French carmakers have been all but pushed out of the luxury segment in the European car market, something that must really rankle with a country that prides itself on its strength in fashion and luxury goods. 

French Group LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Moet Hennessy), for example, is a luxury power house with around 60 brands that stretch from TAG Heuer to Kenzo to Krug. In recent years the fortunes of LVMH have been transformed by affluent Chinese consumers who cannot resist upmarket European brands. Indeed, on the opening day of the Shanghai motor show, LVMH announced that global sales were up by 17 per cent in the first quarter of 2011.

 

The French automotive industry would love to be able to piggyback such huge success and become part of the luxury league, but after Renault’s ill-fated dash upmarket, Citroen, Renault and Peugeot seem condemned to fight it out in Europe’s middle market. The huge Chinese market, however, seems to have presented Citroen with an opportunity to at least partly re-invent itself.  

Shanghai was the venue for the unveiling of the new DS5, the third and most upmarket model in the DS series. A smart and distinctive tall estate, the concept was drawing big crowds. The DS stand was staffed by excited and immaculately groomed French women and sumptuously fitted out like a luxury store. The interior of the DS5 was also sumptuously hand-trimmed in what looked like saddle leather. 

To drive home the message of hand-crafted quality, and to try and link the DS directly with luxury leather goods that the Chinese find so compelling, Citroen had a pair of craftsmen on the show stand trimming a DS steering wheel. 

From the reaction of the Chinese at the show today, it looked like Citroen’s DS brand really has a serious chance of surfing the local passion for French luxury brands and becoming an upmarket, stand-alone, brand.

Even if pulling off the same trick in Europe will be much more difficult, Citroen bosses may not care if DS manages to crack the luxury end of what is now the world’s biggest new car market.