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Everything you need to know about Citroën

Say Citroën and many may still think of the 2CV – but the real story of the innovative French car maker is very different

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Citroën might be one of the more familiar names on the UK car market, but many probably don’t realise just how innovative the French manufacturer has been over its more than 100-year history.

Many features taken for granted in today’s cars were popularised on Citroëns, among them disc brakes, front-wheel drive and diesel engines.

Citroën was also renowned for the look of its cars, not least the DS of the 1950s, its aerodynamic body and innovative self-levelling suspension earning it third place in a vote for the ‘Car of the Century’.  Hydro-pneumatic suspension, providing a far more comfortable ride, would be a distinctive feature of Citroën cars for many years.

Citroën profits never matched the level of its innovation which led to a merger with French state brand Peugeot in the mid-1970s. In the years that followed the distinctive aspects of Citroën were diluted, but in more recent times the brand has tried to recover some of that reputation – particularly in terms of styling.    

While perhaps the most famous Citroën model remains the extremely basic, underpowered 2CV, it is by no means indicative of what Citroën has been all about.

So who or what is Citroën?

Like many car manufacturers, Citroën started off making something very different – in this case, it was armaments for the French military in the first world war. But company founder André Citroën already had some automotive experience with early manufacturer Mors, and he realised that when the war ended he would own an up-to-date factory with nothing to make.

The result was the Citroën Type A. Unveiled in March 1919, it was a 10hp car designed to be better but cheaper than any rival, and André began selling them from a showroom on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the building still used by Citroën today.

André Citroën was an innovator. He introduced the first all-steel body on a European car in 1927, thanks to a relationship with American Edward Budd, who made stainless-steel bodies for Pullman cars on the railways.

The first diesel-powered passenger car followed in 1933, while the Traction Avant of a year later was a three-time innovator – the first car without a separate chassis, with independent suspension all round and with front-wheel drive.

However, Citroën’s insistence on selling his cars cheaper than those of rivals led to major losses. In 1934 the company faced bankruptcy and was bought out by tyre manufacturer Michelin. André Citroën died in the following year.

Citroën had also began building half-track military vehicles – these so impressed the US Army that it acquired a licence to produce them and eventually made some 41,000 during the second world war. Ironically, Citroën’s own vehicles were taken over by the Nazi occupiers of France in 1940 and used by the German army, two opposing nations facing each other with the same hardware.

Straight after the second world war, Citroën launched one of its most famous cars – the very basic and dirt-cheap 2CV. Intended to allow French farmers to replace their horses with cars, it became a cult phenomenon and would stay on sale until 1990 with 9 million made.

It was the DS of 1955 that had a more significant effect, however. Not only was it highly aerodynamic compared to rivals, it introduced self-levelling hydro-pneumatic suspension. On turning the key, the car would raise itself to its travelling height, which could be adjusted by the driver. The system would be fitted to more than 9 million Citroën cars over the next few decades.

Citroën also tried to develop more powerful cars in novel ways, not least by buying Italian sports car maker Maserati in 1968, only to sell it again in 1975. While it led to some innovative and impressive cars, the company was never far from financial trouble.

Fiat took a 49% stake from Michelin in 1968, only to sell it back again five years later, and shortly after Citroën again faced bankruptcy. At this point the French government, fearing huge job losses, stepped in and Citroën was merged with its great rival Peugeot.

After this Peugeot and Citroën cars became increasingly similar to one another, the innovative nature of the latter diluted. This was partly addressed in 2009 with the launch of sub-brand DS Automobiles – recalling the classic DS of the early 1950s and boasting a slogan ‘Spirit of Avant Garde’.

DS Automobiles has since been spun off as a standalone brand but remains closely connected to Citroën, which with sister brand Peugeot is now part of the giant Stellantis Group, encompassing brands as diverse as Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Jeep and Vauxhall. And in recent times Citroën has again been trying to build more distinction into its cars, especially in their styling.

What models does Citroën have and what else is coming?

The Citroën model range has been rationalised somewhat in recent years while adopting the move to electric travel – eight of the currently available nine model line-ups are electrified in some way, either fully electric or hybrid.

Core of the range have long been the ‘three Cs’, the C3, C4 and C5 which started life as traditional cars of increasing size. The C3 remains as a supermini-sized five-door hatch but now is generally overshadowed by its SUV sister, the C3 Aircross – recently facelifted, this shares much of its build with the Peugeot 2008 and the Vauxhall Crossland.

Likely to bring the C3 badge back to prominence is the all-new ë-C3. Launching in late 2024, this latest-generation all-electric C3 will also debut Citroën’s latest design language. Rumours suggest the ë-C3 will also be one of the cheapest EVs on the market, and it will be followed by what Citroën calls “a proper B-segment SUV” in an all-new C3 Aircross.

The C4 went on sale in 2021 as the latest offering from Citroën in the five-door family car market, competing against the likes of the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra. However, the Citroën looks different and has a higher ride height compared to its rivals, sort of halfway to SUV status.

The C4 is offered in electric form, called the ë-C4, and in early 2023 this gained a sister model, the ë-C4 X. This is a four-door saloon again sitting in the grey area between normal car and SUV, and considered to be of somewhat limited appeal compared to the hatch.

With Citroën’s traditional large offerings, the C5 and C6, consigned like their market to history, the big car choice was filled by the C5 Aircross, an SUV that went on sale early in 2019. This is now considered rather conservative alongside the C5 X, effectively a bigger version of the C4. Launched in 2022, it has been enthusiastically received with some calling it the best Citroën in years.

Citroën has enjoyed great success with its van-based people-carriers, particularly the Berlingo. The combustion-engine version has recently been discontinued leaving only the ë-Berlingo. Similarly, the much larger SpaceTourer is only now offered in electric form – based on the Dispatch van, it is able to seat nine.

And if you want quirky… Citroën offers the Ami, effectively an electric quadricycle with a roof, seating two and going no further than around 40 miles before you have to plug it in.

Where can I try a Citroën car?

Citroën has 130 dealerships across the UK, many of them in joint outlets with Peugeot – a postcode finder on the Citroen UK website will help locate the nearest outlet to you.

A much smaller number of outlets also sell cars from spin-off brand DS in what are known as ‘DS Salons’, though DS favours sales through its website.

The largest Citroën dealer group is actually owned by the manufacturer’s owner – called ‘Stellantis & You’, it has 18 sites across the country.

What makes Citroën different to the rest?

It’s fair to say that being ‘different to the rest’ is a trait much more appropriate to the Citroën of earlier years than it is today.

The merger with Peugeot robbed Citroën of much of its individuality as the two makes indulged in such economies as platform-sharing and that has only increased since they joined with such brands as Vauxhall in the giant Stellantis group.

In recent times however, as well as launching the spin-off DS brand (which admittedly some buyers still struggle to fully understand) Citroën has tried to revive some of its individuality in the look of its cars, with novel body shapes in itsC4 and C5 X, styling touches as the ‘air bubbles’ applied to the side of some models and more stylish interiors.

Today’s Citroën cars certainly look more distinctive than those of sister maker Peugeot and the brand enjoys a generally positive reputation amongst buyers.

A Citroën fact to impress your friends

Citroën has a place in the famous Guinness Book of World Records, for the world’s largest advertising sign.

Between 1925 and 1934, the company name and its double chevron logo were illuminated on three sides of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

It took 250,000 light bulbs and almost 400 miles of cable to make the letters, which were each 30 metres high.

The advertising programme ended in 1934 when Citroën fell into bankruptcy.

Summary

The Citroën of today is a major mainstream manufacturer with a similar appeal to other big names such as its sister Peugeot, Ford and Vauxhall.

But the brand has tried hard to revive some of the distinctive elements of its earlier years and its models can polarise some opinions – in turn making them appeal more to those who want all the practicality of a mainstream car without driving something as bland as the next car in the traffic light queue. 

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.