Some luxury carmakers take themselves entirely seriously at all times, but Aston Martin definitely has a sense of humour.
For proof, look no further than this one-off Cygnet V8 – both a celebration of one of the brand’s least likely cars, and a manifesto piece for the company’s bespoke Q Division and its ability to make even the least likely dreams come true.
Many still regard the Cygnet as Aston’s lowest ebb. It was based on the Toyota iQ city car that was sold in Japan, Europe and – wearing Scion badges – the States.
Astonification was purely cosmetic with a graft of a DB9-like front grille, a natty paintjob and some plusher cabin materials, so all of the originals shared the same front-driving 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine as the donor car.
It was also a sales disaster, with Aston’s plan of selling thousands a year falling dramatically short. Only around 300 were produced between 2011 and 2013 before it was quietly axed.
Yet a strange thing has happened since: the Cygnet has become a must-have for more dedicated Aston collectors. For affluent fans with garages full of the company’s products, the gawky supermini has become the equivalent of a hard-to-get trading card.
Values have risen steadily and – in the UK – a Cygnet is now worth pretty much exactly what it cost when new. Indeed, this little runt is within a few grand of the value the market places on early versions of the Rapide. Go figure.
And now there’s a V8 version, built by Aston itself, and which made its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last month. We didn’t get to drive it there, but after some strategic begging, CarAdvice was invited to come and have a turn on some of the roads around Aston’s Gaydon HQ.
The car is new, but the idea isn’t. Aston engineers discussed the idea of creating a Franken-Cygnet years ago when it was realised that – with some surgery – the mechanical package of the previous-gen Vantage V8 could be crammed into the tiny body shell. That didn’t happen, but when a well-heeled Aston collector heard the idea, he asked if he could pay for the creation of a single road-legal car.
Q Division was put in charge of the unlikely task, and after a 10-month program involving two Cygnet body shells left over from the original program, this is the result.
The Cygnet body shell has been modified to mate with the front and rear subframes from the Vantage, meaning twin-wishbone suspension at each corner. The front bulkhead has been moved around 300mm backwards to find space for the naturally aspirated 4.7-litre V8 and the radiator that sits ahead of this.
The transmission is the Vantage S’s ‘Speedshift’ automated single-clutch gearbox; a rear-mounted unit that requires the two ends of the powertrain to be connected by a torque tube that’s just 690mm long. Carbon-fibre wheel arch extensions cover both the dramatically expanded track and the need to accommodate 19-inch wheels, but the rest of the Cygnet bodywork is pretty much standard.
The big surprise is how uncompromised the finished car feels. The cabin features a new carbon-fibre dashboard and has been turned into a two-seater – the original Cygnet sharing the two-plus-one seating arrangement of the iQ.
There are a pair of huggy Recaro buckets with full six-point harnesses plus a full rollcage. But, apart from an offset driving position that sets the throttle and brake pedals at an ankle-cricking angle, it feels like this could be the car that Aston always intended to make.
The regular Cygnet’s cheapo Toyota instruments and switchgear have also been binned, with the V8’s electronic architecture now being mostly Aston. So there’s a Vantage instrument pack as well as the ‘PRND’ transmission buttons from the sports car in a neat dashboard binnacle. There’s even a fly-off handbrake between the seats.
And Aston’s trademark glass key to fire the V8 into life.
The engine starts with a snarl that suggest only minimal silencing is impeding the flow of the exhaust gases. Even at a trundle it’s loud enough to turn heads, with the incongruous sight of the pumped-up supermini that’s making such an unlikely racket causing smiles, double-takes and raised camera phones wherever it goes.
In two decades of doing this job, I can honestly say I’ve never felt more like the centre of attention than driving the uber-Cygnet through rural England.
Performance is strong. Aston claims that in a straight drag race, the V8 Cygnet would have the legs on the Vantage S that donated its powertrain thanks to a 250kg reduction in kerb weight. The company’s claim of a 4.2-second 0-60mph (0-97km/h) time feels entirely believable from the driver’s seat, with the sensation of urgency enhanced by a nose-up attitude under hard acceleration.
Full throttle is definitely an occasional treat, although I doubt any traffic cops would be able to keep a straight face while writing a ticket.
Apart from sitting much higher, the other dynamic cues feel close to those of the Vantage at everyday speeds. The steering possesses a similar feel and weight, and the throttle delivers the same proportional responses.
The automated single-clutch gearbox has never been the smoothest-shifting ’box, and in the Cygnet the pauses between ratios seem longer and the torque bump when new gears arrive is bigger.
The guys who developed the car admit that getting the transmission to play nice in a car so much shorter and lighter than it was designed for has been an issue.
The ride is always firm, and on rougher surfaces it quickly gets choppy. Yet, overall, the Cygnet feels impressively stable when the relative sizes of its wheelbase and suspension track are considered, although you’d need to be a bottle of brave pills to make a serious attempt on the claimed 270km/h top speed.
There’s no traction control, and it didn’t take much of an overlap between throttle and steering input to provoke the tail-lightening sensation of an impending slide. That’s not a tendency I had any ambition to explore in greater depth on the public roads in somebody else’s irreplaceable one-off.
Some of those who drove the car at Goodwood reported it feeling twitchy under hard braking – the word “squirrelly” was used – but at real-world levels of retardation it felt stable enough to me. The hardest thing to get used to on everyday roads is the difference between the width of the cabin and how far out the wheels actually are. It would be embarrassingly easy to clip a kerb.
Aston won’t say how much the Cygnet V8’s new owner paid to realise this glorious dream, other than admitting it has cost enough to buy several of the company’s more mainstream models. As part of the deal, Aston has agreed never to make another one, begging the question as to whether the V12 engine will fit.
Anybody who has an equally mad ambition for any of Aston’s other products, and enough cash to make it happen, is warmly invited to contact Q Division to discuss it further.
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