Few new models have been more important for an automotive brand than the new Aston Martin DBX that made its formal debut at a splashy Los Angeles event on Tuesday, just before the official opening of the annual Los Angeles Auto Show.
The 106-year-old British marque has been facing some serious problems since it went public in October last year. With sales and earnings well off initial expectations, Aston stock is down by more than half from its June 2018 peak — and some observers have begun to question the brand’s long-term viability.
For their part, Aston officials insist the company is just facing some short-term setbacks while it pushes through the most aggressive new product roll-out in its history, with an assortment of seven different models set to reach its showrooms. But none carries the weight of the DBX. The first-ever Aston SUV, it also is expected to quickly become the brand’s best-selling product line ever.
“It will be the most important car in our recent history,” Aston Creative Director Merek Reichman said during a recent briefing. Other company officials have suggested the new SUV will become the brand’s most important car ever.
The idea of an Aston Martin sport-utility vehicle might have seemed almost ludicrous when the British brand was sold off by Ford in March 2007 to British racing mogul David Richards and two Kuwaiti companies, Investment Dar and Adeem Investment. But times have changed dramatically.
Porsche was among the first to demonstrate the potential market for high-line SUVs when it launched the Cayenne — but it wasn’t until Bentley showed off its own concept in 2012 that the potential for an ultra-premium version became apparent. That British marque’s Bentayga landed in showrooms in early 2016 and, within months, became Bentley’s best-seller.
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Since then, virtually every manufacturer in that rarified niche has weighed in. A year ago, Lamborghini brought the Urus to market, Rolls-Royce launched the Cullinan this year, and Ferrari is set to follow.
Aston is hoping to score with a vehicle meant to balance the brand’s traditional sports car performance with serious off-road capabilities. Despite featuring four doors and a tall roof, there’ll be no mistaking the DBX’s pedigree. It features the largest-ever version of the familiar Aston Martin grille and carries over other familiar visual cues, including its long nose and muscular wheel wells. Chrome accent strips are meant to trick the eye, giving the DBX, in silhouette, a sharp sweep to the roofline. In fact, the back is taller than it first appears, providing plenty of headroom for backseat occupants, as well as 22.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the back seats upright.
A 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, modified for the DBX, turns out 542 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque, enough to launch the Aston Martin DBX from 0 to 60 in 4.3 seconds, with a top speed of 181 mph. Power goes through a new all-wheel-drive system with electronically controlled center and rear differentials. A digitally controlled “triple-chamber” suspension and an electronic anti-roll system help maintain stability, whether on-road or off.
But Aston is hoping the DBX will stabilize its sales. Best known for its long association with cinematic super-spy James Bond, the company, formally known as Aston Martin Lagonda, in July cut its annual sales forecast from 7,300 vehicles to just 6,500.
Stocks tumbled hard as investors second-guessed Aston’s plan to transform itself from a struggling niche player that had seldom been in the black to a financial solid brand with more sustainable sales numbers.
Such concerns grew deeper when Aston announced in September that it had lined up another $150 million in debt to keep its product plans in motion.
“Aston Martin Lagonda’s debt raise feels a bit like kicking the can down the road but should de-stress liquidity,” said analysts at Jefferies, in a note to investors. “It also provides needed breathing room to execute the DBX launch.”
If all goes well, Aston hopes to more than double its global sales with the DBX. It can point to the success of other luxury brands, including Bentley and Lamborghini, as examples of how much demand there is for ultra-premium SUVs. But analysts also caution that the market could be reaching a saturation point.
“It’s perhaps been some of the most difficult (times) of my career,” Aston CEO Andy Palmer told NBC News. “But we’re confident about what we’re doing."
How things go once the DBX is in showrooms could determine whether investors agree.