Maker of Peugeot, Citroen takes steps to return to U.S.

Ian Thibodeau

French automaker PSA Group is starting from scratch in the United States.

Never mind that the automaker once sold Peugeot and Citroen cars in this country. The company’s official announcement Thursday that it is re-entering the U.S. market after a quarter-century hiatus by launching a car-sharing service on the West Coast is a long play, said IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley. And, she says, PSA Chairman Carlos Tavares could head in many directions with the next step.

“They haven’t said what they want to do,” she said. “It’s been so long since they were here, they’re really starting from zero. But they’re trying to come in through a different service all together.”

PSA is seizing upon opportunity in the U.S. mobility market to help it re-establish a retail presence in the U.S. The automaker withdrew its Peugeot nameplate from the U.S. market in 1991; Citroen left in 1974.

The company introduced its Free2Move car-sharing service in Los Angeles this week. PSA partnered with French car-sharing service TravelCar to launch the program. It lets owners rent their cars to others.

PSA North America said it intends to deploy the service across the U.S. The automaker did not provide a timeline, but has said it intends to expand on the mobility service by integrating PSA’s own vehicles into the fleet it manages.

The company intends to develop other mobility solutions using PSA vehicles before marketing those same vehicles “directly in North America,” the company said. The car-sharing program is part of PSA’s “Push to Pass” global business plan, which is PSA’s transformation plan established by Tavares.

PSA Group recently reached an agreement to acquire General Motors Co.’s European Opel division, which includes the Opel and Vauxhall Motors brands.

The U.S. expansion could bring Opel vehicles to this country, something that wouldn’t happen if GM still ran the brand because they would compete with the Detroit carmaker’s domestic makes. Peugeots and Citroens are another possibility for export to the U.S. Or PSA could deploy its high-end DS automobiles to the U.S. luxury market.

PSA Group representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The first step back into the U.S. is tentative but shrewd, Brinley said.

“It’s a smart way to figure out how mobility is going to shape out in the U.S. and get in on the ground floor,” she said. “It gets them exposure and understanding without necessarily having to get the dealership network up ... but it’s going to be a little difficult to stand out.”

The mobility space has the attention of the world right now. GM, Ford Motor Co., Uber, Tesla and others are competing in that sphere, too.

“They still have that challenge to figure out how to get customers to figure out who they are,” Brinley said. “It’s an interesting way to feel out the U.S. market ... What brand are they trying to be in the U.S.?”

The car-sharing service is the first business PSA has done in the U.S. since pulling out entirely in 1991. The company, known until last year as PSA Peugeot Citroën, has been expanding for the last three years, and last year announced a “rapid” plan to branch out of Europe.

PSA has appointed Larry Dominique, formerly of GM, Chrysler and Nissan, as the senior vice president and head of PSA North America to oversee the expansion.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau