July 29, 2014

Aston Martin Cygnet – the backlash begins

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Following on from the announcement that Aston Martin and Toyota are joining forces to produce the i-Q based Cygnet, we spoke to the people who will be affected most by one of the strangest marketing decisions (and manufacturing tie-ups) ever carried out. The internet is still buzzing with car forums trying to fathom out whether this is going to work and motoring experts having a two-sided opinion about the move (and in danger of getting a splintered bum from all the fence sitting). One thing is for sure, Aston owners are divided. The first production allocation of Cygnet’s are going straight to current and waiting AM owners but after phase-one is complete phase-two will see the Cygnet being released to the general public. In plain English, that means just about anyone who can afford the twenty-grand price tag can have one sitting on their driveway. However, this raises serious doubts over the credibility of Aston Martin and its large investment, the Cygnet. If we take a closer look at what Aston is proposing, it seems only the accountants at their Gaydon HQ see this working. From the pit lane of the Nurburgring 24-hour, to the driveways of the nation, the Aston Martin Cygnet is coming.

So, what is the Cygnet? In a nutshell, it’s a £20K city car based on the Toyota i-Q with Aston Martin styling cues and an interior overhaul by the trim shop but, crucially, still using the Toyota running gear and exterior/interior parts. Problem number one: EVO, the monthly car mag that targets petrol heads aged between 25 and 50 who have a salary deep enough to finance a decent supermini through to a hot hatch and into Aston Martin territory is probably not the place you’ll find those so-called Cygnet customers looking up its 0-60 figures. Problem number two: According to Aston Martin, current owners who have a second car use these for running around town and trips to the city. Most have a Smart, a Mini, or in other words an inexpensive, established hatch. Aston Martin believe (hope) that their customers will swap their second car and buy the Cygnet.

Thing is, most of these superminis are under £20,000 (the price of the Cygnet), so is there going to be enough customers willing to off -load their second car, have the hassle of selling it then spend out again on a brand new Cygnet just for the novelty factor? Well the answer is yes, but there won’t be enough to fill the order book. And that’s where selling the Cygnet to the likes of you and me come into the equation. This guarantees the numbers making sense. If Aston Martin wants to target those (remember what badge is on the nose of the Cygnet) who buy a car with badge status i.e.: those featured in the likes of EVO magazine et al, then the Cygnet project needs a major re think.

We spoke to a group of Vantage, DB9 and DBS owners on a recent club meet and asked them whether or not they would be interested in putting their name down for a Cygnet. “You must be joking” one said. “Why would I get rid of my Mini Cooper Works and swap it for a Toyota i-Q. The Cooper is my second car and worth every penny”. And that seemed to be the feeling amongst twenty AM owners. So what were they spending their money on? One owner said that he had already put a deposit down on a Focus ST (just over £19,000), and another had just taken delivery of a new Renault Twingo 133 Cup (£12,200) whilst parked in another owners’ drive was a Seat Leon FR diesel (£18,000).

With that in mind I asked how they were influenced by their buying decision. Most read motoring publications like EVO and Performance Car magazine whilst others needed a sensible family car and had their Astons as a weekend toy. “I know for a fact that all of my Aston friends wouldn’t spend twenty grand on a re-badged Toyota. There’s much better cars out there for the money whether that’s an economical city car, an all-out hot hatch or decent family car”.

And that’s why Aston’s new city car raises serious doubts. The i-Q on which it is based has an odd 3-seater layout, runs a 3-cylinder engine and costs more than every rival in its class. How would Aston Martin react to a group of current owners who wouldn’t even dream of ordering a Cygnet? According to a well informed insider, “there is enough significant interest to fulfil the first year of production”. In plain English that means to me that no deposits have been secured and Aston have a huge mountain to climb.

With the factory not talking and an embargo placed on their dealer network, we managed to meet one dealer (name witheld) who was prepared to talk about selling the new Cygnet.

MTI: What was your reaction when you received the news?

Dealer source: At first I thought they were joking. I think the words “are they serious” became the phrase of the day. How the factory thinks they can sell a re-badged Toyota i-Q through our dealership network is totally beyond all of us in the network. Imagine Bentley trying to punt a Polo to someone willing to part with £100,000. It just doesn’t work.

MTI: Is the Cygnet going to be a side-brand just like the Mini was for BMW or Smart and Mercedes Benz?

Dealer source: I guess so. We haven’t been given any details as to how or where the Cygnet is going to be sold through, but it seems likely it’s going to be in the dealership. Thing is, it worked for BMW and Merc as both cars weren’t competing with a high branded marque. You can dress mutton as lamb but you can’t hide the fact that this is a Toyota i-Q and we can’t figure out how it’s going to work. It wouldn’t be so bad if we were selling a smaller Aston, say for £50,000, but a twenty-grand city car. No way.

MTI: Aren’t you (the dealers) being a little unfair and not giving this a chance to work?

Dealer source: Look, this is a Toyota with an Aston badge. Only high volume manufacturers do things like this, re-badging cars. Not Aston Martin. This seriously damages our brand and lowers the prestige level. When Jo public start to come in and buy one, that will be the day when Aston regret the whole Cygnet idea. That’s when it will hit home.

MTI: How do you think the Cygnet will be promoted in the dealer network?

Dealer source: Hopefully under a car cover out the back in the car park!

MTI: Are your current customer base going to buy a Cygnet?

Dealer source: My phone hasn’t stopped ringing from customers who can’t believe the decision. All of them have said that they wouldn’t touch a Cygnet with a barge-pole. Yes, it’s a fun idea, or would be great concept marketing tool, but as most of our customers drive a second car that costs less than the £20,000 asking price, we can all foresee a job lot of unsold Cygnets parked in a disused airfield somewhere near Gaydon. We certainly won’t be able to sell any, so I’m not sure what the factory is going to do about it.

MTI: Is the Cygnet priced to high and will it appeal to the general public?

Dealer source: Not only has it already out priced itself against the competition, but anyone looking for a city car only wants to spend about eight-grand anyway. Who in their right mind will finance the extra cash just to get an Aston badge on their car and get further into debt in the process? It’s like me saying I’ll put my other commitments at high risk just because I want to finance eighty-grand on a Ferrari even though I can’t afford it.

MTI: So you think the Cygnet won’t work.

Dealer source: It’s not just me, and not just our dealership, but the whole network. This is going to be a failure even before its gets off the ground.

Strong words indeed. With several owners and now one dealer against the idea, how will Aston Martin deal with the backlash? And with no word from the factory we can only keep guessing, but be sure that we will keep chipping away to find out the truth.
We will keep you posted.


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