Was the Worst Aston Martin the World’s Best City Car?
It wasn’t that long ago — within this decade, actually — that you could buy a brand new Aston Martin for about $36,000. Not here, of course, but in England. Announced at a time when Aston needed a financial boost, it envisioned its affordable model to be a big seller. At a projected 2,000 units a year, the car would dramatically increase production numbers, and would be a clever way to skirt the increasingly strict European Union fleet emissions standards. It would appeal to both long-time Aston owners, and hip, young, monied urbanites who wanted all the panache of a classic British grand tourer, with the compact footprint of a city car. It would retain all the classic Aston design hallmarks, and have a bespoke interior designed to each individual customer’s tastes. Oh, and it would also be little more than a rebadged Toyota iQ.
Had the Aston Martin Cygnet seen a wider launch, it probably would’ve gone down as one of the biggest automotive flops of the 2010s. But it came from Aston Martin at a dark time, and by the time it hit the market, the storm had thankfully begun to clear. It’s a car with its roots firmly planted in the Great Recession, with a healthy dose of overreaction to government regulation thrown in for good measure. It also bowed out quickly and quietly, before it could commit the ultimate sin in the auto industry: Dilute the brand. To purists, the Cygnet was the worst case scenario: a legendary performance marque reduced to building badge-engineered microcars. But luckily, it was a hint of a future that never came. Simply put, the Cygnet was a travesty to the Aston Martin name. As a city car, however, it was great.
In 2007, Aston Martin left the protective fold of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group and became a privately owned company. Its years under Ford ownership produced some mixed results, but they brought the introduction of cars like the DB7 and Vantage, and having access to Ford’s vast resources likely saved the small company from extinction. But it was now on its own and feeling the effects of the global economic recession. Competitors like Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes, and BMW are all far larger companies, and can weather crises and legislative changes better.
The Cygnet was seen as a solution to both. On top of the recession, the EU was set to introduce comprehensive fleet emissions laws that required automakers to raise fuel economy and lower CO2 figures across their model ranges. Aston needed a ringer and, in 2010, introduced the car to the world at the Geneva Motor Show. It would hit dealerships in 2011, with priority going to current Aston owners. But first, the company needed to go sell shares in order to raise the cash needed to start production.
At the 2010 unveiling, Aston president Ulrich Bez was incredibly optimistic about the car, despite it not really fitting into the company’s lineup, and lacking any historical precedent. “It is time to think differently. Aston Martin is honest and we don’t make compromises,” he said. “Whatever we do, we do right. If we do performance, we do performance; we don’t downsize or compromise our sports cars. The Cygnet needs to satisfy the demands of emissions and space. It is a car without compromise, just like every other Aston Martin.”
But in reality, there were serious compromises. The Cygnet was easily recognizable as a Toyota iQ, which was sold as a Scion in the U.S. from 2012 to 2015. In Europe, the iQ came with a 97 horsepower 1.3 liter inline-four that could go from zero to 60 in over 11 seconds, and top out at just over 100 miles per hour. For shifting, buyers could opt for either a five-speed manual, or CVT. And since it used the same body, suspension, powertrain, and chassis, the Cygnet did all those things too. Aston Martin had nothing to do with the car’s engineering.
Nonetheless, the car was a time-consuming project. Starting at 30,000 euros, though crossing the 40,000-euro mark fully-optioned, the Cygnet offered all the trappings of Aston Martin ownership without any of the benefits (long hood/short deck proportions, sonorous V12 engines) or headaches (costly repair bills, iffy fit-and-finish). Buyers worked directly with the company to choose paint from Aston’s 30 color palette, and pick any one of the 22 hand-stitched leather combinations that would go into the interior. But while the quilted leather and unique instrument cluster and steering wheel center pad hid the most visible Toyota bits, there was little escaping that the Cygnet was based on a budget city car that cost half its price.
Outside, the Cygnet got a front end with an instantly recognizable Aston grille, unique headlights, wheels, and taillights, and unique sheetmetal with vents on the fenders and hood. Ride height was also lowered an inch. Despite it being the epitome of badge engineering, it reportedly took 150 hours to build a single Cygnet. In comparison, it took 200 to build a V12-powered Vantage from scratch.
Despite 400 orders taken once it was announced (including racing legend Sterling Moss), the Cygnet was met with mixed reviews. Autocar said:
In the flesh, the Cygnet is impressive. The Aston paint process gives it a glass-like paint finish (they use the same finishing techniques as for a £150,000 Aston) and once you sample the comfort of the hand-finished interior, with every surface covered either in handbag-quality leather, Alcantara or first-quality carpet, you start to see the millionaire’s case for the Cygnet.
Car magazine was less charitable, saying:
The interior is leagues ahead of the iQ in terms of materials and finish but I’m not sure it actually feels special. Just a bit curious. Dynamically it’s not exactly bubbling with Aston DNA either. The manual ‘box is pretty awful, the ride is unsettled due to that short wheelbase and the throttle response is very soft and lazy. This is, of course, all down to the iQ donor vehicle, but the price and the badge say Aston, so it’s right to expect a higher quality driving experience.
The public, by and large, agreed.
At first, Bez and the rest of the Aston brass believed that they could sell 4,000 Cygnets a year. Then it became 2,000. Two years after launch, it had only built 300, with just 151 registered in England. That September, the company officially pulled the plug on its city car.
But by 2013, times were changing. Aston was in better financial shape, and the auto market had drastically improved. Bez would step down by the end of the year, as the company began radically planning for its future.
In 2015, Andy Palmer, a former Nissan executive, was recruited to lead the company in the future. He quickly gave the green light to the Vulcan hypercar, the DB11, and the upcoming DBX crossover. Most importantly, the company entered into a stronger technical partnership with Mercedes-AMG, which will assist in the development engines and electrical systems. Again under the umbrella of a larger company (though still almost entirely independent), Aston Martin is more stable that it’s been in decades. That means that future models will look like Aston Martins, not Toyota microcars.
In 2011, the Cygnet was a noble attempt made by a small, struggling company to navigate uncertain waters. It didn’t take hold, and that’s probably for the best. We’d hate to live in a world where the greatest automakers are reduced to building badge-engineered econoboxes. But hey, as far as econoboxes go, Aston Martin’s was the best.