Aston Martin’s controversial city car gains a supercharger. Hold on tight
That the Cygnet is allowed to occupy the annals of Aston Martin history is surely now wellestablished. We’ve covered the tiny toy cars in Vantage, so it must be OK. That many enthusiasts with collections of full-size Astons also squeeze a Cygnet into their lives proves their open-mindedness. Those who follow price trends have noticed how expensive a good Cygnet has now become, too.
But shouldn’t a car with an Aston Martin badge offer a bit more pace than 98bhp can provide? Couldn’t the factory have offered a tweaked-up Cygnet, using the tuning parts available in Japan for the Toyota iq on which the Cygnet is based? It does seem an opportunity missed, especially when Gazoo Racing, a Toyota-affiliated tuner, revealed the first of a run of 100 supercharged iqs at the 2012 Tokyo motor show.
Peter Hornik thought so, too. He is deeply in love with Aston Martins, with a 1959 DB2/4 MKIII, a 1985 V8 Volante and a 2005 Vanquish S occupying his ample garage, and there’s also space for a Cygnet. It is, however, no ordinary Cygnet. Its numberplate suggests its speed capability in mph, achieved with the 160bhp that a tiny Rotrex supercharger helps the 1.3-litre engine to generate.
‘We took it to the 100th-anniversary Aston Martin celebration at the Nürburgring in 2013,’ Peter recalls with a smile. ‘There was a parade of 100 Astons, but this was the only Cygnet. Behind me was a V8 Vantage and I could see the driver’s disappointment. Afterwards it was a little bit different, and in the turns we were a bit quicker than him…’
So, how did this interpretation of a supercharged Cygnet come about? ‘ Toyota’s supercharged iq is completely different,’ explains Peter, ‘and we didn’t even know about it when we started work on this one in 2011. Ours is the work of SAW Tuning in Eisenach. They had a contract to make around 20 supercharged iqs but it was cancelled, so they had systems left over. The demonstrator was the development car, so we bought that one and it’s now standard again. It’s our daily driver and has covered 135,000km.
‘We used the tuning bits on a Cygnet with CVT transmission, which is now in Hamburg. It has a quieter exhaust than this one and doesn’t work as well.’
However, that car and its demonstrator predecessor worked well enough to convince Peter to create a second supercharged Cygnet, manual this time, using more of SAW’S parts. Peter and his experts would like to make a few more, but while the Rotrex supercharger, the intercooler and the stainless steel exhaust are easy to source, the vital electronic parts are no longer available so substitutes must be found.
That first supercharged Cygnet, the CVT car, is dark blue with silver wheels, very under stated. Not so Peter’s car. ‘It was the first Cygnet to be sold by Aston Martin Munich. There was one in this Gulf colour scheme as a teaser on the internet, so I ordered mine in those colours but they said it couldn’t be done. So this car is actually grey with a wrap. The number 59 is to mark the Le Mans victory with the DBR1 and the year of my birth.’
WE MET UP EARLIER at the Café Sauerwein in Hohenschwangau, in the Bavarian Alps beneath not one, but two, castles straight out of fairy tales. One, indeed, was the inspiration for the Disney cartoon castle in Sleepingbeauty. It’s a perfect setting for an almost cartoon-like car, and there are some good roads hereabouts. Now that we’ve set the stage over a cup of coffee, it’s time to sample the tiny terror for myself.
Muscular, arch-filling 17in Alleggerita wheels add to the Hot Wheels aura. They wear 205/40 Hankook Ventus S1 EVO tyres, with just enough sidewall to look like they do more than simply stopping the rims from scraping the road. The wheelarches had to be rolled a little to accommodate them. Behind the front wheels are big K-sport brakes with six-piston calipers; behind all the wheels are height-adjustable Tein dampers and stiffer springs. The suspension is set as low as it can go while retaining a reasonable ride and useable ground clearance.
There are no internal engine modifications at all. This is purely a bolt-on conversion, which even retains the standard induction airbox but
with revised inlet and outlet tubes laminated in composite and feeding a larger throttle body. There’s an intercooler and a KAT stainless steel exhaust system with twin tailpipes and a 2.5in pipe bore. And the electronics, a Zeitronix Zt-2 system now inconveniently obsolete.
They make their presence known as soon as I start the engine. A dim display above the facia vents informs me of the warming-up of the wideband lambda sensor, the mixture-informing device common to all cars with catalytic converters and electronic management, but able here to report a wider range of air/fuel ratio variation than a standard production car should ever need. The display also reports boost pressure, so it’s a shame I can barely read it…
‘You mustn’t use the stop-start system,’ Peter advises me, ‘because the electronic control system for the supercharger shuts down and it confuses the other electronics. Otherwise, just go for a drive, take it for as long as you want.’
So I do just that.
I GO GENTLY AT FIRST. The steering feels a touch stiff around the centre, perhaps exaggerated by the wide tyres. The engine sounds keenly rorty, the torque curve feels quite flat with the graph drawn usefully higher up the y-axis than in the standard 98bhp unit. There’s a perceptible delay between pressing the accelerator and feeling that extra torque arrive, thanks to the length of the intake tract as it ducks and weaves via the intercooler, so neatly squeezed into that snub nose. And, of course, manoeuvring out of the parking space reminded me that the turning circle is ridiculously tight.
So far, the super-cygnet seems to be doing just what Peter intended it to do. ‘I was disappointed with the standard 98bhp, given that it has less than 1000kg to pull,’ he was telling me earlier. ‘I thought it would be better. I was always having to rev it over 4000rpm. The Gulf colour scheme was promising much more than the Cygnet could deliver.’ Given how much his disappointment has given way to very obvious joy at the result, it’s only right that I should now dig a little more deeply into the throttle travel and grip potential.
‘It pulls with an eager blare, crackling with each high-revs gearchange, fluffing and popping on the overrun’
I drop down a gear – such a sweet, snickety shift – and a mist as red as the seats, doortrims and console hangs enticingly above, goading me on as very un-cygnet-like forces stir. At 4500rpm the engine really lights up, just as it does in the standard car but here with much more consequence. There’s a gentle tug of torque steer, which is best left to its own devices given the steering’s gentle response either side of straight-ahead. That gentleness is deceptive, because once I’m past that central zone things happen very quickly.
Not many cars turn into a corner with the inertia-free determination of this one. That’s the short wheelbase and wide track, the seemingly square footprint that means even a slight wag of the tail would equal a big drift angle. Yet despite this almost ludicrous flickability, the Cygnet doesn’t threaten to go into a spin. It just grips and grips, all four wheels sharing the lateral loads equably. This car would be brilliant at the elk-test slalom that, two decades ago, was the undoing of the Mercedes-benz A-class as it famously tripped over itself.
Even on a straight and smooth road, though, this Cygnet is directionally fidgety, sniffing this way and that as I squeeze on more power. I was expecting the vertical fidget of a too-firm ride, too, but actually the baby Aston stays surprisingly calm and level in that particular plane for something so short.
All of which means the engine can take centre
stage, pulling with an eager blare, crackling with each high-revs gearchange, fluffing and popping on the overrun. There’s a warning buzzer at 6000rpm just before the revs hit the limiter, so there’s a band of just 1500rpm in which the real high energy happens. But there are also six gears, so you can keep the thrust flowing from one gear to the next without falling out of the power band.
It takes a little practice to drive the Cygnet completely smoothly and get a flow going, but once you’ve cracked it the whole car comes together. The trick is to lift off the accelerator fractionally sooner than you normally would, to stop the over-rush of the considerable quantity of air in the lengthy intake tract, and accelerate slightly earlier too, so that the boost arrives exactly when you want it. It soon becomes second nature to keep in mind the inertia of the mass of air poised to enter the cylinders.
THERE’S A PARTICULAR sequence of bends just after a village, which I traverse several times for the sheer thrill of it. That means I have to turn round in the village each time for the return run, near a bus stop by which are waiting several people of teenage years. After the third or fourth time they are intrigued by the stubby Cygnet with its racetrack-fugitive colour scheme and rude vocals. Perhaps they think it ridiculous, perhaps they think it extremely cool. They smile and wave, which is positive enough for me.
I think Peter’s supercharged Cygnet is a terrific toy, capable of endless entertainment, and it says a lot for the strength of Toyota’s base mechanicals that they can withstand a 60 per cent power increase so nonchalantly. Peter has covered 14,000km in it now; he managed to run it on dealer plates until it was converted in 2012, so that its registration document could show its present spec as its official identity.
If you want one for yourself, though, you’ll find it an expensive exercise. Peter reckons the complete conversion has cost around €30,00035,000, which nowadays means almost as many pounds. That’s a doubling of the price you’ll currently pay for a good standard Cygnet.
And, meanwhile, there’s that problem with the no-longer-available electrics. Peter is working on that and will find a solution, and then more Cygnet-fanciers can join in the fun. After all, as Aston Martin design director Marek Reichmann said to Peter when he saw the steroidal Cygnet, ‘This is how it should be.’
‘There are six gears, so you can keep the thrust flowing from one gear to the next without falling out of the power band’
Below and opposite Our man Simister finds the blown Cygnet very much to his liking. Four-cylinder Toyota engine has gained Rotrex supercharger, intercooler and lots of other go-faster mods. Peak power is up from 98bhp to a much more interesting 160bhp
Above left Bigger 17in wheels (standard car was on 16s) are shod with wider 205/40 R17 tyres, necessitating slightly flared wheelarches. Behind the front wheels are large, grooved, K-sport discs with six-piston calipers, and there’s Tein adjustable suspension all round