ROAD TEST: CYGNET

We sam­ple not one but two ex­am­ples of As­ton’s con­tro­ver­sial city car

VANTAGE - - Contents - WORDS JOHN SIMIS­TER PHO­TOG­RA­PHY CHAR­LIE MAGEE

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.