‘I want to be a long-term player,’ says head of French auto maker preparing reintroduction to American drivers
PARIS—Peugeot Chief Executive Carlos Tavares said the French car maker is accelerating its timetable for returning to the U.S. market after a nearly three-decade absence and plans to offer American drivers models from across the brand’s lineup.
The plan for Peugeot’s foray into the U.S. comes after The Wall Street Journal reported that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV rebuffed an overture from Peugeot to explore a combination between the auto makers. Such a deal would have transformed PSA Group SA—owner of the Peugeot, Citroën and Opel brands—into a player in the U.S. overnight.
In an interview in his sparsely decorated office near Paris, Mr. Tavares said Peugeot would begin exporting a selection of models from across the Peugeot brand to the U.S. and Canada within three to four years. That is sooner than his previous timetable of delivering Peugeots to the U.S. by 2026. The ability to move faster in the U.S., Mr. Tavares said, was helped by the acquisition of Opel because it gave the company a team of engineers familiar with U.S. specifications through their previous experience with General Motors Co. The shift, Mr. Tavares said, also followed positive feedback from “intensive clinic trials” with American consumers.
Mr. Tavares said that rather than building a traditional dealer network, Peugeot had identified a “relatively innovative” way of distributing cars that included selling online but would also allow customers to test-drive its vehicles. “Because people don’t know our products, they’re not going to buy just based on what they see on the screen,” he said.
Mr. Tavares is approaching the U.S. with caution because he wants to be profitable there from the beginning.
“I want to be a long-term player in the U.S.,” Mr. Tavares added. “What we can bring to the U.S. is based on everything you see today. We are launching our pure electric cars, we are launching our plug-in hybrid cars, we are launching great SUVs. There is no limit.”
Mr. Tavares’s plan to re-enter the U.S. market carries risks. The market is dominated by pickups and large sport-utility vehicles—not the strong suit of Peugeot’s lineup. The U.S. auto market is also past its peak, and well-established global brands including Ford Motor Co. , General Motors Co. , Toyota Motor Corp. , Nissan Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG have competed aggressively for those declining new-car sales in recent years.
While launching with a smaller number of vehicles might be simpler, Mr. Tavares said Peugeot needed to offer a big enough selection to address different types of American driver. “Otherwise we won’t be visible,” he said.
“The PSA Group has 18% of the European market, and the competitors in Europe happen to be the same as I have in the U.S.,” Mr. Tavares said, adding that “it will take many years before we have market share.”
Under Mr. Tavares, Peugeot increased its share of the European market with its 2017 acquisition of Opel and Vauxhall and has become one of the most profitable car makers in the world.
At the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, Mr. Tavares suggested he would be open to discussing a merger with Fiat Chrysler. The Journal later reported that Peugeot had by then made an overture to Fiat Chrysler, but it was ultimately rejected.
Asked about the overture, Mr. Tavares said, “We have continuous discussions with our partners. Please don’t get excited. There is no specific target—no specific, deep, ongoing negotiations.”
Peugeot and Fiat Chrysler already cooperate in manufacturing of light commercial vehicles.
At the same time, though, Mr. Tavares said the next decade would prove chaotic for the industry as electric cars and new automotive technology advanced. Mr. Tavares cited Peugeot’s strong balance sheet as well as its acquisition and turnaround of Opel as proof that the auto maker can survive in such a landscape.
“We believe agility gives you a good chance to face chaos in a way that is very Darwinian,” Mr. Tavares said.