Friday, August 12, 2011

Aston Martin: How Recycled Platforms and Eight-Year-Old Tech Could be the Brand’s Downfall

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Unlike Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Rolls-Royce – who are owned by highly successful mainstream brands Volkswagen, Audi, Fiat and BMW respectively – specialist manufacturers such as Aston Martin have a hard time in the market.

Aston Martin Seen On www.coolpicturegallery.usWhereas a company like Mercedes-Benz can afford to spend €5 billion (US$7.1 billion) in one year on research and development, the Gaydon-based manufacturer of performance/luxury coupes is planning its next models on the eight-year-old platform that first underpinned the DB9 coupe in 2003!

In fact, of the 15 models in the brand’s current line-up only two of them – the One-77 supercar and Toyota iQ-derived Cygnet city car – are not based on the DB9’s aluminium “vertical-horizontal” platform.

Ian Callum, who designed the DB9 and is now working as design director at Tata’s Jaguar/Land Rover, explains:

“It’s still that same old basic design [of two-door coupe / convertible]. Some will argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But you do get to a time when you have to move on.”

The brand’s bestselling, US$113,400 Vantage coupe and even the upcoming, £330,000 (US$539,979) V12 Zagato will be based on the same old underpinnings as its eight-year-old stablemate due to a need to keep costs down across the board.

Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez explains: “All the projects that we are doing have to make a profit. We can’t afford a project that is just a marketing tool.”

It’s one of the reasons the automaker has been able to secure a 20% profit margin in the last financial year, despite selling only 4,299 cars. Compare this to Mercedes-Benz, which had a FY2010 profit margin of 10.7%.

By recycling technology and cannibalising its older platforms and engines, Aston Martin has been able to remain profitable. It’s a sentiment echoed by company CFO Hanno Kirner:

“We don’t make the mistake of applying manufacturing techniques that are perfectly sensible for 500,000-a-year models to small-volume cars.”

Whereas companies like BMW are investing in lightweight carbon fibre materials, electric vehicles (EVs) and front-wheel-drive, Aston Martin just continues to do what it has always done mostly due to a lack of resources.

It’s one of the reasons the brand took in £509 million ($830 million) in revenue for the last financial year and is currently looking into both an expansion into China and a potential public float.

Still, analyst Andrew Jackson at London research firm Datamonitor is not convinced the brand is as well off as it may first appear:

“The models are starting to have a slight whiff of Sunday dinner being used in sandwiches later in the week. It leaves the impression of a company stretching itself as far as it can. In the industry that they operate in, with their competitors, they really need to be cutting edge.”

And with rivals like the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and the Nissan GT-R – cars that are both cheaper and more technologically advanced than the recently introduced Virage – Aston-Martin will certainly have to raise its game if it’s going to remain competitive in 2012 and beyond.

By Tristan Hankins

Story Sources: Businessweek


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