Ties between Aston Martin and Daimler date back to 2008, when Mercedes-Benz donated a GL-class SUV to be rebodied as the 2009 Lagonda concept (pictured) at the Geneva motor show. Three German gentlemen cut the deal; Ulrich Bez, heart and soul of modern Aston Martin; Joachim Schmidt, former Benz sales and marketing board member (since replaced by AMG’s Ola Källenius); and Dieter Zetsche, Daimler AG chairman.
Aston already had begun work on the next Maybach luxobarge, which was to be a much-better-looking mix of wood and leather and creature comfort. Assembly in the United Kingdom was considered.
Bez, Schmidt, and Zetsche’s third joint project concerned the sale of Mercedes engines to Aston. Bez wanted a V-12 and a bespoke straight six. A V-8 might also have been included. Those plans were canceled when the Aston SUV and Maybach proposals were quashed. The V-12 deal came to nothing, and the Aston version of the Mercedes straight six will not commence earlier than 2017, if at all.
Despite these setbacks, the connection between Gaydon and Möhringen were reinforced when Andrea Bonomi’s U.K. private equity firm, Investindustrial, paid €190 million (about $264 million) for 37.5 percent of Aston in 2012.
Last year, Bez initiated an agreement with Mercedes-AMG to obtain access to state-of-the-art V-8s and seven-, eight-, and nine-speed automatic transmissions, along with matching electronic architectures and plug-in hybrid capability. Investindustrial and Kuwaiti shareholders Investment Dar and Adeem Investment transferred 5 percent of Aston to Stuttgart.
Aston intends to double sales to 7000 units by 2016, but the company did not explain how this goal would be reached. New drivetrains alone won’t cut it, and there is no glut of fresh product on the horizon. When a Mercedes delegation visited the U.K. in February, the only new model they saw was the virtually complete DB9, which sits on Aston’s venerable VH matrix, which Bez claims still has a lot of life left in it. Redesigned and partially reengineered, the follow-up to the oldest Aston sports car would retain a version of the trademark V-12 alongside the AMG-engineered 4.0L V-8, sources suggest. New electronic architecture paves the way for a contemporary navigation/entertainment system, safety technology, and hybrid power.
What about the Lagonda SUV? There’s not a lot of lifecycle left in the current GL to justify a bespoke derivative. Due for a facelift next year, the GL will be replaced in 2018 with an all-new full-size SUV, codenamed X167.
“Dieter is quite chuffed about the Aston thing,” says a Benz board member familiar with the project, “and he is willing to let them in on X167. Money, however, is a big issue. Aston’s £500 million [$833.5 million] four-year investment plan is just not enough when you need to renew your entire model range and think about adding an SUV.”
The solution is up to Mercedes, the board member continues. “If Aston gives us another chunk of stock in exchange for R&D assistance and componentry, we must make up our mind how to handle this when Bonomi decides to sell. Daimler buying Aston is a possibility, even though our portfolio specialists are not fully convinced and our investment focus is on alternative drivetrains and vehicle concepts, not on old world sports cars. The alternative scenario is somebody else snatching up Aston, and with it our engines and probably our SUV.”
Unlike its predecessor, X167 will come in two wheelbases: long and very long. The “very long” model will probably be badged Pullman and may be manufactured, like the stretched S-class Pullman, by Brabus in Bottrop or by Aston in Gaydon.
The Brits want a luxurious all-in super-SUV, not a high-roof Rapide. While spending extra on a third wheelbase might stretch the friendship, crafting a bigger body with an extended rear overhang onto the existing long-wheelbase architecture should not cause insurmountable cost- or assembly-related issues. The new X167 architecture, called MHA, or modular high architecture, is derived from Mercedes’ MRA modular rear-drive architecture.
“We’re talking core technology here, so I am urging my colleagues to make sure that this really is going to be a long-term relationship,” our friendly board member says.
Adapting the mighty brand-shaping V-12 is bound to be a time-consuming task that needs to start before the year runs out, whereas fitting an Aston version of the Mercedes V-8 must be the easiest trick in the book. The M177-series engine’s output can be boosted to 600hp and 738 pound-feet of torque. Attached to the brawny V-8 are a more efficient 4Matic drivetrain and a nine-speed NAG3 automatic transmission.
No matter how much Bez expresses his confidence in Aston’s VH platform, the company needs a modern, lightweight, and flexible sports car architecture with high production volumes and streamlined assembly methods. The answer is Mercedes’ MSA (modular sports car architecture), which underpins the next-generation SLK and SL due in 2019 and 2020.
Since MSA is in its infancy, there is no time pressure for vehicle integration and cycle planning. But while the proposed Aston SUV would be a stand-alone product, MSA could provide the DNA for Aston’s entire model lineup. This raises the question of where Mercedes is in its decision process. MSA offers flexibilities similar to VH in length, width, height, wheelbase,and bodystyle. Just about any configuration is possible.
MSA incorporates certain fixed points,such as the front firewall, the suspension kinematics, and the ability to realize different roof treatments. Options include a softtop, a retractable hardtop, and a four-seat coupe, and such powertrain and technology options as plug-in hybrid and autonomy. Engineering could even integrate Aston’s unique transaxle layout. Alternatively, MSA also offers four-wheeldrive, which is becoming popular in sports car circles.
We are inclined to believe that Aston’s owners will want to keep the Bez-Zetsche link intact as long as Daimler is pondering its next strategic move. Aston needs Mercedes-Benz much more than Mercedes needs Aston, but after three failed marriages with Mitsubishi, Chrysler, and Renault (the Nissan/Infiniti relationship is working out OK) a tie-up with a coveted English sports car brand doesn’t seem far-fetched.