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Check out the 'Louis Vuitton of cars'
IF A three Michelin-starred restaurant or the house of Chanel can epitomise the idea of French luxury, then why not a car? The answer to that might be found inside the DS Salon on Alexandra Road, a newly renovated space at one end of the Cycle & Carriage building.
Step in and the first thing you see is a poster of the Eiffel Tower, looming nearly 4 metres tall. And there in the midst of textured walls, artful furniture and more French iconography, you find the DS 7 Crossback. It's a car The Business Times called "an opulent motoring experience" but is also something of a modern day anomaly: a French luxury car.
The French might know their food and fashion, but German brands such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz rule the luxury car world. Globally, they account for the vast majority of sales in the premium segment, and their parent companies even control many of the most prestigious non-German brands, such as Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce.
Sweden's Volvo puts up something of a fight, but with 1,412 cars registered in Singapore last year, its sales were less than half of Audi's, the weakest of the German trio.
Yet, France is such a natural fit with luxury that the real anomaly is the country's absence in the premium car world, argues Maxime Simoncini, area manager for DS Automobiles, South East Asia. He even has a ready shorthand for how to describe DS. "We want to be the equivalent of the Louis Vuitton of the automotive industry," he says.
DS Automobiles was spun off from Citroen's style-oriented DS models in 2015 to become a standalone brand, much the same way Jaguar-Land Rover took the Range Rover name from a single car and now uses it for a variety of models.
The name itself comes from the 1955 Citroen DS, a design and technology icon that came to be nicknamed "the Goddess", from the French word "Déese".
Citroen's modern-day DS line-up was starting to have its own personality, says Mr Simoncini, leaving the French carmaker with the idea that it would make sense to split the two brands.
In many countries, the premium sector is expanding faster than the mass market, so the spinoff also made business sense, he adds.
But establishing a luxury label can be a brutal challenge. Hyundai's Genesis brand has eyed the Singapore market for some time but it has yet to dip its toes in; while after years of trying to establish itself in Western Europe, Nissan's Infiniti decided last month to pull out altogether.
Mr Simoncini says DS Automobiles' main weapon is its automobiles. "We have to make the customers sit in this car," he says of the DS 7 Crossback. "I think when you sit, really, in a DS 7, then you sit in a competitors' car, you'll feel the difference."
DS Auto's gameplan is to woo drivers from the German norm with cars that offer fine design, attention to detail and the latest technology. Unlock the DS 7, for example, and the jewel-like LEDs in its headlamps swivel into position. Start the engine, and a timepiece from French watchmaker B.R.M. rises gracefully from the dashboard.
Its interior is designed with diamonds as a recurring theme, and Mr Simoncini points out that the upholstery resembles the handmade leather straps of the finest watches.
The DS 7 also has a camera to scan the road ahead for bumps, so the suspension can prepare itself for them, instead of merely reacting to them. It's a piece of tech you find only in top models from Mercedes or BMW, but DS Auto includes it because refinement is part of the brand's DNA - the 1955 DS had advanced suspension to let it float over bumps, too.
"I think the product will speak for itself," says Mr Simoncini. "When you have a good product, people will, of course, speak about it, speak to their friends and give good word-of-mouth."
DS Auto's confidence in the car seems well-placed for now. In France, the DS 7 is leading its market segment in terms of sales, and it has helped the DS brand grow in countries such as Italy and Spain, where overall car sales are down.
But the brand is starting from a low baseline. With global sales of less than 60,000 cars last year, DS is tiny; German rival BMW is roughly 36 times bigger.
The French brand expects its volumes to get a boost when the DS 3 Crossback, a smaller model, joins its line-up. That is only due here early next year, however, so in the meantime Mr Simoncini expects to win customers the old-fashioned way: by trying harder.
"In addition to the product itself, we have developed with our partner Cycle & Carriage a full customer experience. We call it the 'Only You' programme, to make the DS customer feel very special," he says. Buy a DS, for example, and you can have a valet collect the car for servicing and return it - no more cabbing it from the workshop and back.
Fine-dining discounts and invitations to special events are other perks of the Only You programme. Mr Simoncini hopes those efforts will help the DS brand gain momentum here, but won't be drawn on sales targets. "We're not focusing too much on the sales," he says. "We want to ensure that every customer will enjoy the best experience." Spoken like a true purveyor of luxury.