Last week in my post on AMG, I wrote about the risk of diluting a brand when like Mercedes do with AMG, you start adding AMG badges to a large number of models in the line-up. In defence of Mercedes they build cars to make money and I strongly suspect they wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t good business. Also, they own all of AMG these days so they’re obviously free to use the brand how they wish even if as said, I think it risks scaring away some enthusiasts.
As I also mentioned last week, AMG have through the years done both engines and parts for a whole line of other manufacturers, and it’s one of these we’ll talk about today. Because if there’s a risk of brand value dilution within one group with too extensive use of a sub-brand, what about a brand that sells very pricey cars but where these no longer rely neither on their own engines, nor gearboxes, nor updated technology? I would claim this doesn’t sound like a recipe for success in the long term, but it is what Aston Martin offers today, including in the new SUV DBX, a car everyone says their future depends on. Aston’s new ex-AMG boss Tobias Moers has even said that he wouldn’t have taken the job as Aston CEO if the DBX hadn’t been in the line-up. I guess there’s a logic to that given everyone wants an SUV these days, but is the DBX a good enough SUV to motivate its price tag of around CHF 230.000-250.000 (roughly the same in EUR or USD), and is it still a real Aston Martin?
The first point to note is that the DBX is in no way a bad car. I seem to be one of the few who don’t like the looks of it so let’s pass on that, but the reviews, even the non-English ones, have generally been positive. With short overhangs and, well, being an Aston, it drives better than any other SUV and has a beautiful, hand-crafted interior that’s available in a multitude of trims and colours. Of course nothing less should be expected given the price tag, which puts it in the same segment as for example the Bentley Bentayga and various AMG SUV’s, from the G63 to the GLS-Maybach. Something like a fully equipped Cayenne Turbo or Maserati Levante is even cheaper as you’ll get one of those for around EUR 200.000 in top trim.
Aston these days fits Mercedes engines and so the DBX has the current, twin-turbo, 3.9 litre AMG engine, producing around 550 hp. That’s a brilliant power unit and one you find in all the AMG top models as well. What the AMG cars will also have is the latest version of Mercedes’s MBUX, the best infotainment unit in the industry. The DBX is however equipped with a screen that looks like a touch screen but isn’t, and behind it is Mercedes’s previous infotainment unit, the origins of which go back to 2014. That’s most probably older than your phone, and quite far from today’s standard. On the dash above the screen the DBX has large buttons to engage the different gears. I don’t know why Aston is so keen on these given they’re neither nice to look at, nor necessary. In the DBX they’re connected to a 9-gear box from, you guessed it, Mercedes. And that gearbox can be a bit laggy, especially if you use the paddles. And if you’ve sat in the car long enough to notice these things as I did last week (except the paddle slowness), you will probably also have realized that the beautifully handcrafted interior looks a bit too handcrafted in certain areas, with some parts not fitting exactly as they should. Tests have shown that when driving, it tends to squeek a bit here and there. That’s the DBX, and it costs a quarter of a million.
I get that everyone doesn’t want a mass-produced Cayenne, one of the various Mercedes-AMG SUV’s, or feels too young for a Bentayga, but surely the solution can’t be to use the Aston brand to sell an inferior product? You’ll tell me the Bentayga is an Audi underneath and that’s true, but it motivates its price because the total package is superior to anything in the Audi line-up. You’ll remind me that I’ve just told you AMG is a diluted brand, but that doesn’t change the fact that the real AMG cars are the best of what Mercedes offers, which means some of the best in the market. You’ll tell me Porsche did the same thing as Aston do now when they launched the Cayenne, banking on 911 owners buying an SUV if Porsche built one. That’s also true, but it was almost 20 years ago and then even more than now, there were far more 911 owners around than DB9 drivers. The DBX may well drive better than a Cayenne on the margin but it’s a family SUV we’re talking about here and if that argument counted for anything, our streets wouldn’t be clogged with less well-handling, 500 hp SUV’s.
Aston Martin has built some of the most beautiful sports cars in the world through the years. That’s where the brand value resides. That’s the kind of Aston most of us would love to have in our garage and where we wouldn’t care less about what type of infotainment solution it has (and that’s good, because the earlier ones were even more crappy), or if there’s a squeek here and there in the interior. The company jumped on the SUV bandwagon like everyone else but firstly, they were late to the party and secondly, where Bentley and Lamborghini have the full VW group behind them, including quality checks, Aston as an independent company at least for now has to content with what Mercedes is happy to sell them. On the whole, that makes the DBX an inferior product from a rational point of view, and that seems to be confirmed by sales numbers which have now been revised to roughly half of what they were pre-Covid (3000 for 2021). So far, around 2000 have been sold. Living in Zurich, a city that is like a rolling automobile exhibition, I’ve so far only seen two or three.
I don’t think the DBX will save Aston Martin, but that doesn’t mean Tobias Moers won’t. A man with his background can teach Aston a lot on everything from efficiency (he claims to already having reduced the number of work stations from over 70 to around 20…) to quality thinking, the DBX platform can obviously be re-used for future models, and Moers has all the connections needed within AMG to make sure that with time, Aston will benefit not only from the latest engines. That however takes us back to where we started this because when he’s done, Aston will have become yet another AMG outlet – albeit under a different logo.