ROAD TEST: CYGNET
We sample not one but two examples of Aston’s controversial city car
It has an Aston Martin VIN plate, and it says it’s an Aston on the V5. So of course it’s an Aston Martin.’
There’s no denying the logic of owner Rob Smith. He could go on. In fact he did. You bought it at an Aston Martin dealer, perhaps as a lifestyle accessory to go with your new DB9 or DBS. The cars emerged from the Gaydon factory, where they had their own line. Clearly, our high-handed omission of the Cygnet from the ‘all the Astons’ listings at the back of this magazine needed to be fixed. As of the previous issue, it has been.
The strength of opinion in favour of doing this has been high. Those in favour of maintaining our arbitrary status quo have been few. And now here it is with its own feature. The toy Aston Martin. The Cygnet. A baby swan.
‘Did you know that the collective noun for swans is a drift?’ asks Rob. So maybe we can go drifting today in our drift of Cygnets, given the foggy wetness all around. Well, two Cygnets anyway, in opposing shades of black (Storm Black 2, appropriately) and white (Stratus White), just as in the two-tone launch brochure. Cars with a wheelbase this short might make for some very amusing, if short-lived, drifts as they emerge from the fog of former invisibility.
Rob’s black example is a rare six-speed manual in a majority Cygnet population (789 cars in total) of CVTS. It’s his daily driver, the car he uses most of the four he owns, all of them Astons, and he has driven it 38,000 of its 41,000 miles. The others are a V600 Vantage, a Vanquish and a V12 Vantage S, and seen head-on from a low, er, vantage point, the Cygnet doesn’t look so very different.
Seen from the side, though, the only regular Aston that the Cygnet resembles is one that has approached the speed of light and been foreshortened through the forces of thermodynamics. And not even a One-77 is that fast.
The Cygnet does, of course, resemble something else created as a cute urban accessory with a tiny turning circle and the ability to park where otherwise only a Smart might squeeze. That something else was a car created by original thinkers with a high IQ, which could be why its maker, Toyota, called it iq.
The iq, launched in 2008, was a brilliant piece of design. I ran one for a year, the original version with the 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine, and I loved the way it combined amazing compactness and urban U-turn manoeuvrability with the feeling, when sat in the driving seat and provided you didn’t turn your head around, of a car with a roomy,
fully formed cabin and a proper, grown-up ride that entirely belied the tiny wheelbase.
The iq’s packaging was very clever. Under the snub nose lay a transverse engine and end-on gearbox whose final drive was not behind the gearbox shafts, as it normally is, but in front of them. Thus the engine sat slightly behind the centres of the front wheels, enabling those wheels to be set far forward to minimise front overhang and maximise the meagre wheelbase.
Inside, the front passenger’s footwell was set further forward than the driver’s, the facia swept forward to match, making it possible for a compact adult to sit behind that front passenger. You had to be small to snick in behind the driver, though, and with three-and-a-half people on board there was barely any room for more than a couple of laptops: one behind the foldable rear seat, one under it.
The original three-pot iq was joined in 2009 by a 1.33-litre, four-cylinder version with 99bhp, an example of which was memorably bounced off some banking by Toyota GB’S then managing director while following the author on the press launch. Despite a heavily dented rear quarter, the metallic aubergine iq was repaired overnight, which shows what can be done when minds are set to it.
My iq was white, making it look disturbingly Currys, and had an interior finished in dark brown and a kind of aubergine (an iq chromatic motif, clearly). The cabin was beautifully made in a mass-produced way, sufficiently so to give it the slightly premium-ish air that went with being a chic urban accessory. And so the seeds were sown…
ASTON MARTIN HAD a problem. It needed to bring the average CO2 emissions of its model range down, so the laterally thinking Dr Ulrich Bez thought it would be a good idea to combine this need with a daring addition
‘THE CYGNET IS ROB’S DAILY DRIVER, THE CAR HE USES MOST OF THE FOUR HE OWNS, ALL OF THEM ASTONS’
to the Aston accessories catalogue. The addition would conform to key brand values – handmade quality, an Aston Martin look, a covetable nature – and so the deal was done. Toyota would deliver batches of iq 1.3s, in top-spec iq3 trim but painted in default white, to Gaydon where they would become Aston Martin Cygnets.
Top-spec, that is, apart from the wheels. All iq 1.3s had 16in wheels in place of the lesser models’ 15in items, but Uk-spec cars normally had them in aluminium alloy. Not these, though; they came with steel wheels as available on the Japanese domestic market, this being the cheapest way for Aston Martin to acquire the 16in tyres which would be transferred to the Cygnet’s unique alloys (in two styles, with eight or 16 spokes).
Which leads to a quick aside: what happened to those discarded steel wheels? Rob Smith wondered that, too, and thought he’d like a set to fit with winter tyres. No joy from Aston; not interested. No joy from the local Toyota dealer; not available. Then he saw an ebay ad, from an enterprising trader who had bought all of Aston Martin’s discarded iq parts, wheels included. Job done.
So Aston Martin’s design team set about Astonising the iq. Most obvious was the front grille, as carefully handmade as even a One-77’s, more complex than any other modern Aston’s with its double curvature, and set into a Cygnet-bespoke plastic bumper. The rear bumper, the sill fairings and the tailgate’s outer skin were similarly Cygnet-unique injection mouldings, while the rear spoiler and diffuser were simpler blow mouldings.
The other outer panels were steel, standard iq parts apart from the vented bonnet and the front wings. The latter gained the vital Aston Martin vent, whose mesh, over the years, has proved to shed rather easily whichever of the optional finishes it originally wore. Headlights are standard iq, but the tail-lights are fully Astonised and the window glass had its Toyota markings etched over.
On the way into the cabin, we pass something I’ve seen on no other car. Two VIN plates. One is the original Toyota one, the second bears many of the same digits but an Aston prefix and, below the number, ‘Stage 2’ to denote the second stage of production. And then we take in the lush, leathery interior with cheerful accents in Chancellor Red, long-cushioned seats smothering iq understructures, polished aluminium cradling the gear lever at the base of a vee-shaped, Aston-evocative centre console.
The door trims and their aluminium handles are bespoke, too, as are the instrument graphics and most of the steering wheel’s visible parts. The carpets are deep and plush. The glovebox-substituting satchel ahead of the front passenger is in soft leather. Stretch your arms beyond a normal reach, though, to the dashboard’s horizontal upper surface, and moulded-grain iq returns. The extravagance had to stop somewhere.
‘IT REALLY SHOULD HAVE A BIT MORE ZIP TO THE WAY IT GOES, AND EMIT MORE THAN AN INOFFENSIVE HUM FROM ITS EXHAUST’
SO YOU’RE LUXURIATING in what seems like a generous, relaxed space – provided you banish from your mind the notion that the car stops shortly behind your head. But it’s going to drive like an iq, right?
Not quite, although it’s not as different as it ought to have been given a list price at the time of £30,995 before any personalisation. That was nearly three times the cost of an iq 1.3 at £11,495. ‘You didn’t even get the iq’s jack and wheelbrace,’ says Rob, ‘just a can of goo.’
There are two main differences. The Cygnet feels significantly more solid and is rather quieter, thanks to all that carpet, thick leather and extra soundproofing. It’s a very refined little car. And there’s no denying the frisson of affluent warmth triggered by the winged badge on the steering wheel. Am I driving an Aston Martin? I suppose I am. A DB7’S roots were in something non-aston too, after all, and no-one minds that too much. (Did I just sense a burst of blood pressure through the hands holding this issue of Vantage?)
But it really should have a bit more zip to the way it goes, and emit more than an inoffensive hum from its exhaust. Every one of the six gears feels too long-legged, for all their oiled ease of shifting; they’re that way for fuel economy and a CO2 output nevertheless still not low enough to relieve affluent Aston owners of the need to pay a London congestion charge. How cross they must be.
What the Cygnet really needs is forced induction, and indeed 100 supercharged iqs were made for the Japanese market. But engineering and certifying a Cygnet version was beyond Aston’s budget, as was re-engineering the centre console to take a navigation and multimedia system.
In the end, these lacks made the Cygnet hard to justify to many buyers beyond the open-minded end of an Astonfanatical clientèle. Dr Bez spoke of the ‘heart, soul and personality’ of a car created as a ‘tailor-fit solution’ to urban mobility, and hoped to sell 4000 examples a year. Initially this would be to someone buying a full-size Aston at the same time, then it was to anyone who had or once had an Aston, finally it was to anyone prepared to pay. And there just weren’t enough takers.
‘Some dealer demonstrators were in weird colours, like Kangaroo Yellow,’ says Rob, ‘but I went to an event at Newport Pagnell and saw a line of ex-directors’ cars for sale, six months old, £25,000 apiece. Mine’s one of those. And it’s the only Cygnet so far to have won a concours at an AMOC event.’ Yep, even the owners’ club embraces the Cygnet. But didn’t we mention two cars? If your blood pressure’s up to it, the other one’s just over the page…
Above and left Rob Smith’s Cygnet shares garage space with his Vantage V12 S, Vanquish and Vantage V600. ‘Of course it’s an Aston,’ he says. Interior of Toyota iq donor was thoroughly ‘Astonised’ by the trimmers at Gaydon. Rob’s car is a relatively rare manual; most were CVTS
This page, from the top Grille, side-vents and a liberal sprinkling of the famous ‘wings’ helped transform Toyota iq into Aston Cygnet. They weren’t enough to see it fly out of the showrooms
Opposite page, top left Owner Rob Smith (on the right) talks our man Simister through the finer points of Dr Bez’s city car. Original brochures highlighted the lengths to which Aston went to distinguish the Cygnet from the Toyota beneath. From side-on, though, its roots were plain to see: no-one was ever going to mistake it for a DB9