Road Cars

Can Aston Martin be blamed for producing a car based on its V12 Vantage but offering no more performance, restyling it and charging precisely three times the money for it?

For that is what the new Aston Martin ‘Zagato’ is. Just 150 will be built, retailing for £405,000 each. And although Andrea Zagato was consulted and lent the family name to the project, the actual design is British.

I admit to being torn by this. On the one hand I find it unedifying to see such brazen profiteering from Aston Martin, but if it can sell the cars and make a stack of money out of them in these difficult times, who’s to say it should not? It won’t damage the brand any more than the 20 rebodied Murciélagos sold as Reventóns damaged Lamborghini, and they sold for a million each.

The history of Aston Martin and Zagato has always interested me, not least because I don’t understand why it has become such an iconic association. The new car celebrates the 50th anniversary of the race debut of the first, the DB4GT Zagato. It was an undeniably pretty thing, but uncompetitive on the track even with Jim Clark at the helm. It had no answer at all to the lighter, nimbler GTOs.

It was succeeded at a distance of a quarter of a century by the V8 Vantage-based Zagato which, unlike the new car, did at least feature a shortened wheelbase and extra power to provide some historically accurate context. Looks only its mother could love did not affect its performance in the market place.

Zagatos provide a few extra million to help finance the range of all-new cars Aston must surely soon produce, then I think it a step worth taking. Still, it’s a shame to see the once great name of Zagato reduced to a marketing tool. But at least it’s attached to an Aston, not an Allegro – the ignominious fate of Vanden Plas.

My time in Ford’s 1-litre Focus (see page 117) suggests very strongly that the balance of motive power for most engines is shortly to tip back in favour of petrol over diesel. For years diesels have been making steady gains, particularly in Europe, thanks to their economy, range, low CO² emissions and ability to deliver lowdown torque. Many thought this an inevitable, inexorable process.

But it seems the customer is a bigger fan of diesel than those who make them. In almost every area, diesels cost more to build than petrol engines. Because diesel is so viscous it has to be blasted into combustion chambers at pressures of around 2000bar to make sure it atomises correctly to provide efficient combustion, which means the injection system and engine management costs a fortune compared with a petrol engine requiring less pressure. And, because high-compression diesel combustion puts such a strain on an engine’s structure, it needs to be more massively constructed and therefore both heavier and more expensive. Its particulate matter is more difficult to deal with, too.

The fact is that although Ford admits the new 1-litre engine is so crammed full of tech it’s ‘far more expensive’ than the 1.6 it’s replacing, costs still come ‘nowhere near’ those that would be incurred designing a diesel to do a similar job. Of course at the other end of the market, where cars are sold in lower volumes at higher prices, the unique attributes of diesel continue to make a lot of sense, but down in the cheap seats from which most car buyers browse the market, diesel is in danger of reverting to its old role of niche player.

There are other reasons why the good old petrol engine is making a comeback. In the UK you’ll pay 10p a litre less for petrol than diesel while over in the US the American flirtation with hybrid appears to be experiencing what General Motors will hope most fervently is just a brief hiatus. Current sales of the Chevrolet Volt are nowhere near their target, and not just because of some scare stories about crash test mules catching fire weeks after being written off. Bluntly, the price of fuel is just not high enough to scare the Americans out of their gas guzzlers and into hybrids. Mind you, if Ford’s engineers are any guide, a worse fate awaits all electric cars. They have spent years developing an all-electric version of the new Focus but even they reckon its retail appeal will be limited, most being sold into fleets with an extant recharging infrastructure.

Was delighted to see the AA has formally endorsed a call to reduce speed limits to 20mph in certain high-risk urban areas, such as outside schools. The organisation has the kind of clout to make measures like this far more likely to make legislation. I know someone who once knocked over a child outside a school. The boy – who leapt without warning off the pavement – was saved by two factors: one, my friend has a brain and was driving at a saintly speed and secondly, he happened to be in an old 308GTB. So instead of the boy being flattened as would be likely had he been hit by some bluff-fronted saloon or SUV, he just rolled up and down the bonnet before being deposited in an undignified but unharmed heap on the tarmac. The child inflicted far more damage to the car than vice versa.

If the rumour mill is to be believed (and in this industry, unlike most, it usually is) Lamborghini is shortly to announce it is to build an SUV. This is additional to the Maserati SUV we already know about called the Kubang, a much mooted Bentley SUV and Aston Martin’s SUV-shaped revival of Lagonda which is still very much on the cards. Oddly enough, while I don’t much like the idea of any of them and lament the fact that in this era when cars are meant to be becoming lighter and less profligate these will surely be the heaviest cars any of their manufacturers (save Bentley) have ever created, I can cope with the idea so long as their core products are not affected.

But I couldn’t say the same about Ferrari. While the idea of all these other SUVs just makes me wince a bit, the thought of a Ferrari people carrier makes me almost physically shudder. While Bentley, Maserati and Aston all make four-door saloons and Lamborghini is a former SUV constructor (LM002, anyone?), Ferrari has never made a car with more than two doors (save for some Sultan specials), staying true to its roots in every car it’s built in the last 66 years. There will be massive pressure from Russia, China and the Middle East for Maranello to make such a car and, with the all-wheel drive system from the FF, it has the means to do it. I just hope it has also the strength to say no.

Andrew Frankel