Aston Martin, the famed British company forever linked to fictional spy James Bond, has always been a niche maker of seductive grand tourers and front-engine sports cars. This December, the 106-year-old marque will enter new territory with the DBX, its first-ever SUV.
Years before Aston Martin decided to move forward with an SUV, a small group of employees had already convinced themselves that Aston needed to produce a sport-utility vehicle. Talks of building one stalled with previous management; an SUV would have been an implausible -- and radical -- departure for the bespoke automaker.
But Miles Nurnberger always believed one would happen.
“Did design talk about an SUV? Yes,” Nurnberger, Aston’s director of design and a 12-year employee of the company, told ABC News. “We did little scale models in the corner as much to convince ourselves you can make a beautiful, dynamic SUV.”
Then Andy Palmer, a former executive at Nissan, took over as CEO in October 2014. Vehicles that were off limits were now being discussed in earnest.
“When Andy came on board it was music to the ears of me and Marek," Nurnberger said of Marek Reichman, Aston Martin's chief creative officer. “We’d ask, ‘When can we get on with it?’ Andy was always an incredible advocate for the DBX."
Reporters and Aston Martin owners got an early look at a pre-production DBX in August. Company executives, including Palmer, were on hand to answer questions and take orders at the VIP event. When the DBX hits showrooms in 2020, it will face stiff competition from Bentley’s Bentayga SUV, the first premium ute to enter the market, as well as the 1-year-old Lamborghini Urus, already the Italian automaker’s top-selling vehicle, and the regal Rolls-Royce Cullinan, which has an eight-month wait list.
The DBX was years in the making. But the result is an authentic Aston Martin, Nurnberger said.
“Could we have done this earlier? Maybe,” he said. “I think we have arrived with the right product and that’s the most important thing for me.”
Analysts are waiting to see if the DBX will reverse Aston Martin’s recent struggles. In July the company lowered its full-year sales forecast and slashed earlier investment plans, causing the stock price to plunge and sowing doubts about Aston’s aggressive production targets. Demand for Aston cars has fallen by more than 20 percent in both the U.K. and Europe, two key markets for the company, and shares have lost more than half of their value since the company’s IPO last October.
“The DBX is a very important vehicle for Aston,” Ian Fletcher, a London-based analyst with IHS Markit, told ABC News. “The DBX opens the door to new customers -- not just the single man or woman looking for a weekend sports car.”
Aston could sell 2,000 DBX units in its first year, proof that the vehicle has wide appeal, including in non-traditional sports car markets like China and Russia, according to Fletcher.
“The DBX is not just for the U.S. customer,” he said.
Strong initial sales of the vehicle would also help Aston shift the conversation away from the dismal stock price and financial challenges that have weighed heavily on the company.
“There was a lot of focus on the IPO and making it a success,” Fletcher explained. “The whole IPO has been a nightmare for them. The brand is so strong. It has all the links to James Bond. The IPO is not the full story.”
Palmer addressed underlying concerns about Aston’s 2019 sales with analysts in July, saying he was “disappointed” that the company’s performance “was behind our original plans.”
“The market’s tough,” he said. “While we’re not immune to macroeconomic uncertainties, we have continued to see wholesale growth, retail growth and market share growth.”
McKinsey automotive analyst Simon Middleton agreed that stagnating economies in the U.K. and Europe and concerns over Brexit have negatively impacted Aston Martin’s bottom line. Yet the company could also be doing more to avert these economic threats, he argued.
“It’s important for Aston to move beyond GTs and sports cars,” he told ABC News. “The luxury segment is very volatile.”
The DBX comes at a pivotal time for the company, he said, and it’s not too late for Aston to take market share away from its rivals.
“There are some advantages of not being the first mover in the SUV space,” he pointed out. “There’s nothing sexy about a 3-year-old SUV.”
Palmer has doubled down on Aston’s ambitious Second Century Plan, which he implemented as CEO. The plan calls for more vehicle diversification and seven new models over seven years. Under Palmer's direction, Aston has invested heavily in two mid-engine supercars and shoring up its lineup of traditional sports cars.
The $3.2 million Valkyrie, a hypercar built with a 6.5-liter naturally aspirated V12 engine, was shown at this year’s British Grand Prix. In August, Aston’s second mid-engine supercar, the Valhalla, had its North American debut in Monterey, California. Production of both supercars was capped; 150 Valkyries, described by Palmer as “a Formula 1 car on the road,” will be made, with the first customer delivery scheduled in late 2019. The Valhalla, limited to 500 units and powered by Aston’s new hybrid V6 turbo engine, is oversubscribed, according to Palmer. It’s expected to cost around $1.2 million.
“The Valhalla and Valkyrie have brought in quite a number of customers -- customers that would have traditionally looked to Ferrari and Lamborghini,” Palmer told ABC News in August. “How do I get on the list for a Valhalla? That’s what I have been hearing from customers. The answer is you can’t. The Valhalla sold out within two weeks after it was unveiled in Geneva.”
Palmer’s goal is to keep prospective customers wanting the next Aston Martin, whether that be the Vantage AMR, DBX, Vanquish, or one of the special edition Continuation series cars.
“It’s always good to have people who like these kinds of cars, to allow them to be in early for the next one,” he noted.
Aston's fortunes also depend on sales of its flagship GT, the top-of-the-line DBS Superleggera coupe and Volante convertible.
The achingly beautiful DBS, the third new vehicle under the Second Century Plan, was designed to compete with the Ferrari Portofino and Bentley Continental GT. Matt Becker, Aston's chief engineer, said the DBS, with its twin-turbo 5.2-liter V12 engine and eight speed automatic transmission, was an engineering feat for his team. With a starting price of $304,000, the DBS had to handle "really well" and offer a high level of comfort even with the extreme power under its hood: 715 horsepower, a top speed of 211 mph and a 0-62 mph time of 3.4 seconds (3.6 seconds for the Volante version).
"One of the biggest challenges with a car like this was making it cool," Becker told ABC News in June at a test drive for the DBS Superleggera Volante. "There is a lot of energy under the bonnet."
He added, "This car ticks all the boxes -- sounds great, rides well, steers well -- it feels very stable at high speeds."
Becker encountered all new challenges when he was tasked with the DBX, which Palmer has called “perhaps the company’s most important car ever.”
"The DBX is a completely new car," he said. "It was the company's biggest focus."
Management wants the DBX to do what the Urus and Bentayga have done for Lamborghini and Bentley: attract new customers and generate enthusiasm with young and old drivers alike.
The decision for Aston to wade into the highly-competitive SUV space can pay off if executed correctly, according to Mark Wakefield, managing director at AlixPartners’ automotive practice.
“The product has to live up to customer expectations,” he told ABC News. “The ‘specialness’ and exclusivity of the brand has to be protected.”
With SUVs accounting for 58% of the U.S. luxury vehicle market in 2018, automakers see SUVs as “more stable” vehicles in terms of sales, which can lead to higher volumes, he noted.
But, “it’s getting harder to make an SUV stand out,” Wakefield conceded. “The SUV cannot just cash in on the brand’s name.”
Nurnberger said the DBX will impress customers with its handling and agility. The design team had one important request to engineers: keep the classic grill intact.
“Look at the amount of sculpture -- see the muscles of this car pop,” he said. “This for me is actually a GT car because you can drive it like a Vantage. It’s a high performance SUV, absolutely.”
Nurnberger said he and the other designers are already planning for the future, including the possibility of a plug-in hybrid SUV. But first the DBX needs to make its grand -- and long-awaited -- entrance.
“The DBX is just the next step for Aston Martin,” Nurnberger said. “In the beginning it was a lot of hard work. But it’s a truly new segment. And that’s super exciting.”