Jul 8, 2009
Over the last decade I’ve noticed an increasing number of brands willing to cash in on their previously unimpeachable images in the chase for bigger margins.
Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class).
There are other brands, however, that can’t afford to play so loose and free with their brand capital and Aston Martin is a prime example.
It wasn’t so long ago that AM was known for producing poorly built, unreliable bruisers that were just a little bit vulgar. Anyone remember the Virage/Vantage series? Sure, they had a glamourous history on their side but, fundamentally, the products were overpriced, underdeveloped and, by all accounts, pretty rubbish.
Under Ford’s stewardship the come-back started -stylistically at least- a mere 16 years ago with the launch of the eternally lovely DB7 and continued a few years later with the rough-and-ready Vanquish. Aston’s full return to form as a complete package, however, only came in the mid-naughties with the stunning DB9 and V8 Vantage.
The Rapide and V12 Vantage, although same-ish (they’re really getting their money’s worth out of that VH platform) , have continued the run of beautifully engineered, delightfully detailed and drop-dead gorgeous products that the market expects of an illustrious luxury car builder. The brand capital accounts, as a result, had been starting to look healthy after years of having been scraped bare.
Then in March this year something went horribly wrong and almost 4 months later, the calamity continues. With the Lagonda concept and the Cygnet, Aston Martin has begun cashing cheques with a wanton abandon that their delicately balanced brand capital books may not easily sustain.
Sadly, time has not lessened the impact of first seeing the Lagonda at the Geneva motor show. Nor has my quiet rage subsided over the comments made by Dr. Uli Bez as he positioned the vehicle, perhaps unwittingly, as the perfect choice for the third-world wealthy looking to crush everything before them on their (unpaved) road to self-gratification.
Revealed when the industry was at it’s lowest ebb, I and many others at Geneva were looking for products to raise the spirits. In the absence of anything truly inspiring, the Lagonda managed to subsume our collective hopes for the future under a tsunami of cynical, tasteless opportunism.
Clearly I wasn’t alone in my thoughts as blogs and print media alike exploded with scathing commentary on how il-conceived the 4-seater, V12-powered SUV appeared both from a design perspective and in a broader societal context of the global financial crisis. All of a sudden, a brand that could do no wrong (occasional poor component choice aside) had dealt itself a serious blow at a time when they could least afford it.
Knowing that the criticism of the Lagonda was taken so poorly within Gaydon, I had expected that Aston Martin’s next move would be designed to smooth things over. I had hoped that their next concept would deal with the question of their long term survival with a touch as deft and as elegant as the shoulder line of a DB9.
What we got instead was the Cygnet, a re-nosed, re-trimmed Toyota iQ.
Billed as an exclusive “luxury commuter concept” for Aston Owners, anyone who’s switched on to impending EU Co2 regulations will see that the Wildenstein-esque Cygnet is also a convenient way for Aston Martin to reduce their astronomic fleet emissions average, thereby minimising any financial penalties.
While I take no issue with the concept of a smaller, fuel-efficient Aston Martin, surely to be badged as such it needs to be a true concentration of the marque’s luxury design sensibilities and individual take on engineering integrity.
The iQ is without doubt an amazingly well engineered, superbly packaged car. Yet having recently spent time driving one, I can tell you that it doesn’t live up to Toyota’s premium incantations, let alone posses the hewn-from-solid feel that one expects of a brand like Aston Martin.
Aston says that the interior, while keeping the same architecture, will be re-trimmed in luxurious materials and fitted with Aston’s Emotion Control Unit key. Given the wilfully odd, low rent nature of the iQ’s cabin, I’m picturing an effect akin to trussing Susan Boyle in Dior couture and banging 2 mil of Chopard around her neck… Aston Martin luxury has been reduced, it would seem, to a celebrity make-over.
As far as the driving experience is concerned, if you stick an Aston Martin badge on the front of a car people will immediately form a perception about it’s driving qualities. While no one will expect the Cygnet to set alight one’s desire to bang along back roads (that’s what your DB9 is for) the buzzy, bouncy, boomy iQ is almost totally at odds with the driving gravitas we associate with Aston Martin.
Issues of design and dynamics aside, my biggest gripe with the Cygnet is that it seems a little bit pretentious, a value one normally doesn’t associate with the kind of Aston Martin owner looking for a small city car. It’s also more than a little bit disingenuous. V12 Vantage-esque hood vents on a 1.3l city car? Really?
As Joe Simpson points out over at MDB, many Aston owners purchase a Smart, or perhaps even a Mini, for reasons extending beyond their city-friendly proportions. These classless cars also enable them to keep their considerable wealth on the down-low as and when required.
At the end of the day, this is not a question of whether the iQ is a good car or bad (for the record, I think it’s marvelous, interior aside) but simply a question of branding and whether Aston Martin should be trying to make a Toyota their own, or perhaps co-branding the iQ instead.
If the rumours are to be believed, Mini will nail the uber-luxury downsizer market in short order by teaming up with the Colour & Trim team from BMW Group stable-mate Rolls Royce. In this instance, Mini is being sprinkled with the stuff that makes a Rolls Royce wonderful, not being made over into a Rolls Royce-a-like-lite.
Fundamentally it’s still a Mini, badged as a Mini and people will have Mini expectations how the thing will drive and feel, thus maintaining the separation in values between the respective brands. It’ll also be possible for it to be indistinguishable from a regular Mini from the outside, making it’s true nature known only to the person who counts most at the top end of the market: the one on the inside.
If Aston Martin simply provided a superb refit of the interior and, at the very most, some subtle badging for the exterior of the Toyota iQ they would allow their owners the luxury of downsizing while keeping it discreet. They’d also be protecting the Aston Martin brand from being diluted by a driving experience that is far removed from that of all their other vehicles.
Of course the question of whether this iQ “in association with” Aston Martin would satisfy the EU lawyers as a Co2 reduction method is beyond my current realm of knowledge, but at least Aston’s brand capital would remain relatively unscathed.
But better than shopping in Japan, why not go local and tap into Britain’s legendary engineering ingenuity? A collaboration between Aston Martin and Gordon Murray, with his phenomenal T25 city car, for example, would provide the design integrity, local provenance and branding compatibility that would make loaded, car-buff connoisseurs swoon.
Ultimately, Aston Martin should be applauded for exploring ways in which they can satisfy a rapidly developing market for pint-sized luxury. I just wish they hadn’t played such a risky gamble with their most valuable asset: their brand capital.