Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A gamble worth taking?

Written for AROnline

I’ve just seen pics of the next Aston Martin. It’s not, as you would be forgiven for thinking, a large and expensive GT car with a large V12. Instead, it’s the answer to a question nobody has ever asked.

It would seem that Aston Martin have done some market research, and found that many of their customers keep a small car - a MINI Cooper for example - for town use. The Aston only comes out to play on longer distance trips and nice days. Fair play to the owners; petrol’s £4.68 per gallon now, and I can’t see many Aston owners enjoying the frugality of 20mpg.
So Aston, in their wisdom, have decided to introduce a small car to replace the MINI in their customers’ portfolios. This car, the Cygnet, is based upon Toyota’s iQ. Little is known as yet, and Aston have not confirmed that it is anything more than a concept, so much of the next few lines will be speculation.

The car is expected to be launched towards the end of 2010 at a price of between £20,000 and £25,000. This should price it to compete with the MINI Cooper (after the prospective buyer has chosen options and option packs).

It should also undercut it’s only true rival, the Radford MINI Miglia, seen on AROnline. Toyota will import up to 2000 iQs for Aston per year, which will then be ‘finished’ at Gaydon. This ‘finishing’ consists of a remodelled nose (using the iQ’s own headlamps), new wheels, and an interior retrimmed in the finest hide, utilising the standard iQ layout.

It is possible that this heralds a new age of co-operation between Aston and Toyota - future Astons such as the proposed Lagonda 4×4 may use Lexus hybrid powertrains, but neither party has yet commented upon the potential for future marque interaction.

The whole concept of an exclusively styled and trimmed version of a small car appeals to me immeasurably - the project reminds me of Vanden Plas’ work in the 1960s and 1970s with the 1100, 1300, and 1500. But I cannot help wondering if it is a wise move for Aston.

Yes, the concept of a small Aston Martin for town use is a novel one, and initial exclusivity is maintained by the fact that Aston would only be offering them to existing owners in the first instance. But a £25,000 Aston city car could also ruin the brand’s cachet, and because of the brand it would cost much more to insure than the other upmarket city cars Aston are expecting to capture sales from.

The Cygnet could be the start of a new profitable market sector for Aston, but I rather feel the opposite could happen. Unless Aston Martin are very canny about what they choose to do, I believe that the ugly duckling Cygnet could well become the company’s swansong.
I know that my opinion is not shared by all. Steve Cropley, of the influential motor magazine Autocar, believes that the project deserves a fair chance and will do well. I sincerely hope he’s right. But I doubt he is. Aston look to be on the verge of taking their biggest gamble since the Lagonda of the 1970s, and it’s one that I for one don’t think will pay off.

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