British supercar maker Aston Martin Lagonda caught the auto world by surprise when it unveiled its stunning Lagonda Taraf last year -- and caught it by surprise again when it announced that the gorgeous new sedan would be sold only in the Middle East.
CEO Andy Palmer eventually relented, a bit: The new Lagonda will be sold in very limited numbers -- just 200 total -- in Europe, the U.K., and South Africa, as well as the Middle East. But it won't be sold in the U.S., as the current design doesn't meet the nation's regulatory standards (which differ a bit from Europe's).
What's that about? Why design and build a gorgeous car and limit its availability?
Two reasons the Lagonda Taraf exists
I suspect this car is mostly a brand-enhancing exercise. For many years, Aston Martin's cars were hand-built to order. That has changed, but the company has preserved some of that bespoke, exclusive feel by releasing limited-edition models from time to time.
The Lagonda Taraf is in that vein. Aston hasn't publicly disclosed the price, but it's rumored to be north of $500,000 -- possibly well north. Most of us will probably never see one, much less drive one.
It's not an unprecedented car for Aston Martin, which has sold luxury sedans off and on during its 102-year history. For the last few years, Aston's regular model lineup has included a four-door called the Rapide, essentially a stretched version of the company's DB9 luxury coupe.
There could be another motive behind the new Taraf. It looks to be Aston's way of reintroducing its Lagonda sub-brand, which was historically used for opulent sedans that focus more on luxury (and a little less on sportiness) than Aston Martin's coupes.
The most famous of those is perhaps the car that inspired the Taraf's shape -- the futuristic-for-the-time Aston Martin Lagonda sedan that was built from 1976 to 1990.
But Palmer said another Lagonda will follow the Taraf. It will be a more mainstream model, offered around the world. That new Lagonda could be critical for Aston Martin, because diversifying beyond its famous sports coupes is probably necessary for the tiny company's survival.
A new range of Aston Martin Lagonda sedans is coming
Aston Martin is mostly known as a maker of stylish, fast, expensive coupes that have been James Bond's preferred rides since the 1960s movies. It's a tiny company by auto-industry standards, making just a few thousand cars per year. And unlike most of its rivals, it's not owned by a giant global automaker (although Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler does own a small stake and will supply Aston with engines in the near future).
That independence (and that reliance on sports cars) makes Aston Martin extremely vulnerable to economic downturns, something Palmer is determined to change. Palmer, who joined Aston from Nissan's luxury brand Infiniti last year, thinks Aston's reach must be broadened in order to ensure its profitable survival.
The problem with a business built around sports cars is that sports cars are extremely discretionary purchases. They're the first things crossed off the to-buy list during economic downturns. All automakers lose sales during downturns, but companies such as Aston Martin get clobbered.
Palmer's plan for Aston doesn't involve giving up on cars like the famous DB9 and V8 Vantage. But the CEO plans to boost sales of sedans and add an SUV, following the trail blazed by another famous European sports-car maker, Porsche.
A map for Aston's long-term survival -- following Porsche's trail
Porsche's reputation and brand are built on sports cars, particularly the 911 series and its thousands of racing victories. But nowadays, Porsche (which is part of the Volkswagen Group makes a lot of money from SUVs, which represent at least half of its global sales, and from its Panamera sedan.
Porsche introduced the Cayenne SUV in 2002, when it was still an independent company, as part of its plan to escape the boom-bust cycle of the sports-car business. That worked out very well, which is why Palmer is taking Aston down a similar path.
In addition to the promised new Lagonda sedan, Aston has been showing off a concept called the DBX -- Aston Martin's first SUV.
The production version of the DBX is expected to have the same basic shape, but it will be a four-door ("five doors," says Aston, counting the rear hatch). It will be comfortable and accessible, Palmer promises, in keeping with one key part of its mission: appealing to wealthy female customers.
A three-part plan for Aston's "Second Century"
Palmer has described his long-range plan for Aston as having three legs. The first is an all-new range of sports cars to replace the brand's current models, which share an architecture (and an engine family) that is over 10 years old, dating to the period when Aston was owned by Ford.
The second is the SUV, which could significantly boost the company's overall sales, while providing it with some recession-proofing and broadening the traditionally masculine brand's appeal to women.
The third? The Lagonda sedan (or possibly sedans) that build on the wow factor of the exclusive new Taraf.
Palmer's plan makes good sense. Will it work? James Bond certainly hopes so.