Over in the wide open spaces of agricultural Brittany, PSA Peugeot Citroen has just embarked on its latest attempt to be taken seriously as the maker of luxury cars.

On Thursday (24 November) automotive journalists were let into the 40-year-old Citroen factory for the first time. They were able to see the first cars coming off the line and to inspect the massive overhaul of facilities which will allow the French company to claim quality standards the equal of countries more routinely associated with quality car production.

The plant at Rennes was first built in the sixties to provide some industrial employment alongside the rural economy. At first it was a Citroen plant but now PSA Peugeot Citroen has made a conscious decision to make this unlikely location the headquarters of its upmarket challenge.

It is to be THE production centre for the group's Platform 3 which is to say that it will be responsible for the Peugeot 407 and the Citroen C6 families. Also there is the older Citroen C5. The only vehicle missing is the Peugeot 607 but this is expected to be moved in to Rennes when it is ready for its model update.

Citroen has been missing from the ranks of luxury cars since the fine run of DS, CX and SM came to an end, and its re-entry into the market will be a challenge for the marketing people. That challenge will be most fierce in the UK where Citroen has positioned itself as a value brand over the last six years. However, the UK marketing gurus have set realistic sales targets of well under 1,000 in the first year and believe that there is sufficient interest and goodwill for the brands to secure sales - particularly from the UK's user-chooser market.

On show also was the Peugeot 407 coupe, much admired for its styling by the motoring Press and even described by Autocar as reminiscent of Ferrari from some angles.

Though the attempt to get back on terms with the German car makers may look ambitious for a company best known for its small car success, the group believes that they have little alternative in these days of increasing brand influence. Good brand reputation trickles down from the top, they believe, and to have no top is to invite slow death.

The principal market for these two cars will of course be France, which is the most patriotic market in Europe when it comes to car purchase. The strange and interesting decision by Citroen is to make the C6 what they describe in their own terms as "presidential." The rear contains only two (adjustable) seats. If you want to sit a fifth passenger in the middle of the back he sits on the fixed belt buckles of the two presidents either side of him.

Citroen is not fazed by the loss of the market for families of five, and claims to not even had to think about it very hard. They believe that too few cars offer armchair comfort for four passengers. The C6's front drive layout with unusually large overall width and length plus the electric sliding rear seats give unrivalled leg and elbow room for the money (around £30,000). There is no doubt that the chauffeur-driven French bureaucrats are going to like this one.

State-of-the-art technology will play a role in the C6's appeal, with features such as active suspension with variable damping, a lane departure warning system, laminated glass in all the windows, directional xenon headlamps, front and rear parking sensors.

Citroën also claims to be the first manufacturer to offer a 'head-up' display, projecting information onto the windscreen, as standard. The car will feature Citroën's first electronic parking brake, and the company says it has also worked hard on driver comfort: a new front/back and left/right 'soft diffusion' air conditioning system.

That diesel engine option is already used in the Jaguar S-type.

PSA's ability to fund the full range of quality cars for both brands will derive partly from the shared platform which can be stretched over three different lengths and set at three different ride heights with minimal alteration. It means that all models have common components worth just over 50% of the cost of the car which is a far cry from the 15% achieved on the so-called common platform of the Peugeot 106 and Citroen Saxo.

The group defines its platform as covering the electrical multiplex, the HVAC and the running gear as well as the underbody.

The investment in the plant will be EUR800m over the years 2002 to 2007 and output is only just over 300,000 currently so getting a decent return without good take-up for the cars will be tight.

Conversion of the factory for the new cars has been extensive and detailed. For example the fork-lift trucks get 100% rubber wheels to stop the spread of carbon dust onto newly painted surfaces, and the assembly line has been given a French oak floor to remind operatives that they need to be as caring with the new cars as they would be with their own stuff at home.

Rob Golding

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