Like most European brands, Citroen has been in Malaysia for decades. Being formerly a British colony, there were more British brands while French brands were more common in Indo-China, which the French had colonised.
The first serious marketing effort of Citroen cars began in 1975 when Pamagrima Sdn Bhd was appointed as the franchise holder. The company opened branches in major towns around Peninsular Malaysia and also had a small network of dealers.
The model line that it offered in those years comprised the GS and CX models, the latter a large futuristic sedan with the adjustable hydro-pneumatic suspension that allowed the car’s ground clearance to be varied. It also had other features, including power-assisted steering.
In the mid-1980s, the franchise was taken over by Directional (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd, which was affiliated with the Master Carriage Group that later became part of the DRB-HICOM Group. Directional moved the brand to the next level as it began local assembly of certain models, starting with a small batch of the CX model. It could do so as the Master Carriage Group had bought over and further developed the TATA assembly plant in Pekan, Pahang (today, it is the huge DRB-HICOM manufacturing complex). Other models that were assembled were the BX, ZX and Xantia. Of these, the ZX was produced in the largest numbers as it sold pretty well.
The association that Directional and the Master Carriage Group/DRB had with Citroen also led to a deal whereby the AX model was provided to Usahasama Proton-DRB (USPD), a joint-venture between Proton and DRB which was a separate sales channel, and sold as a Proton Tiara in 1995. The Tiara gave Proton a small hatchback to add to its range without the high cost of R&D to develop a new model.
Citroen can also be credited for having been an influence in the reduction of the roadtax for diesel engines. It is believed that during a visit to Citroen in 1995, Tun Mahathir was impressed by the advances in diesel technology, as demonstrated in Citroen engines, and upon returning to Malaysia, he recommended that a 50% rebate be given for roadtax for diesel engines provided they met the Euro-1 emission standard that qualified them as ‘Green Engines’. The rebate certainly revived interest in diesel models in the private sector and continues to this day.
After the AX-Tiara deal, Proton was to have followed up with another Citroen model known as the Saxo. This was a more modern design and plans to make it at the Pekan plant were advanced to the point that one unit was built as a test run. However, negotiations broke down due to disagreement on the fees Proton had to pay so the relationship ended.
After 2000, however, Citroen reviewed its strategies and the availability of right-hand drive variants was a lower priority. This was unfortunate for Directional which had been building up the brand over the years. It had to import CBU models and these were harder to price attractively.
By 2006, Directional stopped representing Citroen and in the interim, the French carmaker appointed Brooklands Motors to provide after-sales support for some 2,000 vehicles believed to be still in active use at that time. Though not appointed as franchise-holder, Brooklands functioned like one and invested RM7 million to establish outlets that looked like Citroen dealerships in Europe. Impressed by its commitment, Citroen decided to officially appoint Brooklands as its distributor in 2007.
However, given that Brooklands could only sell CBU models, it was challenging to get the numbers up. It had a strong commitment to represent the French brand and ensured that after-sales services were fully maintained so that owners stayed loyal, and it did what it could with the models available to the Malaysian market.
In the past couple of years, Citroen has also begun to take a more global view for its business where it had been ‘Europe-centric’ before.
Seeing how Asia holds promise of more growth, the company knows it had to give markets in this region more attention where product configurations are concerned.
Ironically, Citroen was one of the first carmakers to have a joint-venture operation in China when it began opening up in the mid-1980s.
Eric Dumondelle, who was the company’s Area Manager for Asia, told Motor Trader last year that there will be increased focus on what customers in this region need, which is very different from 10 years ago when the focus was on European markets. As an example, he said that it is understood how automatic transmissions are preferred whereas European motorists still like manuals.
So as Naza Euro Motors Sdn Bhd takes over the Citroen franchise from this year, the future looks much brighter for the brand in Malaysia and given the track record of the Naza Group in growing the Peugeot brand (Citroen is part of the Peugeot PSA Group), we could see Citroen gaining a strong position albeit as a niche brand.