It’s a cold, harsh winter’s night and I’m in London’s Soho district – and not for the reasons you might at first suggest. Here, in an area that still has a reputation for the seedier side of things, dozens of hip and trendy bars and clubs are steadily transforming Soho into a destination for those well at heel who want to hang out in the best venues London has to offer. And the Meza Bar is one such establishment.
As I approach, I can see a couple of Rapides outside, with spotlights rightly turned on their gorgeous flanks. It’s nigh on impossible to do anything to attract attention to oneself in this part of London but these two cars are causing quite a stir. But nothing compared to the stir that’s brewing inside. Because it’s here, in the presence of a couple of hundred journos, fashionistas and opinion makers that the most controversial Aston Martin of all time is being unveiled in its final production form. Say hello, then, to the Cygnet.
I first reported on this car back in June 2009, the day the company announced its intention to offer an Aston Martin built solely for the urban jungle. The resulting furore was to be expected and the fuss hasn’t died down whatsoever in over 18 months but tonight is the first time anyone has seen it up close and for real in its natural environment.
It’s obviously a car that will polarise opinion but Aston Martin’s CEO, Dr Ulrich Bez, is keen to point out that it’s here to offer the company’s customers an alternative. “In Soho there is everything except space,” he tells the crowd swarming around one of two cars on display under the neon lights of the club, “and this is where Cygnet comes in. It is exactly what our customers need in big cities like London, Paris, Rome…” I can’t help but notice he doesn’t mention New York in his speech – that’s because the Cygnet hasn’t been approved for sale in the US but it’s something Aston is working on.
The myriad Cygnet detractors are quick to point out that this isn’t really an Aston Martin; that it’s simply a Toyota iQ in a bling disguise. Fair point but there’s a bigger picture that needs to be considered here. Think of any luxury car maker – Bentley, Porsche, Ferrari, Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini – even Bugatti – and they’re all small players within massive corporations. Which means that their carbon emissions are offset against those produced by the parent companies as a whole. Aston Martin, now it’s no longer part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, does not have that luxury.
It’s now an independent manufacturer fighting its own battles and the legislators are demanding lower CO2 outputs. The smallest, least powerful Aston in the range thus far has been the V8 Vantage, which is never going to appease the tree-huggers. So something needed to be done if Aston Martin was to continue building the sports cars it’s known and loved for. And the Cygnet manages to deftly side-step the problem because, while it is actually an iQ underneath, it’s assembled by the same craftsmen and women that piece together DB9s and Vantages.
And this is why I see the Cygnet as a positive move. Because it means we’ll get more of the sexy stuff and for longer. But it’s not entirely a cynical exercise to get around the men with clipboards. Bez told me back in 2009 that he had been thinking about a small Aston for some time. “Small is beautiful in these times and we must think outside the box,” he said, “ and constantly look to change if we are to survive these challenging times. Just think of the big American manufacturers who have resolutely refused to change their working practices and their model line-ups: they’re on the verge of extinction.”
Indeed. But there’s more depth to this story when you consider the man’s past. As a former Porsche and BMW boss, he has an impressive history in the prestige motor industry but he also was Vice President of Engineering at Daewoo between 1993 and 1998. There he was closely involved with the development of small cars like the Matiz. Despite his expertise and obvious enthusiasm for city cars, it wasn’t until Toyota’s iQ was launched that he found the right basis for a diminutive Aston.
Aston Martin’s garage facilities at the Nürburgring 24hr race have, in recent times, been shared by Toyota, when they’ve been campaigning the Lexus LF-A supercar. Toyota’s boss, Akio Toyoda has himself raced the LF-A while Bez was at the wheel of his own cars at the gruelling race. It was here that an unlikely alliance was formed.
“When I saw the iQ,” recalled Bez, “I immediately saw potential for our two companies to work together. Two days after I called Akio Toyoda to discuss this, Toyota’s people were visiting our factory. Just a few months after that and we were making public our intentions.”
And here it is. It’s the first time I’ve had an opportunity to study the Cygnet’s form without being surrounded by masses of people at a motor show and it really is tiny. But then that was a given, due to its iQ origins. The iQ itself is a brilliant piece of intelligent design, accommodating up to four people in what looks like it would seat one at the most, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Bez earmarked it to be the basis for his planned city Aston.
Just three metres long, 1.7 metres wide and 1.5 metres tall and tipping the scales at less than 1000kg, it’s never going to be suitable for a cross-continental dash but in these increasingly crowded city streets cars with these sorts of dimensions are beginning to make a great deal of sense. The engineering has been basically left untouched, which means a 1.3-litre, four-cylinder motor with variable valve timing, putting out a very un-Aston 72kW and 125Nm. But the emissions are equally un-Aston, with a CO2 figure of 116g/km and fuel consumption that averages at 5l/100km.
Each Cygnet takes 100 hours to build once the donor iQs are delivered to Aston’s factory and the majority of this time is taken trimming the sumptuous cabin. Aston Martin is claiming this is the world’s most luxurious city car and who’s going to argue with that? The two cars here tonight are utterly beautiful inside, even if you’re not convinced by the exterior styling treatment (it does look better when you see it in the metal, by the way).
Initially it was planned that Cygnets would be available to existing Aston customers only but that idea was binned and now anyone can place an order. The first production run will consist of the Launch Editions, which comprises of 100 cars in either black or white trim. And the bitter pill to swallow is that they’ll cost about three times what a standard iQ would set you back.
That doesn’t seem to phase some of the leggy ladies that are cooing over the baby Aston. One, who apparently is the daughter of a very wealthy Dutchman, has just taken delivery of a custom-built iQ that is so special that Toyota delivered it to her home personally. She’s overheard remarking that she should have held on till the Cygnet was available and you just know that there’ll soon be one in the family garage.
While Audi is intending to sell 150,000 A1s every year, Aston is planning to supply about one hundredth of that number of Cygnets. And this is why I’m so sure the car will be a success. Because there are enough people in the world’s biggest cities with enough money to keep loyal to Aston’s brand values. While we may wince at the idea of spending so much on what’s essentially an iQ with an identity crisis, we are probably not the target market. But that market is certainly there.
If proof of this were needed, it’s now known that every customer spending Veyron money on Aston’s One-77 supercar has also ordered a Cygnet, many of which will be supplied in exactly the same trim and materials. It’s also worth noting that Aston Martin sells plenty of watches to its customers that cost more than the Cygnet’s list price. And all of these factors tell me the car will be here for some time yet.
No, it’s not an Aston Martin in the traditional sense – nobody will argue the toss over that one. But its existence shows that Aston is wide awake and on its toes. While many thought it was evidence that Bez had lost the plot entirely, I have a hunch that this little car will, in no time at all, become a rich kid’s ultimate runabout. Which means more V8s and V12s for the rest of us to fantasise over in the future. With that thought in mind I raise a glass and toast the Cygnet – something I never expected to do back in June 2009.