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DS seeks reboot to rise

Date: 04 April 2018   |   Author: Guy Bird

To say the DS brand needs a sales uplift would be an understatement. UK registrations numbered 9,082 in 2017, down 43% on 2016's 15,898 tally and most of them (up to 8,000) courtesy of the DS 3 model strongly related to the previous Citroen C3 supermini. But all that is about to change - and has to - if parent company PSA is to convince the buying public that DS really is a stand-alone premium brand that can truly sit above sister brands Peugeot and Citroen. 

So instead of a range that stays too close to existing Citroens in platform and shared components, DS now hopes to stand on its own two feet, from genuinely new product like the DS 7 Crossback, to a revised and more separate dealer network. As DS UK marketing director Mark Blundell told BusinessCar, "It's not just a model within a range, it's the first product of a new generation of DS and our flagship." 

At 4.57m in length, the mid-size SUV DS 7 sits between the Mazda CX-5 (4.55m) and Land Rover Discovery Sport (4.59m), although its aspiration is more towards the latter brand's premium status than the former, and sees smaller cars like the Audi Q3 (4.38m) as a more direct rival. Either way, some aspects of the DS UK marketing push aim higher still, mentioning the marque in the same breath as French high-end fashion brands like Louis Vuitton or Hermés, in the hope that one day DS could be an automotive interpretation of French luxury. 

Certainly, the DS 7's cabin offers original design and trim details that take a leaf out of French fashion techniques, with accordingly fancy Gallic place names for its different interior options, such as Rivoli and Opera. On the technology side, the DS 7 references a different greatness, with its active scan suspension function clearly a nod to the hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension of the classic 1950s and '60s DS that for 2018 employs a camera that 'reads' the road ahead and is electronically linked to the front and rear axles to adapt the ride accordingly. Front LED lights that swivel at switch-on are a neat dramatic flourish and a 300hp plug-in hybrid is due in spring 2019, albeit for a hefty £50,000. But from its March 2018 launch, the DS 7 range starts at a more modest £28,050 with conventional powertrains - 130 and 180hp diesel units plus a 225hp petrol. 

Consequently, DS's vice-president of design programmes, Ivo Groen, is realistic about where the brand sits today. "We are here to be humble," he said. "We're a premium brand, but we aspire to be luxury". The DS 7 may be the first model of this push - and is predicted by Blundell to shift 6,000 units in 2018, out of a 12,000 total target - but will be followed by one new product every year until 2025. The next of these has already been confirmed as another SUV: a smaller Audi Q1 rival probably called the DS 3 Crossback, followed by four more cars. These will be neatly differentiated - "we don't want clones", declared Groen - one of which he promised would be an "icon" for the brand. It is a bold claim. 

Currently, Blundell says DS sales currently favour retail (60%) over fleet (40%), but he would like, and expects, those percentages to change to an even 50/50 split as the more retail-focused DS 3 becomes less important to the brand. For this to happen, in Blundell's view, it is crucial for new DS 7 customers to feel like they're getting a different service to that offered by more regular car brands. 

"Early adopters need to become repeat purchasers and brand advocates, through great dealer service and privileges," he said.  Examples could include the dealer coming to the customer, rather than the other way round, and offering bespoke valet and rental services. Meanwhile the DS customer Privilege Club might offer brand and culturally appropriate regional events, for example French gastronomy. 

To better delineate DS as a separate entity (it formally became a separate brand in 2014) UK head of product Vince Clisham wants 60 DS dealers by mid-2018 and up to 80 by the year's end, all of which will have at least one expert adviser trained at DS's Paris academy. 

It's a tough gig and, for now, DS doesn't have a range of consistent product to back up its lofty aim. But if it can lay the groundwork, be patient and fund the long game as the model line-up is refreshed, who knows how far DS could go? With Peugeot and Citroen there to offer volume vehicles, maybe fleet managers should keep an eye on DS.