PARIS – After three years of construction, Automobiles Citroen opened its new “brand showroom,” a stunning 6-story tower of glass sandwiched between two more traditional stone buildings on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris.

C_42 (the address is 42 Champs Elysees) was planned in 2001, when Jean-Martin Folz was the CEO of PSA Peugeot Citroen and Claude Satinet was general manager of the Citroen brand, but the grand opening arrives fortuitously for two new bosses, CEO Christian Streiff and Citroen’s Gilles Michel.

Streiff announced earlier in September that Peugeot and Citroen would move further apart in their brand identities: Peugeot would be “reassuring” and Citroen “surprising.”

The architecture of C_42 fits the strategy perfectly. It resembles a geodesic dome made of glass, except the glass windows aren’t so regular and many of them look like the dual chevrons of the Citroen logo. Inside are just three floors, surrounding a stack of eight platforms on which eight cars can be shown off.

Up the street, at Peugeot’s brand showroom at 136 Champs Elysees, six or seven cars are arranged on the ground level, as in any dealership, although the vehicles usually include some recent concept cars and there is a common theme linking all together.

About 80 million people walk the Champs Elysees every year, and it is reputed to be the best-known avenue in the world. Many of those 80 million will be the same person going by twice, and half of them might be on the other side of the street, but it’s still enough foot traffic to attract luxury stores such as Cartier, positioned alongside more mainstream retail outlets as Monoprix and Virgin records, and restaurants for the stars such as Fouget’s juxtaposed with fast-food outlets like McDonalds.

And then there are the auto makers.

Renault SA, Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat Automobiles SpA and Mercedes-Benz all have owned property on the avenue for a long time, mostly as downtown dealerships in the early days. But by the 1990s, those showrooms were viewed as tired ideas.

It was about that time Toyota Motor Corp. decided to build a factory in France and took over space at 79 Champs Elysees, where it opened “Toyota Rendezvous.” Considered a showroom for the brand first and the cars second, it featured a coffee shop, Internet cafe and changing themes on racing, the environment and international development.

The idea was a hit. Toyota got better known in France (sales are more than 100,000 units a year now), and the idea of pushing brand over product spread quickly along the avenue.

Renault remodeled its building, making an open space for changing shows (today pushing the new Laguna) and a classy restaurant. Peugeot modernized its building and began putting on themed presentations – at the moment, the world rugby championship being played out in France. Toyota since has remodeled its space to allow bigger windows. Its current theme also is centered on rugby.

The Mercedes-Benz property remains a dealership, whose customers are usually special people such as ambassadors, and Fiat’s former showroom has been turned into offices. But the Champs Elysees now is a sort of Miracle Mile for brand image, and Citroen has raised the bar with the first all-new construction on the avenue since 1975.

Citroen’s first exposition is “sustainable innovation,” with the topmost car in the stack being a ’39 Citroen Traction Tr 11 PL, followed by a ’66 2CV, the low-slung ’69 Citroen DS 21, the current C6, C4 Picasso and C-Crosser cross/utility vehicle.

Two concepts also are featured. The Metisse from last year’s Paris auto show is on the ground floor and the Airplay from the 2005 Bologna auto show is in the basement.

“Citroen has helped transform the automobile industry with technology and creative style,” Michel says. Citroen’s Type A was one of the first mass-produced cars in Europe, the Traction was the first front-wheel drive and the 2CV was one of the first low-cost cars in the modern era.

“This is an important step for Citroen,” Michel says. “It demonstrates our spirit of creativity and innovation. Our marque needs to be better known, and our image needs to be improved.”

Michel does not reveal how much PSA spent for the new building, saying “the price was very reasonable for such a splendid brand showroom.”

Citroen will change its display three or four times a year. It expects from 1 to 2 million visitors annually.