Even though the French group PSA Peugeot Citroën boasts about being the sixth largest automaker in the world with five percent of the world market, it is difficult to take it seriously as a world player when it does not have a presence in North America. And yet, despite its absence from the world’s largest market, it is not only surviving, but is actually prospering. Over the past three years it has enjoyed the industry’s fastest growth with unit sales rising 34% while a 16.7% rise in daily output is set to confirm it as the world’s fastest-growing car manufacturer this year and the second largest car manufacturer in Europe. From a number-crunching point of view, it means that daily production will rise from 12,000 to 14,000 units under an expansion plan that will enable the group to sell more than three million vehicles a year.
This absence from North America, though, is not a new phenomenon. Peugeot did not start selling cars officially in the U.S. until 1958, but really need not have othered as sales were so poor. Even in its best year—1984—sales were just 25,000 units before dropping to 20,000 in 1985 and then declining by 25% a year until 1991, when it reached an all-time low of just 1,750 units. The last Peugeots sold in the U.S. were the 405 and 505 models in 1992.
Citroën did not fare any better. The D-series just was not to North American tastes, while the quirky 2CV with its odd looks and minute 602-cc engine was as if from a different planet at a time when U.S. manufacturers were competing to produce the biggest car with the largest engine in the early 1960s. The little known Mehari—a plastic-bodied 2-seater, air-cooled machine whose body cracked and color faded in the bright Hawaiian sun where the majority were sold—fared little better as did the Ami, the GS and even the Maserati-powered SM.
However, for all its failure in North America, the Europeans, particularly the French, loved the brands, especially Citroën. For them, it represented motoring in the Gallic way and it stood out from every other car on the road. Even the quirky hydraulic suspension was a feature and a reason to buy the car.
For all the local enthusiasm, though, not enough Citroëns and Peugeots were sold to sustain their individual independence, so the two merged in 1974 to form the PSA Peugeot Citroën group. With Peugeot being the dominant partner, it began to stamp its authority on its erstwhile rival to the extent that Citroëns soon began to lose much of their quirkiness or individuality, depending on whether you were an admirer or not, and became far more mainstream.Nevertheless, while the two French companies were an early example of what we have come to expect with today’s rationalisation process, a Citroën is still a different proposition to a Peugeot, even if you do find a great deal of commonality when look-ing underneath.
A case in point is Citroën’s new C5 model, the first vehicle to be built on the group’s so-called Platform Three that is dedicated to both Citroëns and Peugeots in the upper-mid-range and luxury segments. It is being built alongside the Xsara and the Xantia models at the group’s Rennes-la-Janais plant, a large sprawling site in Brittany, France, with a workforce of 9,940 that, under the manufacturing strategy announced in 1998, is the group’s designated facility for Platform Three. The launch of the C5, with its daily output of 920 units when fully ramped up, means that plant capacity will increase from 1,300 to 1,700 units a day. By late next year, the second Platform Three product, the Peugeot 406 replacement, is due to be joining the C5, followed by the executive C6.
In order to gear up for both the new model and the increased output, the plant has seen investment to the tune of FF 3,700 million ($530 million) with FF 850 million specifically going into body assembly. The result is the introduction of some major innovations.
Key to the dual-brand production capability at Rennes is Geoflexor, a robotic manufacturing station that automatically welds side panels to underbody sections to form the car body in a single operation. Created specially for PSA, the equipment uses “smart” technology and is capable of reading the barcode stamped on each sub-structure and then fitting the relevant sections into place in seconds. Introduced with the recently facelifted Xsara range, the Geoflexor system produces optimum geometry as it carries out an average of 100 spot welds per body. Altogether the body assembly of the C5 involves 240 robots.
“We are very proud of this innovation,” says assembly engineer Lionel Creusefond. “The equipment is able to process up to four variations on the same platform, so it is easy for us to assemble the estate version of the C5—and also different versions of the new Peugeot 406 replacement—without any interruption to the flow of the line.”
Also new to the plant with the C5 is the “siamese line.” While the initial stage of body assembly sees the C5 and Xsara’s sub-structure, side and roof panels go down parallel lines, they then come together to go down a single line irrespective of the model.
Another new process that has been introduced with the C5 is weld bonding. A technique first used in the aerospace industry, weld bonding uses a structural adhesive film to reduce the number of spot welds. In terms of product quality, says Citroën, this industrial innovation increases vehicle stiffness and optimises the sealing quality of welded parts.
Other areas of the plant that have seen investment include FF 620 million in stamping (108 presses in 18 lines and one cutting line) and FF 30 million in the paint shop (two independent lines and eight hours per vehicle). Final assembly, which boasts three assembly lines with eight hours 20 minutes the average duration of vehicle assembly, saw FF 200 million of investment for the launch of the C5. Other investments specifically made for the C5 included FF 50 million in logistics and FF 1,050 million with the suppliers of production tooling.
“C5 is an important strategic step in our policy for international growth and will further boost the success of Citroën which is already playing a major role in the development of the group,” says PSA chairman Jean-Martin Folz. “In Europe last year, the brand sold 1.14 million vehicles and grew by 13.6 percent and we expect to achieve 1.2 million sales in 2001. This car will be a success because it is innovative and at the top of its class in terms of internal size and is superior in other key areas such as suspension and power units.”