I’m on tenterhooks here. It’s coincidental that Mike publishes an article here sub-titled ‘Last-chance saloon’ today. Why, you ask? Tomorrow, at 9am, Citroën will be unveiling the first pictures and technical details of its next large car – and I can’t help feel that it’s going to be the double chevron’s last shot at fighting larger, traditionally-bodied vehicles.
As the former owner of a Citroën C6, as well as multiple C5s, XMs and CXs, it’s been the cause of considerable pain for me that, once the last C5 went off sale in the UK, the company’s been without representation here. Yes, there was the Citroën DS5, which mutated into the DS 5, but that always felt like it belonged to a different bloodline, as interesting as it was.
So, as the company moves rapidly towards sating the demands of Europe’s SUV buyers, its flagship car has been the C5 Aircross, which is comfortable and practical, but it is a long way from being elegant in the way that a big Citroën really needs to be. And to me, that’s the core to a big Citroën’s appeal – its elegance.
What I’m hoping for
I’m in the fortunate position to have interviewed former Citroën CEO Linda Jackson (ex-Rover France, I’ll have you know) and her replacement Vincent Cobee, and, in both cases, the matter of how they were going to replace the C5 was a subject I kept coming back to. Linda always took great pains to say the new C5 would be important to the company, and it would be ‘a proper Citroën, cigar shaped and as comfortable as you’d expect’.
These were encouraging words, mainly because it felt that after the wonderful C6’s (above) commercial failure (sorry, but it was many things, but it was a sales flop, even in France), there might be a resistance to innovating. The C5 was a much more conventional-looking car than the C6, but it was technically very interesting for its continued used of Hydractive 3+ suspension, a fixed-hub steering wheel and sleek and cohesive styling.
But – again – the C5 didn’t set the new car market alive, especially in its latter years, and despite all of the above qualities, buyers increasingly went for German saloons and hatchbacks over the C5… and that’s before we take into consideration the rise of the SUV as an alternative to the trad saloon and hatch.
However, despite that, and with Linda Jackson’s words ringing in my ears, and that she said it would draw heavily on the looks of the 2017 CXPerience concept (below), I’d expect that the new C5 (it can’t really be a C6, as the Chinese market already gets one of those) will be sleek and elegant, especially as it should share its underpinnings with the Peugeot 508 – a proper looker.
Are looks enough?
Will a good-looking car be enough to fight the premium manufacturers as well as the SUVs? This is the million Euro question, because big Citroëns were always much more than just good-looking cars. The original DS was otherworldly, the SM was sublime, the CX was aerodynamic and efficient and made great use of its hydropneumatic suspension, whereas the XM added computer control to make it drive better in all situations. The C6 made it fully active via AMVAR (to mixed results) and, if you include the Xantia Activa, it developed anti-roll to a peak that’s never been topped in a mass-market car.
The new C5 is going to have to innovate in the same way in order to continue this hallowed bloodline. But it must do so in a way that attracts customers back to Citroën and make money for the company – something that probably eluded the XM and definitely never happened with the C6. Profit is important to parent company Stellantis, and this one will need to butter its bread in order to avoid being bypassed completely for DS in this market sector.
So, it needs to innovate, but not too much. With memories of other left-field glorious French failures such as the brilliantly pointless (but oh-so desirable to me) Renault Vel Satis and Avantime as well as the Citroën DS5/DS 5, Citroën won’t want to get punished by crossing over bodystyles too blatantly – but, with those SUVs flying out of the showrooms, it may well need to in order to appeal to just those buyers. The new C4 hatchback blends some SUV attitude into its design, and you can see Citroën’s logic in doing so, but it’s too early to say how new car buyers are taking to it.
Why should you care?
Why indeed? In an increasingly homogenised legacy automotive world, we’re running increasingly low on free-thinking players to cheer on. Citroën is a small cog in the sprawling Stellantis empire, but it’s a vitally important one. Yes, the group’s luxury ambitions are being handled by DS (and it has to be said that the new DS 9 does look very good), but the new C5 will represent an important mission statement about Citroën’s place in the new car world – if this one fails, it will become just another maker of small hatchbacks and family SUVs.
I really want to see some genuine progress in suspension design, and new standards of silence for its class achieved. There’s the drive and talent in the company to achieve this and, under the current management with Carlos Tavares at the helm, you can guarantee that any new innovations are immaculately costed.
So, I’m rooting for this one, and I hope you forgive me for opining about Citroën on this primarily UK-based channel. But Citroën has been such a big part of my life – from that very first toy SM Matchbox Car aged five, via my first BX back in the early 1990s, to the beloved C6 that served me so well a few years back – that it can’t be anything other than important to me.
Come on Citroën, don’t disappoint me tomorrow!