New DS boss: on new cars, targeting growth and customer service

Published: 07 April 2021

► DS 9 saloon launches critical year for DS
► We speak to new UK boss, Jules Tilstone
► Can customer service and EV move the needle? 

Two new cars – the DS 9 saloon and DS 4 hatch-cum-crossover – signals that 2021 is a big year for DS Automobiles, one where it needs to gain a genuine foothold in the UK. 

Leading the way is a new managing director, Jules Tilstone, who has lived and breathed the brand for six years in key European marketing and sales roles, and has that resolute air of an executive who’s going to get things moving – or leave everything on the playing field in the event of defeat.

‘Blood, sweat and tears have gone into where we are today,’ he begins, in softly spoken, measured answers. ‘And in the first three months of 2021, we have outsold Lexus and Jaguar in Europe. Not bad for a brand that’s only five or six years old, with just two models.’

‘We’re [up against] some extremely well-established brands, who took some time to reach their potential. I don’t think we’re doing too badly. But the potential is huge, including in the UK, with it being the second largest premium market in Europe.’

We need to talk about UK performance, Jules…

Car is sitting with Tilstone on the cream leather furniture of DS Leicester, two years on from my last venture inside a DS Store in Manchester. Then, there was a sense of excitement, with 5074 registrations from the DS 7 Crossback alone in 2018, and the DS 3 Crossback with a pure electric version about to launch. 

DS boss Jules Tilstone and DS 9

Yet 2019 witnessed registrations go backwards to 4299 units (just 0.19 per cent market share, compared with 1.5 per cent across Europe in ‘21). And those UK figures are pre-Covid; what went wrong?

‘There are numerous factors in there, which are difficult to point out as individual elements,’ he answers diplomatically. ‘When I look at how we’ve succeeded in markets outside of the UK, I think the Store/Salon piece is significant.’

Tilstone is referring to the retail network, which back in 2019 consisted almost entirely of ‘salons’ – small boutique areas within existing Citroën dealers, with limited space to showcase models and the brand experience. Now the split is roughly 50:50 between the 32 retailers, with more standalone, sizeable Stores – and the ambition to fill 13 more territories to broaden coverage beyond half the market.

‘We lost a little bit of momentum in in early 2020. Now’s the time, with two new products coming as well as evolutions in the network and opportunities with businesses [fleets and user choosers], for us to accelerate.’ Stellantis, newly formed from the merger between Peugeot-Citroën and Fiat-Chrysler, makes it easier for DS to explore interest from retailers currently selling Fiats, Alfas or Jeeps.

DS: still focused on customer service

DS has always vowed to offer a distinctive customer experience. Examples include picking up your DS for servicing and delivering it back, inviting owners to Harvey Nichols fashion shows or Mademoiselle Macaron digital confectionary classes, and having your own ‘concierge’ as the sole point of contact. 

DS boss Jules Tilstone at DS Store Leicester

A new element is DS+, which aims to capitalise on an emerging trend: some consumers’ desire to slim down the number of household cars. Having surveyed 2000 households, DS found that 36 per cent were considering owning fewer cars, if they could get short-term access to mobility on demand. Driving forces include the expectation of fewer commutes post-Covid, and with more punters choosing electric cars, the requirement of combustion engine or hybrid alternatives for big trips.

‘Buy a DS and you’ll get access to a second or third car on demand through the app,’ says Tilstone. The turnaround time is set to be 48 hours or less where possible, and a DS 3 Crossback would set customers back £48 a day, or less for loans surpassing three days. It’s an interesting take on the shared mobility concept that the car industry is wrestling with.

And DS9: how does Tilstone expect the saloon to fare?

The DS 9 will arrive in the expanding DS retail network in September. Prices start at £40,615 for the Puretech petrol Performance Line+ (see our specs and prices story) – undercutting the German premium rivals – though softer residual values will inevitably lead to higher monthly rentals in the crucial leasing market, despite tiny volumes.

‘We’re talking about hundreds not thousands [of annual registrations],’ explains the managing director. ‘We’re not going to go into a price war with other premium brands. There’s no pressure on us to push market share.’

Hundreds is a mere fraction of BMW UK’s 14,308 5-series saloon registrations in 2019; more realistic targets are the Lexus ES and Volvo S90 with 1018 and 2189 units respectively.

Like the Volvo and Lexus models, there’s no diesel and a big focus on hybrids: every DS model has an E-Tense electrified version, be it pure EV with the DS 3 Crossback or PHEVs for the others. The brand went early on electrification, and has twice won the Formula E race series.

Indeed DS 9 will offer three plug-in hybrids. ‘We’re predicting 60 per cent of our volume will be PHEV, but I’m interested to see whether that’s too cautious.’ Business users – who qualify for reduced company car tax – will drive that.

DS boss Jules Tilstone inside new DS 9

You wait years for a new DS, then two come at once

Following hot on the tailpipe of the DS 9 is the DS 4. The midsize hatch opens for orders in September, with deliveries in the final few months of 2021. Is this the breakthrough DS model?

‘As manufacturers, you don’t want one car to be your unlocking pin: to be reliant on one model is a frightening concept,’ says Tilstone wryly. ‘But the DS4 will be a significant car for us. Your design can be more expressive to stand out in the C- segment, and the size of the segment brings opportunity.’

The DS 7 Crossback is ageing, the DS 3 Crossback has failed to make an imprint in the UK, and the DS 9 will be rarer than a spring trip to France. Whether Tilstone likes it or not, the DS 4’s performance next year will give a big hint to whether his tenure will be associated with failure – or sustained progress.

By Phil McNamara

Editor-in-chief of CAR magazine