Remember the Aston Martin Cygnet? Launched in 2011, the quirky three-seater cost more than £30,000, marketeers judging that a new, fancier badge, a minor restyle and some luxurious interior appointments made it worth somewhere between twice and three times the price of the Toyota iQ it was almost entirely based on.
In 2013, production of the Cygnet officially ceased after fewer than 150 cars had been made. Critics had a field day, car spotters had a new unicorn to look out for and the world moved on.
Except today, there are niggling pangs that Aston’s CEO at the time, Ulrich Bez, and his team might have been on to something. Was the much-derided Cygnet in fact the right car at the wrong time? Or, perhaps, to show some benefit of hindsight, the right concept, wrongly executed at the wrong time? And, if so, are we about to see someone else have a go at cracking the luxury or premium city car market a decade later?
Possibly. High-volume, low-profit small cars have rarely held any appeal for luxury, premium or fast car makers, but it could be that now – during this once-in-120-years transition – they won’t have a choice. Now, they must drive down average emissions or face huge, profit-eating fines.
Plug-in hybrid technology will help meet targets initially, but eventually everyone will need to sell a fully electric car to be compliant. If EV tech doesn’t develop fast (or cheaply) enough to deliver the sort of performance – be it speed, dynamics or range – traditional customers expect, there is a risk that car makers at the rarefied end of the market could be left hanging.
Maybe – just maybe – the answer lies not in trying to bastardise core offerings at great expense to meet regulations, but rather in risking the launch of radical new products using off-the-shelf technology produced by a mass (and potentially related) manufacturer only too happy to recoup some of the development costs, Cygnet style.
Maybe a £70k baby Bentley sat on VW’s MEB platform – which underpins the ID 3 – is stretching things, but there is appeal. It would presumably be profitable from the off, futuristic in execution and draw in a younger demographic of buyers, for starters. Or how about a £100k city-biased SUV, based on a BMW i3’s underpinnings but wearing a Rolls-Royce badge? Perhaps the Cygnet could be reborn, but now based on the Smart Fortwo?
I’ll leave you to play out more flights of fancy. But if anyone rolls the dice, save another footnote in history for Bez, Aston Martin and the Cygnet.