The reason for the first trend is clear: legislation of fleet fuel averages and emissions, as well as gas prices, tend to favor smaller cars. And since automakers known more for larger luxury cars are no more exempt from those realities than is Kia, they will be responsible for the second trend.
Premium brands offering smaller cars at premium prices is nothing new in Europe. Prices over the pond don't directly translate to their equivalents in U.S. dollars, but In London, for instance, a base, 3-door Toyota Yaris starts at 10,040, or $16,614. The Mercedes-Benz of small car offerings, the A Class -- which is about 5 inches shorter than the Yaris -- is 14,290, or $22,831. The difference is explained in the brand argument, which is held to be the same for small cars as for large. You pay more for the Mercedes, and in return you get Mercedes engineering, luxury, and brand cachet.
For the American car buyer, having been raised to equate "small" with "cheap to buy and cheaper to own," that will be a harder argument to win. The Mini is generally credited for initiating the U.S. market into the idea that small doesn't mean inexpensive: a base Mini Cooper, before you've even put metallic paint on it, is $19,500. Go for the Mini Cooper S and you're talking about $23,000. That's more than a Chevy Camaro.
But that hasn't stopped BMW from selling as many as it could build. What's more, following in its tire tracks and headed this way will soon be dinky runabouts like the Audi A1 and Fiat 500, and potentially the Mercedes A Class and B Class cars and a Porsche that will be the spiritual successor to the 914. They'll be small. They won't be cheap.
Nevertheless, those examples center on cars that have expanded a parent company's portfolio but haven't compromised the brand's image. Mercedes makes smart cars, but no one confuses them with Mercedes. The Mercedes A- and B Class might be inexpensive Mercedes', but they're still sufficient representatives of the 3-pointed star.
At the opposite pole is a small car unlike any other we can remember: the Cygnet, a union of the world's premier luxury brands and one of the world's premier budget brands. The Cygnet, you see, is a Toyota iQ dressed up to look like an Aston Martin.
Aston Martin and Lexus shared a pitlane garage at last year's Nurburgring 24-Hour race. Aston CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez had a few words with Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda, and it is said that that's where the idea for the Cygnet began.
Aston's official explanation for Cygnet, likened to "an exclusive tender to a luxury yacht," is that it "represents a creative, environmentally conscious solution, being small, yet with presence — and highly fuel efficient, now combined with the prestige of Aston Martin's luxury brand ownership." Dr. Bez said the Cygnet is a "distinctive, intelligent and exclusive solution for urban travel in style and luxury," and that it "will allow us to apply Aston Martin design language, craftsmanship and brand values to a completely new segment of the market."
How will it do that? It's all in the dressing.
Toyota will ship iQs to Aston Martin's factory in Gaydon, England. There will only be one mechanical spec available, fitted with a 1.3-liter, 97-hp engine and a CVT transmission. There, the tiny car's exterior will be reshaped with Aston cues like hood and side scoops, pull-out door handles, new taillights, and a miniature version of Aston's grille. It also rides on exclusive wheels larger than the iQs standard rims. And it has Aston badges.
Inside, the revamp will be more compelling. The iQ gets thick, hand-stitched leather slathered everywhere, veneers, different instrument details, and the Emotion Control Unit key system that James Bond showed off to glorious effect in Casino Royale. Most importantly, though, buyers will have access to the same range of customization options they would get if buying a more traditional Aston, so a Cygnet could end up costing as much as an E Class.
The first question you probably have about this car is "What does 'cygnet' mean?" That one is easy: it means a young swan.
Your next question, "But why?", doesn't have an answer that anyone outside Aston has yet pinned down.
Aston said that about 30% of its buyers have a small car, like a Mini or smart fortwo, that they use for quick trips. In that case, there's no reason Aston should leave BMW and Mercedes to make that money, and the Cygnet will help keep Aston owners in the brand family round-the-clock. As well, unlike Bentley and Rolls-Royce, Aston has no corporate parent selling more efficient vehicles that could offset Aston's understandably elevated emissions and fuel consumption figures: the Cygnet gets 48.9 miles to the gallon and emits 120 g/km of CO2. The most frugal Aston gets about 16 mpg and emits 318 g/km of CO2. Those kinds of numbers can make a huge difference in a lineup with just four cars.
Aston hasn't released an exact price, but suggested something in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 30,000, which equates to $36,000 to $43,000 in the U.S. In Germany that base Toyota iQ retails for 17,200. Those U.S. prices don't matter for the time being, though, since the Cygnet will only be sold in Europe to begin with, and only to Aston Martin owners. Production numbers have been estimated to be anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 annually, which would be about 20% of Aston's sales on the low end, 80% on the high end.
The Cygnet is expected to go into production at the end of 2010 and eventually zoom on over here to the States. Aston will have plenty of time to tweak its strategy before that happens, and it will also have plenty of bellweathers to monitor: the small cars on the way from mass market luxury makers will help take the American buyer's pulse, and the Scion version of the iQ is said to be arriving next year. In the meantime the English maker of bespoke luxury cars will be making sure its reputation isn't cratered by applying its brand of lipstick to the eminently kissable lips of a Toyota iQ.
As one would expect of Aston, however, the Cygnet will have one final trick up its sleeve in comparison to every other supermini unveiled by a mass market luxury maker: since you need to own an Aston to buy a Cygnet, the cheapest Cygnet will set you back about $140,000. At that price, no one will ever doubt that you have bought the Aston Martin of small cars.
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