The Cygnet might be just a jazzed-up Toyota iQ, costing three times the price, but as Kevin Hackett sees at a swanky unveiling, it has a market.
The Aston Cygnet is not an ugly duckling
It's a cold, harsh winter's night and I'm in London's Soho district, battling my way through the incessant drizzle, trying to find a trendy club called Meza. 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.
Nothing, however, compared to the stir that's brewing inside. Because it's here, in the presence of a couple of hundred journalists, fashionistas and opinion-makers that the most controversial Aston Martin of all time is being unveiled in its final production form. Say hello to the Cygnet.
I first reported on this car 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 more than 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 chief excutive, 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 detractors are up in arms that Aston Martin could even consider building such a car 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. 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 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 environmentalists. So something needed to be done if Aston Martin was to continue building the sports cars for which it's known and loved. And the Cygnet manages to deftly side-step the problem because, while it is actually a Toyota 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 but that it wasn't until Toyota's iQ was launched that he found the right basis for a diminutive Aston.
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: 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 1,000kg, 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 1.3L, four-cylinder motor with variable valve timing, generating a very un-Aston 98bhp and 125Nm of torque. 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 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 glamorous people 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 so special 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 she'll be placing an order pretty soon.
As for exclusivity, consider that 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. Anyone who winces at the idea of spending so much on what's essentially an iQ with an identity crisis is probably not in 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 the ultimate runabout for the well at heel. Which means more V8s and V12s for the rest of us to fantasise over in the future and nobody could say that was a bad thing.