SYDNEY – Automobiles Citroen aims to grow Australian sales to 10,000 units annually in the next five years.

“Everything logically leads to that figure,” Frederic Banzet, Citroen vice president-international sales and marketing, says.

The saga of Citroen’s 82-year continuous connection with Australia includes the local assembly of the classic ID19 during the late 1950s and a period during the 1990s when sales staggered along at the rate of a couple hundred Xantias a year.

Now, under the stewardship of Australian importer Ateco Automotive Pty. Ltd., Citroen is intent on expanding its lineup to grow sales from an estimated 3,500 this year – up 500 units from 2005 levels – to 10,000-plus in just five years.

“We plan to broaden the top-selling C4 range with more diesels, new petrol engines (developed by BMW AG and shared with the new Mini) and automatic gearboxes,” Banzet says.

Citroen already offers the biggest range in its history with a variety of Berlingo, C2, C3, C4, C5 and, most recently, C6 models.

In March, this healthy assortment will be joined by the acclaimed C4 Picasso, a compact 7-seat multipurpose vehicle Citroen hopes will prove Australian buyers are attracted to well designed and practical people-movers – despite the failure of similar models such as the Holden Zafira and Kia Carens.

Ateco says the new Picasso will be priced from A$38,000 ($29,678) and offer 1.6L and 2.0L diesel and 2.0L gasoline engines. Although the forecast is conservative at just 35 cars per month, all will represent incremental sales.

Significantly, Banzet says, Citroen is addressing the traditional lack of competitive automatic gearboxes. An all new 6-speed increasingly is spreading across the C4 range, but unfortunately is not yet tied to the Picasso.

Citroen also persists with an improved robotized manual with an automatic mode that costs half that of a conventional automatic and offers better economy than a manual gearbox.

Banzet admits Citroen deliberately delayed launch of the C6, preferring to concentrate on development of the mass-market C4 rather than the beautiful new luxury sedan. Although a concept version of the C6 was shown as the Lignage at the 1999 Geneva auto show, the C6 didn’t go into production until midway through 2005.

In 1989, Citroen predicted sales of 100,000 a year for the XM. For its C6 successor, ambitions are far more modest, just 20,000 cars a year with a mere 60-70 expected to be sold in Australia in 2007. Yet, Banzet insists the C6 makes sense.

Working with partner Automobiles Peugeot, Citroen has developed a joint-platform strategy that underpins virtually the entire PSA Peugeot Citroen product range. Platform 3, for example, is shared between models such as the Citroen C6 and Peugeot 407, despite the big Citroen using a hydro-pneumatic suspension and the Peugeot model opting for a multi-link setup. Both cars flow from the same factory.

“The C6 is important to the positioning of the brand,” Banzet says. “It clearly shows what Citroen is capable of achieving. It is a part of our history that Citroen should produce this kind of car. It is not the volume that matters.

“The C6 is aimed at the (Mercedes) E-Class, (BMW) 5-Series and (Audi) A6, and is more European than French. It brings silence, comfort and ease of use (to the class), so that it is a very restful car.”

The “more-European-than-French character” is arguable, but what is even more surprising is Citroen would unveil a similar-sized concept luxury car at the Paris show earlier this year.

Banzet says the dramatic gullwing-doored C-Metisse won’t make it to production but claims elements of the bold air intakes and graphic Citroen chevron badging preview future designs.

More significant, however, is the Metisse’s diesel-electric hybrid technology. Citroen plans to launch a system by 2010 that combines the PSA/Jaguar Cars V-6 turbodiesel, driving the front wheels, with twin electric motors, powering the rears. Not by coincidence is the Metisse name, which is French for “mixture.”

At the other extreme, Ateco is looking at the possibility of importing the C1, the jointly developed (with Toyota Motor Corp.) minicar, built in Czech Republic. Homologation problems with child seats are the biggest drawback.

However, if the price is right – the 1L gasoline version undercuts the Hyundai Getz in Europe – any hurdles could be overcome.

Ateco is taking a watchful approach to the growth of Citroen. There are no plans to follow Renault SA’s extravagant A$25 million ($19.5 million) spend to re-launch the brand here. But Ateco acknowledges that to achieve the planned 10,000 annual sales, the number of dealers will need to increase from today’s 30 to about 47.

“There are no major drawbacks to our growth,” says Banzet. “We have a more suitable range, the fuel prices help and we’ll be emphasizing our diesels and aiming at the other Europeans.

“Development takes time. We need strong roots, but step-by-step we can do it.”