Why Aston Martin needs to change.
Aston Martin have announced a shiny new model at Geneva: the Virage. To some this would be a cause for celebration, but for me it is a cause for concern.
It only takes a few seconds of looking at the Virage to realise that it is anything but a new model; instead, it's merely a derivative of the DB9. The Virage will sit above the DB9 in Aston's model range but below the DBS, itself another DB9 variant. Arguably this is no bad thing since the DB9 is one of the most attractive cars on the road today and if anything the revisions to make the Virage actually improve the looks a little with a sharpening of the flanks and a more resolved nose section. It certainly works better than the slightly tacky DBS. I'm not to sure about the name though. Whilst Ferrari choose to revive their most iconic names, the previous Virage was one of Aston's weaker models, and poorly looked-after examples are often seen struggling to make more than £10,000 at classic car auctions.
The thing is, Aston Martin seems to have got rather good at turning out derivatives of existing cars rather than giving the car market anything new. Since the mid-noughties when the Aston revival began with the DB9, followed by the smaller V8 Vantage, every car they've released has been a very similar-looking version of the same VH platform. Some of these mix and match derivatives are better than others - the V12 Vantage is a wonderfully desirable car - but the convertible versions of the DB9 do not work for me at all on the styling front, particularly with the roof up. I personally like the Rapide, but it looks very expensive compared to the (admittedly much uglier) Porsche Panamera Turbo.
Aston now face some fierce rivals who have entered the market and will be competing for their customers' cash. Initially the Astons were joined by the Audi R8 and Maserati GranTurismo. The Maserati notably manages to look as good as the DB9 but offers better accommodation inside, although it is a little underpowered compared to the DB9. A more recent rival which surely must pose a serious sales threat to the DB9 and DBS in particular is the Mercedes SLS, but most worryingly of all Porsche are about to unveil an all new 911 which will no doubt make the V8 Vantage feel very old in comparison.
Supercar buyers can often be very fickle and like to have the latest thing. With all these newer cars on the market I doubt any of the Aston range will be able to achieve the all-important conquest sales. At best, the Virage will help to maintain existing market share and encourage brand-loyal owners to trade in existing DB9s and V8s for the newer model. I see a fair few DB9s and V8 Vantages around London, and many of them are 2006-2008 models, not the very latest ones.
Despite all this, the aging model range is not the thing that worries me most about Aston Martin. Instead, it is what is (or isn’t) under the bonnet. The bigger Astons feature the 6.0 V12 in various states of tune. That engine dates all the way back to 1999 and the V12 Vantage variant of the DB7, and the architecture is based on the that of the Ford V6 found in the Mondeo (the V12 is basically two V6s stuck together). The V8 found in the Vantage is also a version of a Ford Motor company engine, in this case the previous version of the Jaguar AJ V8. In today’s market, neither of these engines is that powerful or, more importantly, particularly green.
An interesting comparison is that official figures show that the 510bhp Aston Martin DBS produces 388g/km of CO2, which doesn’t look particularly great when the new 660bhp Ferrari FF produces 360g/km (not that Greenpeace members are likely to be queueing up to buy either car!).
Unlike most of its rivals, Aston Martin cannot look to a large mainstream manufacturer owner for both financing and technical assistance. It also means it cannot offset its high carbon-producing cars against smaller, more eco-friendly machines, unlike Ferrari who for fleet emissions purposes can link itself to Fiat. Aston’s stop-gap solution to this is the woeful Cygnet, a Toyota iQ (Scion in the US) re-badged to become an Aston of sorts. While it may help dodge some EU fines, it does nothing for Aston’s image in the marketplace.
With ever-tightening emissions regulations, Aston needs greener powerplants for its real models, and perhaps they maybe about to get one. They have have just unveiled their new LMP class contender for Le Mans: the AMR-One. The new regulations at Le Mans have meant a switch from the 6.0 litre V12 to a new 2.0 litre straight-six turbocharged engine which has been developed in-house. Aston’s management have been making some noises about moving to straight sixes in future road cars, and this could be an early indicator of this move away from big V12s.
On the styling front, there are some signs of change too. Aston Martin has recently begun deliveries of the One-77, the new limited edition halo model, for a select few customers. There is no other way to describe it other than to say it looks gorgeous and is arguably the best-looking front engined GT car since the Ferrari Daytona. Unfortunately, the 77 examples of this million-pound supercar are likely to be mainly shut away in dehumidified garages in Monaco and Malibu, only venturing out for appearances at Goodwood Festival of Speed or the Monterey concours. Instead of building such an exclusive car, I do feel that Aston would have been better off spending the resources on building a 599 rival and a true replacement for the wonderful and sadly-missed Vanquish.
Bringing new models to market and developing new, greener powerplants requires considerable investment. Hopefully Aston’s Kuwait-based owners will be willing to stump up the necessary cash for this in the near future. Or perhaps the excellent management team of Dave Richards and Dr Ulrich Bez will be able to forge a strategic alliance with a larger manufacturer, giving Aston the resources that it needs. Mercedes Benz has been mentioned in the press several times as a suitable candidate for such a tie-up, but personally I think Mercedes' big rivals BMW would be a better choice. BMW’s range barely overlaps with Aston’s and their recent record of making greener engines without compromising performance is unsurpassed. Also, if the alliance was to grow closer than just technology, Aston Martin would sit very well alongside BMW-owned Rolls Royce at a sales and marketing level.
Whatever happens, Aston Martin is a manufacturer that deserves to have long term security and become the British Ferrari (without the dodgy licensing agreements) that many want it to be.