If you met Ulrich Bez in an emergency room, you would likely assume he was seeking treatment for a manic episode.
People in the auto business refer to Bez, the German chief executive of Ford Motor's Aston Martin subsidiary, as a madman. He talks constantly, and with unrelenting energy. In interviews, he often cuts the reporter off before the question is finished and begins his reply by nearly shouting (e.g., “Can you please speak about the exclusivity of Ast—" "EXCLUSIVITY [pause] is nothing without visibility”).
He also apparently drives like a maniac — a highly skilled motorist of a maniac with a doctorate in engineering.
Earlier this month, Bez drove Aston's new DB9 coupe on a twisty, open stretch of mountain roads outside of San Diego with John Walton, Aston's North American vice president, in the passenger seat. The two left San Diego at 9 a.m. and stopped for coffee at 10:30.
“I don't smoke or drink much, but at that moment I needed to do both,” Walton told us in San Diego, where we recently traveled to test the new car on the same route (see the slide show that follows for our driving impressions).
But Bez's energy is not directionless. In fact, it has one clear target: Porsche.
“We don't want to be Porsche,” said Walton — but Bez, who used to be the German automaker's head of new car development, wants to beat Porsche, not in sales but in driving dynamics.
“He reminded us from the day he arrived about the characteristics of a Porsche versus an Aston Martin,” said Walton. While Bez wants his company's cars to be as sporty as Porsche's, he told his team from the beginning, for example, that Aston would never outright ape Porsche by putting its engines in the rear of its cars.
But the new DB9 is an assault on Porsche — and all other world-class sports car manufacturers, for that matter. It takes Aston's credibility as a sports car builder to a new level and is one of the most exciting cars an automaker has ever produced. It also challenges the iconic styling of a vehicle like the Porsche 911 with drop-dead looks of its own.
Deliveries of the DB9 coupe began in the U.S. in December, and deliveries of the convertible version will begin in late May or early June. The waiting list for the convertible is already 18 months long. This year, the company expects to sell 800 DB9 convertibles in North America and 300 coupes. The coupe starts at $155,000, the convertible at $168,000.
According to Aston, buyers of several extremely impressive sports cars have switched to the DB9 — vehicles such as DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz SL-Class, the Jaguar XK8 and the 911. Some Bentley Continental GT owners have also swapped their new cars for the DB9 after finding the Bentley was less of a sports car than they had expected. (We must say the DB9 is indeed sportier, but the Continental is also one of the world's greatest cars. "Bet the Aston dealers are happy to flip that one," jokes a friend of mine.)
An even sportier Aston, the V-8 Vantage coupe, is just around the corner. Deliveries of that vehicle, which will cost $100,000 to $110,000, will begin at the end of this year. In size and spirit, the Vantage will be Aston's primary weapon against Porsche. It was designed explicitly to challenge the 911.
The Vantage is also part of Aston's strategy to increase volume exponentially. In 2000, the company had 200 North American sales, then 400 in 2002 and 600 last year. This year, Aston expects to sell 1,250 cars in North America — the first time it will reach more than 1,000 sales here.
North America is not only Aston's fastest-growing market; it is also its largest, having recently surpassed Great Britain. In 2006, the company expects to sell 2,500 cars here — half of its global, annual sales target.
Both Walton and Bill Donnelly, Aston's North American president, declined to comment when asked if the brand is profitable.
Trying to get a handle on the other major issues facing Aston, we asked Walton what customers' main complaints about the cars are. Service seems to be the biggest problem.
“We're here,” he said, holding a hand up horizontally. Then, moving his other hand above it, he said, "We need to be here."
Aston's cars are built to order, and Walton said the dealers need to make servicing them “bespoke” in the same way. A customer who needs repairs should have to make only one phone call to the dealer, and should not get an answering machine when he or she calls. The dealer should be able to make any arrangement the customer wants (e.g., “Shall we pick up your car, or would you prefer to drop it off?”). The dealers aren't that good yet, and Walton said this keeps him awake at night — that and increasing the size of the business by 50 percent to 100 percent.
“We're well prepared to do this, but it's a challenge,” he said. “Name me another car company that's doubling its volumes year after year.”
Bez might not admit this in public, but frightening Porsche is also at the top of his list of personal goals — and Walton sees in Porsche things Aston could use. The German company, he said, has the advantages of loyalty and reliability. Customers know that buying a Porsche means the same thing, year after year, whereas Aston is in the midst of reinventing itself.
In fact, Walton hosted two events for Porsche owners in 2002, one at Aston's American headquarters in Irvine, Calif., and one in Connecticut. When customers examined the DB7, the DB9's predecessor, they offered such comments as "It's not a sports car in the way my Porsche is" and "Your styling is stunning, but your cars are not as up to date as Porsche's."
However, the customers — to a person — flipped when they saw a V-8 Vantage prototype. They all said they wanted one, according to Walton.
For Porsche customers, the top priority is quality, then good leasing rates, service and the knowledge that they can drive their Porsches every day. While Aston will tell you styling is its trump card, the brand's new, sportier cars show the influence of Porsche, perhaps because they show the heavy hand of Bez. After driving the DB9, we asked Walton how much of its steering feel was dictated by Bez.
“All of it,” he said.
While the V-8 Vantage will be a harder-core sports car, the DB9 for now points the way toward a sportier Aston Martin. The vehicle ingeniously straddles supreme performance with supreme comfort.