Aston Martin leather gives Toyota iQ a luxury twist

by Steve Rothwell

Bloomberg

Aston Martin, the maker of sports cars favored by Prince Charles and driven by James Bond, is departing from tradition with a city car based on Toyota Motor’s Corp. iQ subcompact to broaden its appeal and boost revenue.

The Cygnet’s hand-stitched leather interiors and Aston Martin badge on the grill will persuade customers to pay 30,995 ($50,500) for the model, the Gaydon, England-based company says. That’s more than double the price of Toyota’s iQ, which provides the engine, transmission and frame.

“This car is a luxury city car,” chief designer Marek Reichman said in an interview. “Prior to Cygnet your choice was, you open the door and it smells of plastic; now you open the door, and you’ll be hit by this wonderful smell of leather.”

Aston Martin relied on Toyota to cut the cost and time for building the Cygnet in a unique project with the Japanese carmaker. The ultra-luxury carmaker, which unlike rivals isn’t backed by a larger auto manufacturer, developed the model in about 12 months, compared with the typical three-year time frame for most car projects. Aston Martin needed the quick turnaround to boost demand as its owners seek funding.

Aston Martin, which doesn’t disclose financial results, aims to sell 1,500 Cygnets a year, which would make it the closely held company’s second-best seller after the V8 Vantage’s annual deliveries of about 2,000. Overall, sales in 2010 gained about 6 percent to 4,250 cars, spokesman Kevin Watters said.

Chief Executive Officer Ulrich Bez has been examining the company’s financing options and capital structure to fund growth plans. The review follows restructuring at Investment Dar Co., which owns half of Aston Martin. The Kuwaiti financial services company agreed in March on a plan to repay debt after missing a $100 million Islamic bond payment in May 2009.

Environmental pressure and growing city populations have prompted luxury-car makers to tailor offerings for urban drivers. Volkswagen AG’s Audi introduced the A1 subcompact last year. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, the luxury-car leader, will introduce an electric-powered city car in 2013. Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz later this year will start selling a revamped B-Class compact, the first in a line of four new small cars.

Aston Martin has to meet these demands on its own. The company hasn’t had the backing of an automotive parent since Ford Motor Co. sold the carmaker to a group of investors including Investment Dar for 479 million pounds in 2007. Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti are owned by VW, while Fiat SpA controls Ferrari and Maserati.

That solitary status may have pushed Aston Martin too far in the effort to reach new customers, said Simon Empson, managing director of U.K. discount car website Broadspeed.com.

“I have no idea who would buy an Aston iQ or why they would even want one — it looks just daft,” said Empson, who previously owned the Aston Martin DB5 featured in the movie “The Italian Job.”

“Extending the brand is all well and good — fitted luggage and sunglasses I get — but city cars I just don’t.”

Cygnet buyers will get a leather interior made from seven cow hides, the same amount used in the 125,000 DB9 sports car, Reichmann said. Aston Martin will offer six types of alloy wheels and as many as 3 million possible combinations of trim and color options. A navigation system, six-speaker stereo and leather-clad steering wheel and gear shift are standard.

The luxury doesn’t extend beneath the hood, with the car’s 97-horsepower engine essentially unchanged from the Toyota iQ, which starts at about 12,500. The Cygnet accelerates to 100 kph (62 mph) in about 11.6 seconds, compared to 3.7 seconds for the 750-horsepower One-77.

The Cygnet, which goes on sale next month, will be Aston Martin’s slowest car. The four-seat, stub-nose compact will rely more on fuel efficiency and practicality to win over buyers than the speed of its other models such as the 176,000 ($285,000) DBS, James Bond’s latest ride.

“It’s not about naught to 60 speeds, or road holding or handling, or great racing capabilities,” Reichman said in a recent interview during a test drive in London. “In the city, space is far more at a premium. You’ve got fewer chances to park, far more congestion, so it makes sense that our customers have a small luxurious product.”