Almost regardless of the vehicle, the powertrain or the manufacturer, your average test drive can be approached with some sort of expectation. Another person will have already driven the car, or it will aim to follow its predecessor, or an educated guess can be made based on other models in the range. But what the heck will a V8-engined Aston Cygnet be like?
Sure, it borrows a great many of its parts from the previous Vantage S. Expecting it to drive anything like a Vantage would be lunacy though, surely, given how much shorter, lighter and, well, squarer this Cygnet is. Short of a Nissan Cube with a GT-R powertrain (the mind boggles), it really is hard to imagine a more ridiculous, yet perversely appealing, engine swap in one model range. Can a V8 Cygnet actually function just like a car? Won't it just spin in its own wheelbase? Where do the people fit?
Attempting to make sense of the car isn't helped by seeing it. Perhaps the very point is that it shouldn't make sense. From a distance it's just a Cygnet on some bigger wheels; closer up it very much isn't, distended and engorged to make the running gear fit, like a Cygnet that has swallowed a Vantage whole though that snouty little bonnet. There are Vantage interior bits but also race car elements as well, the result being like nothing else and oddly intimidating for something of its stature. Remember how bonkers the Aygo Crazy seemed in the mid-2000s? That had less than half the power...
Like the Aygo (and not helping the fear factor), the Cygnet is unique. Not 'quite unique', 'very unique' or 'truly unique', as people (infuriatingly) continue to spout, but unique. A one-off. Never to be repeated, recomissioned or reimagined. A 10-month labour of love for Aston's Q division and one very dedicated brand collector, presumably at the cost of many, many thousands of pounds. It's going to be used regularly (see the cupholder and the USB ports), it has FIA approval for motorsport (so is eligible for the Aston Festival race at Le Mans) and, at the request of its owner, has no traction or stability control whatsoever. With 436hp, and a wheelbase the length of your forearm. Erk.
Any lingering Cygnet memories are expunged on opening the door and failing to hurdle the roll cage. It's been a long time since a car was physically painful to drive, but whacking into the cage, canting feet over because of the transmission tunnel and being forced into a fixed driving position means the V8 Cygnet succeeds where so many others have miserably failed. Comfortable it certainly is not.
Once harnessed in the Cygnet starts like a Vantage would, with a foot on the brake and the ECU key pushed into the centre slot. Now all Astons tend to be loud, but this is something else: the dash has been moved back something like 30cm to make 4,735cc of V8 fit in 3,078mm of car, which means (or at least feels) like the all those thousands of explosions are happening right behind the air vents. Must be why they stay so hot...
Idle in a V8 Cygnet is like a Vantage idle in a tunnel. With no baffles. And your ear on the exhaust. The rumble through the custom is loud, fierce and inescapable (what with being in such close proximity), though fortunately the Vantage familiarity does mean the paddleshift gearbox and fly-off handbrake don't pose too many problems. And for those wondering, it was at the customer's request that the automated manual gearbox was used.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cygnet is what you might politely call a challenging car to drive. Not only are there the obvious issues surrounding not really fitting in it and the desire to keep somebody's one-off Aston away from the trees, but also the fact that's it's so much wider than what the driver can see. Almost like a bike with stabilisers (or one of those drift tuition cars with the trolley wheels), there's a great deal more width to think about than your eyes would have you believe. The Cygnet might still be shorter than a Caterham, but it's now six feet wide. But you can't see that. It's also very hot, really firm and absurdly fast. Jolly good...
The geniuses in charge of creating this deranged little car claim it will hit 60mph in something like four seconds and go onto 170mph flat out. It's been beyond 140mph testing at Mira and, rest assured, the car substantiates those claims. Even with only fleeting glimpses of full throttle it accelerates like jet-powered Rubik's Cube, hurling itself down the road with hilarious, addictive ease. A Vantage with this engine proved potent enough not long ago; shorn of 400kg the V8 feels scarily rapid - why hasn't this happened sooner?!
Despite laudable levels of grip and traction, plus some typically lucid Aston steering, the Cygnet requires considerable concentration to drive fast. Or even rather slowly, to be strictly accurate - it just felt really fast. Combine this wheelbase with the sort suspension typically reserved for sports cars and the result is a vehicle that doesn't revel in jagged, gnarly, imperfect B-roads. It's incessantly fidgety and agitated, feeling a hop, skip and a jump away from the scenery at points as speeds increase. Still, given this car is going to be used as the ultimate city runaround (and, potentially, on race tracks...), slightly uncouth B-road manners are about as important as the fuel consumption. The turning circle is still great, for example.
Furthermore, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture here: Aston has taken a car that is very closely related to the Toyota flippin iQ and stuffed a V8 engine in it. More than that it works in a more cohesive fashion than you might expect; like a true bespoke build and not some skunkworks after school project. There are lovely Aston touches as well as some mad engineering ones, the end result just as lovably mad as the original brief sounded. The Cygnet is a driving experience like no other, and therefore exactly what you would want from the sort of crazy commission for someone with an extensive collection. People inevitably point and stare like it's a million-pound supercar (which it kind of is, in a way), the Cygnet proving that small and silly cars with great big engines can still push the right buttons for the general public in 2018. Don't forget, either, the appeal for the owner in knowing there will never, ever, be another.
Perhaps the greatest take away from the Cygnet V8, however, is that this is just the start. Aston's Q division is keen for this car to be seen as a shop window for future potential customers, a 170mph advert for the engineering possibilities should you have the wherewithal. If you can think it, then seemingly Aston can build it. And if future products are even half as exciting as this little rollerskate then there's cause to be very optimistic indeed.
SPECIFICATION - ASTON CYGNET V8
Engine: 4,735cc, V8
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 436@7,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 361@5,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.2 seconds
Top speed: 170mph
Weight: 1,285kg (est. weight including 75kg driver, taking 400kg from standard Vantage S)
MPG: 20.5 (Vantage S NEDC combined)