Driving the Looney Tunes Aston Martin V8 Cygnet

The original Cygnet isn’t a proper Aston Martin—it’s simply a leather-clad Toyota (Scion) iQ. The British marque’s version of the front-wheel-drive city car theoretically satisfied the urban needs of European Aston Martin customers while helping lower the company fleet’s carbon emissions.

But it never caught on. A price tag twice the amount of an iQ despite running the same mechanical bits surely didn’t help. Aston planned for annual sales of 4,000 units but, after the 2011-13 production run ended, only around 300 Cygnets found buyers. Maybe if Aston skipped the 94-hp engine and installed, say, a 430-hp V-8 sending drive to the rear wheels, things would have been different. Enter the Aston Martin V8 Cygnet. Coined “The Ultimate City Car,” it’s clear Aston sees the word “ultimate” in a far different light than Toyota when it comes to defining an urban runabout.

The one-off, Frankensteinesque creation came about under the “Q by Aston Martin Commission” service for one particularly enthusiastic and dedicated customer—a customer whose collection includes the only road-legal Vulcan hyper track car.

“The V8 Cygnet was about dreaming of ideas,” said Dan Wood, prototype build tech at Aston Martin.

That idea came about near end of Cygnet production in 2013 but it had to wait until Aston launched the DB11 and new Vantage. The project started with a complete, right-hand drive Cygnet and took about a year.

“It was a big push to get it done for the reveal at Goodwood [Festival of Speed in July 2018],” noted Wood.

The drivetrain, subframes, and suspension come from a last-generation V8 Vantage S including the normally aspirated V-8 and rear-mounted paddle-shift gearbox. Packaging it all into the micro-sized Cygnet was challenging but wasn’t the only hurdle.

“[The] biggest fight in development was making it drivable given the short wheelbase,” Wood noted. “Programming and tuning was difficult. The brakes are very strong and it was tricky to tune all to the small car.” He then offered a bit of advice as I climbed into the driver’s seat: “Remember, there’s no traction or stability control. And respect that very short wheelbase, especially under braking.” Duly noted.

The mix of aftermarket, Aston Martin, and Toyota controls scattered randomly around the cockpit make it obvious this is no conventional production car—as if the wide fender flares encapsulating 19-inch V8 Vantage wheels and big brakes with yellow calipers weren’t an obvious clue. There are zero airbags, a removable steering wheel, and two fixed competition Recaro bucket seats with racing harnesses. The custom carbon-fiber dash houses a Toyota (sorry, Cygnet) power mirror switch mixed with V8 Vantage buttons and controls, including a bespoke pod with transmission controls and the awkward, old-school Aston Martin “Emotion Control Unit” (read: key). An out-of-place digital display for the HVAC temperature and a red pull knob for the integrated fire system reminds you of the custom nature of the V8 Cygnet, as does the 9.25-gallon fuel cell where the rear seats once lived. The small gas tank feeding the thirsty V8 won’t be a bother, however, as this is no long-distance cruiser.

First, the driving position is poor. The steering column offers zero adjustment and the pedals are set at an odd angle. Then there’s the rather horrible, clunky single-clutch, seven-speed gearbox. But that’s no fault of Wood and the rest of the build team. It was horrid in Aston production cars as well. Of course, the V8 Vantage’s manual gearbox would have been a fix but there’s no room in the footwell for a third pedal. Ride quality is nearly as bad as the gearbox. It’s as if the spring rates and dampers are set up for the smoothest racetrack on earth.

“Part of the reason it’s so stiff is due to the limited suspension travel on offer,” said Wood.

Hunting for rare, smooth British roads, the V8 Cygnet grabs every surface imperfection possible. The effecet isn’t helped by the wide Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track-focused tires intended for Goodwood and, of course, the short wheelbase. As the feeble air conditioning (the rear unit from a Rapide) struggles to keep up on the warm English summer’s afternoon, I begin to wonder why Aston Martin went to the trouble of making such a powerful, funky Cygnet outside of it being a cool endeavor on paper. At least the car is very solid and feels extremely well built, with no shakes or rattles.

A lovely section of smooth, empty road transforms the hot rod Cygnet just in time. The glorious V-8 is finally able to stretch its legs without the car trying to toss me into a hedge. The powerful brakes, plethora of grip, overall balance, and communicative steering all come together. The clumsy gearbox works better when shifted high in the rpm range with your foot flat to the floor. You sit quite high, giving an excellent view of narrow British country roads. I begin dreaming of taking the 45-mile detour to the recently reopened Mallory Park circuit just outside Leicester to give the V8 Cygnet a proper run on a racetrack. I’m also reminded that, no matter how impressive the Mercedes-AMG twin-turbo V-8 is in the new Vantage and DB11, naturally-aspirated engines are still pure heaven. Wood and the rest of the gang at Aston Martin really did a magnificent job with this very challenging project. It was clearly no small feat.

My time in the V8 Cygnet ended at The Bell in Alderminster for their monthly car and bike meet. As I pulled into the parking lot of the quaint English pub, the organizers were clearly bewildered as they tried to figure out what car group to park the Cygnet amongst. “What is it?” they ask. A a 430-hp Aston Martin. “Wait, it’s what and it has how much power?” In the end, they simply motion toward a section of grass with a Ferrari and a new NSX due to their understandable mix of confusion and fascination. The crowd instantly overwhelms the car. Usual British restraint is thrown to the wind as overly inquisitive queries fill the air.

The V8 Cygnet is all about being fun and quirky while also exhibiting Aston Martin’s ability to build a special project. It looks extremely muscular and sounds magnificent. It’s a wonderful creation by a group of true enthusiasts. We can only hope more companies follow what Aston has done with this left-field creation. The modern cookie-cutter world needs more cars like the V8 Cygnet.

Aston Martin V8 Cygnet Specifications

ENGINE4.7L DOHC 32-valve V-8/430 hp @ 7,300 rpm, 361 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION7-speed single-clutch automatic
LAYOUT2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD hatchback
L x W x H121.2 x 73.2 x 59.1 in
WEIGHT3,031 lb
0-60 MPH4.2 sec
TOP SPEED170 mph

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