Sneak Preview: Aston Martin

Martyn Goddard
Radovan Varicak

Barely a month passes without a product announcement from Gaydon, headquarters of Aston Martin. Aston is the uncrowned king of the limited-edition premium-car scene, and it applies all the marketing tricks of the trade to keep the business going. Totally new models are rare, but regular cosmetic updates, engineering upgrades, and tasty special-value packages seem to keep the Aston Martin community happy.

Of course, this isn't exactly a promising long-term strategy. What Aston needs are replacements for all its existing models and, perhaps even more urgent, a batch of more efficient new engines. Even though the cash blanket acquired in the good years is too thin to fund a string of fresh products, chairman Ulrich Bez is not worried. "All our cars follow the VH theme, which stands for the vertically and horizontally integrated structure. But VH is not a platform -- it's a philosophy. Its modular character allows us to elegantly integrate new systems and elements and, if required, to implement them across all models."

Step by step, Aston Martin will replace its entire lineup, starting in 2013 with the DB9, which is its oldest car. The next DB9 will move further away from the DBS, which in turn must distance itself more from the Virage. While the next-generation Rapide four-door needs a serious packaging rethink, the next Vantage may move down a fraction in price and performance.

Bez explains the reasoning behind this complex evolution process: "In a way, we will modulate our shapes and sizes like Porsche is putting the trademark 911 stamp on all its models. There is only one DNA but a virtually unlimited number of variations." And what about Lagonda? Bez answers with a disarming smile and shrugs his shoulders. "I'm not sure yet. In a way, Lagonda is like the Cygnet, a different type of incremental yet fully brand-compatible business. We could go back to the Mercedes GL concept and do a London-Saint Petersburg grand tourer with four-wheel drive and height-adjustable air suspension. Or we could do a mid-size sedan powered by a strong yet frugal four-cylinder. Or we could do an electric Lagonda, or a Lagonda plug-in hybrid." Even though the hyped cooperation between Aston and Maybach is now obviously not going to happen, Mercedes-Benz is still a possible source for powertrains -- especially now that Mercedes has announced the comeback of the coveted in-line six. Another potential supplier of six- and eight-cylinder units is Toyota. "I'm not losing any sleep over engines," states Bez. "We can nurse and improve our V-12 until 2020, we can buy V-8s modified to our specification, and we could even develop our own compact in-line six and a frugal four-cylinder derived from it.

Generally speaking, even the Le Mans-winning diesel should not be ruled out. You see, there are major paradigm shifts about to hit this industry, so we need to be prepared. Only the shrewdest, most pragmatic thinkers will qualify as successful emotion merchants."

Ulrich Bez, 68

Personality: The good doctor is patrician, temperamental, suffers no lack of confidence, and brooks no fools, but he's quite well-humored. Competes with Winkelmann and Mueller-Oetvoes for the title of best-dressed automotive CEO.

Major career moves: Porsche R&D chief, head of BMW Technik GmbH, leading thinker at Daewoo, business advisor for Ford, CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda.

Biggest achievement: Finding a way out of the dark hole that opened up when his contract with Daewoo ended. Before and after, restructuring the R&D activities of three carmakers -- Porsche, Daewoo, and Aston.

Claim to fame: Keeps competing -- and finishing -- in the Nuerburgring twenty-four-hour race at the wheel of various Astons, including the four-door Rapide.

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