My highlight of the Geneva show wasn’t a car. It wasn’t a celebrity appearance either – although I can’t tell you how gutted I am to have missed Shakira’s five minutes on the Seat stand.
It was, in fact, the 20 minutes I spent interviewing Aston Martin’s irrepressibly enthusiastic CEO Ulrich Bez – a man who, by the time I got to him, must have answered hundreds of difficult questions about his firm’s Geneva debutant, the Cygnet city car.
He remained incredibly willing to answer mine. So I asked him how Aston’s customers were reacting to the car.
“So far, the vast majority of reactions have been positive,” he said. “It’s a new, younger customer who really likes the car. I think we have 50 orders already today, just in a couple of hours.”
“For the more traditional customers,” he goes on, “those who have a classic DB4 as well as a DBS – I’d say one or two out of every ten has an objection. They write letters to me threatening that they’ll never buy an Aston Martin again if we make this car. But when I write back, invite them to pay us a visit, and explain why we need this car, almost all of them come around. Ultimately they understand that change is needed. The dinosaurs are slowly dying out.”
So why, exactly, does Aston need this car? “There are many reasons. First, we need a more sustainable product line-up. This company has been brought back from the brink of bankruptcy too many times. We need to be sensitive to the economic and social climate; to offer cars that people can buy even in tough times.
“Second, we need to satisfy demand where we know it exists,” he goes on. “We have many customers who live in London, Paris, Rome or Milan, and who would like to drive their Aston Martin more often, but with a V12 sports car, it’s just not appropriate. They tell me that they want an Aston Martin that fits better into their urban lives. And it is our job to give them what they want.
"Thirdly, we need to bring the company’s fleet carbon emissions down. The Cygnet is perfect for that: it’s my Porsche 918 or hybrid 599,” he says, referring to the petrol-electric supercars that stole the headlines elsewhere at Geneva. “Except it’s more honest car than those cars. This is just a small, stylish and efficient runabout: it doesn’t need batteries or flywheels to be that way. So it’s not pretending to be something it’s not.”
But isn’t it really just a Toyota pretending to be something more? It’s the obvious question. “We don’t think so,” Bez replies.
“I think the Toyota iQ is a very special car anyway, but the Cygnet is even more special. Each gets proper Aston Martin styling. Each gets a brand new interior with special, high quality materials. Each will be a true representation of Aston Martin’s trademark style and painstaking craftsmanship. And more than 100 man hours will go into each of them.”
But shouldn’t Aston Martins be about more than style and craftsmanship? Isn’t this a sporting brand that’s about to be devalued by an inauthentic product that’s just too ordinary to drive?
Bez replies calmly, and with a wry smile. “Running this company for the last ten years has taught me that it’s not always easy to sell sports cars. Sometimes it’s all-but-impossible.
“Our challenge is to be innovative but pragmatic; to safeguard the future of Aston Martin, to give people what they want, and of course, to stay true to ourselves. We’re not going to stop making beautiful sports cars just because of the Cygnet: this is just an opportunity to do something new. And I don’t think it’s an opportunity that we can afford to miss.”