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At S$800k apiece, Aston's make-or-break SUV is sold out in Singapore

Aston Martin's first SUV, the DBX, is a huge gamble for the 106-year-old sports car brand; and it's counting on women buyers to help rescue the brand, too.

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With seven bankruptcies in its lifetime, Aston's financial performance has always been rocky. Could the DBX turn things around properly?

St Anthans, Wales

MAREK Reichman is Aston Martin's vice-president and also its head of design, and what he tells The Business Times could not have been said about any Aston of the past.

"The wheel arches don't intrude into the cabin, so it's much easier to put a child seat in the second row. And there's a tremendous amount of headroom as well," Mr Reichman says as he comfortably tucks his own 1.93-metre frame into the rear seat of a DBX.

Aston's first sport utility vehicle (SUV) and family car, the DBX has no rocket launcher or ejection seat. For the brand so long associated with fictional super-spy James Bond, its next big thing seems far more suited to the humdrum life of John le Carre's George Smiley instead.

Unveiled simultaneously in November at launch events in Beijing, Beverly Hills and Singapore, the DBX could take its maker's volume above 10,000 cars a year for the first time, if it delivers the 4,000 sales that Aston is counting on.

At stake is nothing less than survival. LSE-listed Aston Martin has always been a minnow, known mainly for two-door sports cars and grand touring coupes. It remains independent (though Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler AG has a five per cent stake) and has sold fewer than 100,000 cars in 106 years, including 6,411 in 2018, when it recorded a net loss of £57.1million (S$101 million).

In contrast, Ferrari sold 9,251 cars in 2018, with a net profit of 787 million euros (S$1.2 billion).

But with seven bankruptcies in its lifetime, Aston's financial performance has always been rocky. Could the DBX turn things around properly?

Chief executive Andy Palmer is betting on it. He called the opening of a new factory for the DBX, attended by BT, a hugely important and pivotal moment for the brand. Sales stalled in 2019 and the company cut its volume projections, so it needs the DBX to widen its pool of buyers.

Design chief Mr Reichman said 70 per cent of Aston customers already own SUVs, so the company merely has to convert them to a DBX. But the company is also wooing people who have no relationship with Aston. It hopes a large number of such conquest purchasers will be women, and set up a Female Advisory Board to provide design input and suggestions for the DBX.

"In designing the DBX, we wanted to maximise space, but we also considered the 50th percentile Asian lady," Mr Reichman said. "Our current ownership is 90 per cent male, but for the DBX we expect far more female customers."

SUVs have a history of transforming sportscar companies. Germany's Porsche sold just 54,234 cars in 2002, the year before it launched the Cayenne SUV. Now it builds five times as many cars, 61 per cent of them SUVs.

Similarly, Lamborghini saw its sales skyrocket 51 per cent from 3,815 units in 2017 to 5,750 units in 2018 after launching the Urus SUV.

"The future is very much in the SUV segment. To a millennial in Shanghai, he or she sees an SUV the way older people might see sedans," Mr Reichman said.

The DBX's mission has started well. BT understands that Singapore's first year allocation of 20 cars has already been snapped up, at a price tag of around S$800,000 without certificate of entitlement.

That's a significant jump from Aston's usual sales; the brand put 19 cars on the road here from January to November this year.

If that feat is replicated elsewhere, Aston Martin has more in store. Its electric vehicle-focused Lagonda label will produce cars one rung above Tesla on the luxury EV ladder, Mr Reichman said.

The next Bond movie, No Time To Die, will showcase the Valhalla, a mid-engined hypercar that goes on sale in 2021. After that comes the Vanquish, which goes up against Ferrari's F8 Tributo.

To get there, Aston will have to sell DBXs as fast as it can build them. But what better way to cross tricky terrain than with an SUV?