Aston Martin and Toyota? What are they thinking?

Aston Martin has just announced that they are to tie-up with Toyota to produce the world’s first super-luxury hatchback. Just before you read on, no, this isn’t a typo. Aston’s CEO, Dr Ulrich Bez, met with Toyota’s new President and grandson of the original founder, Akio Toyoda, whilst racing at this year’s Nurburgring 24-hour. Called the Cygnet, Aston Martin have confirmed that the new 3-door super-mini will be based on Toyota’s i-Q with significant styling changes that mimic current AM design cues, like the front wide-mouth grille, bonnet air-vents and DBS rear lights. Already underway in the company’s state of the art design studios, the Cygnet concept has been led by chief designer Marek Riechman who also penned the 2009 DBS and forth coming 4-door Rapide.

Before you ask yourself “is this a joke?” Aston has confirmed that the Cygnet will be built at their factory in Gaydon, Warwickshire. The donor i-Q’s will be shipped from Japan and finished to Aston spec at the companies HQ where it has a flexible layout that would allow a Cygnet finishing line to be installed without disruption to present Aston models.

Costing around £20,000, the Cygnet will initially be offered to existing Aston Martin owners and those who have cars on order. But in a bizarre twist, the Cygnet will also be available to the general public a year or so after the first batch find homes within the existing customer base.

According to Aston CEO, Dr Ulrich Bez, the car is specifically aimed at the one-third of existing Aston owners who own a Mini-sized car. “This concept is akin to an exclusive tender for a luxury yacht,” Bez explains. “It allows us to apply Aston Martin design language, craftsmanship and brand values to a completely new segment of the market.”

Dr Bez, who describes Toyota as the world leader in volume manufacture, wants to offer the Cygnet to existing Aston owners “as a unique combination of opposites, and a novel transport solution”. Aston Martin expects to build between 1,000 and 2,000 Cygnet’s a year, with earliest cars earmarked for sale in the UK and Europe and sold exclusively through Aston dealers.

Motoring websites and internet forums have been at bursting point over the last few days since the news broke and lots of concern has been raised especially with the fact that Aston Martin are signing their own death warrant by adding a small city car to their line up. More than a radical departure in their 90-year history, lots of fans and owners are scratching their heads as to why such a decision has been made. Although Dr. Bez got the ball rolling, it would have been down to owner and business entrepreneur, Dave Richards, and his Middle Eastern shareholders to sign on the dotted line.

Some blame this decision on the European Union’s aim to reduce automotive CO2 output by 2012 and that adding a smaller vehicle will ease the pressure. What is feared the most is that Aston Martin will have flushed their motoring exclusivity down the toilet when the Cygnet does become available to the public and its status in the ranks will suddenly become worthless. Some leading automotive experts say that this is the worst move Aston Martin have ever made.

“You can’t sustain a legacy and expect to maintain a level of exclusivity with a £20,000 super-mini in your £100K plus line-up”, one leading expert told us today. “You no longer can be taken seriously” he went on to say. And that seems to be the consensus amongst the Aston Martin community. Although Aston Martin HQ refused to comment along with most of the UK dealers, I did get one anonymous sales man to speak to me about the decision. “We were all shocked when the factory announced the news”, he said. “We all burst out laughing with total dismay”. He continued, “Although it’s bad enough having a £20-grand car to shift around stuff that costs £100,000 plus, when they get put on sale to the general public Aston Martin exclusivity will be ruined. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t wearing our badge and stayed as a Toyota”.

Trying to sell the Cygnet from current Aston showrooms with a predicted 1,000-2,000 units per year will force the company to set up separate showroom units just like BMW has done with Mini and some fear that it is going to kill the brand,.

More importantly, the Cygnet has little chance to stand up to its rivals once on sale in two years time. With a price tag of £20,000 it should be competing with the like of Renault’s Clio Sport and Mini’s Cooper, but with a 3-cylinder engine if Aston were to up the power stakes, it would price itself straight out of the market. It begs the question: Why would anyone buy a £20,000 car that cannot compete but just be there for the badge status? For some it just doesn’t make sense.

But on the other side of the coin, many see this as a new automotive revolution. Autocar motoring journalist, Steve Cropley, is keeping an open mind. On his blog yesterday he wrote;

“To some, the idea of dressing a baby Toyota with Aston Martin clothes, leaving the mechanicals unchanged, putting the famous old winged badge on the bonnet, doubling the price and selling it as an Aston Martin model to existing customers will come across as an abuse of some great traditions. The biggest factor in this project’s favour, we believe, is that nobody’s ever done anything like it before. The Cygnet will set out a completely original course through automotive history, and how it fares will fascinating for us all.”

And he has a fair point. Nobody has done this before. As it stands, the European Union is keeping the pressure on to reduce CO2 in the automotive industry. Although most manufacturers have already reduced their outputs, the rest, like Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche need to do more. In fact, Porsche have just given the green light to a joint venture with VW to produce a two-seater sports car that will slot below the Boxster. Power is believed to be coming from a fuel efficient 4-cylinder engine and possibly a frugal diesel. At least Porsche are going the right way about it. Not by re-badging a Polo.

With the subject hotting up, the consensus is that Aston Martin are doing this all the wrong way around, and have gone a little too far. Trying to sell a re-badged and re-designed Toyota i-Q and not even changing its 3-cylinder motor isn’t the right way to approach the situation. Why not joint-venture on another project like the now defunct MR2 where at least, like Porsche, they will be retaining some sports car DNA and status.

I read a comment on the net that said “this is the end of Aston Martin” and by the reaction I got from the dealers, that is totally spot on. This is the most fascinating move any manufacturer has made in the automotive industry in the last twenty years, and we all wait to see how it pans out.

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One Response to Aston Martin and Toyota? What are they thinking?

  1. nigel July 2, 2009 at 6:14 pm #

    My name’s Bond, do you like my new handbag?

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