History is replete with bad ideas from people who should have known better: “Trust me, New Coke will make America forget all about the original.” “Helium? Why not fill the Hindenburg with hydrogen?” And, of course, “Let’s tart up a Toyota iQ with an Aston Martin grille, special paint and better interior bits, and triple the price!”
The Cadillac Cimarron has been roundly excoriated as an exercise in cynical and shamelessly transparent badge engineering, and not without reason. Today, let’s examine another vehicle just as preposterous, the Aston Martin Cygnet. And while arguing whether Cadillac or Aston Martin committed the greater sin is like pondering whether Denny’s or Waffle House is the finer restaurant; it can safely be said that both companies probably wish they’d never gotten their hands dirty. Of course, since the Cimarron belonged to a relatively high volume, high visibility brand, it certainly had higher public awareness than the Cygnet, which came and went with nary a ripple.
Aston Martin. The mere mention of the name conjures up visions of James Bond, motoring along 8A on a glorious afternoon, impeccably tailored, and every store-bought hair in place. At least that’s how the fine folks at Aston Martin, the storied purveyor of luxurious, high performance automobiles, would like you to remember the marque—which would not be at issue had Aston Martin (herewith ‘AM’, for brevity’s sake) not embarked on a dubious dalliance with that commonest of commoners, Toyota.
So what possessed AM to go slumming? To answer that question we must look back to 2008, and the European Union emissions standards scheduled to take effect in 2012. Unlike Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, Porsche and even Bugatti, AM had no parent company into which they could fold their sales to produce a compliant corporate average. And with annual sales of just over 7,000 cars, AM was too big to qualify for an exemption from the new standards.
It was decided that the most expedient solution would be to add a new model to the lineup, one whose numbers were so good that it would bring the company’s average emissions score into compliance. And while buying off the rack must have been unsettling for a company more comfortable with bespoke, AM decided to approach Toyota with a plan to buy Toyota/Scion iQs and then bring them back to the Warks factory, where each car would be finished to AM standards (a process that, according to the factory, required some 150 hours of craftsmen’s labor per car).
In the Cygnet’s case, the upgrades amounted to special paint, a new grille, fancier wheels, a stunningly upgraded interior, and…well, that’s about it. Underneath all the glitz, mechanicals remained strictly iQ, including the 1.3 liter, 97 hp engine and 5-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission.
Inside, at least, things were more suitably Astonian. Every visible surface of the tiny interior cabin was covered in leather, Alcantara, polished alloy, wood, and premium carpet. Aston Martin gauges and graphics replaced standard-issue Toyota items. Also on board were climate control, electric windows and mirrors, leather seats, keyless start, CD audio system, and satellite navigation.
The Colette Special Edition even included two throw pillows. Why, I don’t know.
But try as it did, the Cygnet just couldn’t overcome its iQ-ness. The beautifully upholstered driver’s seat had no height adjustment. The audio system could be controlled only by steering wheel-mounted controls. Traditional Aston Martin gauges in the iQ-sourced dash nacelle looked ridiculously out of place. And finally, a purse-like leather bag took the place of a glove compartment, a feature the iQ also lacked.
A five-piece handcrafted set of Cygnet Launch Edition leather luggage was available for purchase, but God only knows why. With all four seats in place, cargo capacity was 1.1 cubic feet, a capacity surely eclipsed by the luggage set itself. With the rear seat backs folded, all five pieces could fit, providing one was willing to forego rearward visibility.
No fewer than 25 standard and two optional choices were available for the leather interior trim, along with 11 extra-cost Alcantara interior fabrics. Eight standard exterior colors (including the delightfully named White Horse and Yellow Kangaroo) were available, although Cygnet buyers could order up any exterior color currently or previously offered by AM, at what we can assume was considerable extra cost.
With an 11.6 second 0-60 time (with CVT transmission), it’s a safe bet that the Cygnet was the slowest Aston in recent memory, although its three turns lock-to-lock steering undoubtedly made it quite agile in the urban traffic for which it was designed; what’s more, several British reviews cited surprising composure and stability on the open road–pretty impressive for a car some 19 inches shorter than a Fiat 500. Of course, the only specs that mattered to AM involved fuel economy and emissions, at 57 mpg and 116g/km CO2, respectively.
Although Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez projected annual sales of 4,000 Cygnets, less than 400 were sold during its two-year run. In retrospect, it’s hard to see what AM got for its investment. The Cygnet offered a couple of years’ worth of compliance with mileage and emissions standards, but in the end, simply folding the penalties into the cost of existing Aston Martin models would have cost them a whole lot less. So far, no explanation has been offered as to why they didn’t do so.
All in all, it’s likely the Cygnet is one iQ test Aston Martin wishes it had skipped.