60 years later, the car is considered a French national treasure.
So it makes sense that Citroën would revive the name, albeit this time as a brand. And in just five years, it’s begun to resonate in creative circles. According to Car and Driver, “DS has resonated with and become a hit among a specific set of buyers: individualists, intellectuals, and customers who are immersed in the culture of art and architecture.” On this side of the pond, this group could be compared to the former Saab set, that loyal group of customers that were forced to shift to brands like Audi and Volvo in the years since the Swedish brand went under.
But Saab’s loyal fanbase wasn’t enough to save it from oblivion, and DS would have an equally difficult time picking up where the Swedish brand left off. Despite being sold in 160 countries (including Mexico), parent company PSA Peugeot Citroën has no dealer network in the U.S. or Canada, and building one from scratch will be a monumental task. Then it needs to convince American buyers that an unproven French brand is worth investing in over a more established American, Japanese, or German competitor. While this isn’t impossible, it will certainly be an uphill battle, at least at first.
But none of this should stop Citroën from sending DS over. Just because the company doesn’t build the rolling sculptures it once did doesn’t mean it isn’t still one of the most interesting automakers in the world. Besides, the idea of not being able to buy a five-speed diesel C4 Cactus crossover in America makes us green with envy. The auto world is changing fast, and a globalized market is doing wonders to tear down old misconceptions about brands, with Hyundai being the biggest example. Americans want luxury, crossovers, and a little bit of exclusivity thrown into the mix. We think the time is right for French cars to make a comeback. It remains to be seen if the rest of the country agrees.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS