Aston Martin Cygnet: Really? A microcar?

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the ugly duckling grows into a swan. Upper-crust British auto manufacturer Aston Martin may reverse the process, morphing its handsome sports cars into the Cygnet microcar.

Aston Martin CygnetCygnet is a collaboration with Toyota, which will sell Aston Martin 2,000 of its iQ mini-commuters to be adapted, with a target sale date of 2010 in Europe. Aston Martin, best known for its dashing James Bond DB series of 150 m.p.h. sports cars, has grafted its signature grille onto the iQ microbox.

This makes the mini-Martin concept look like a fugitive from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The bold Aston Martin “face” is disproportionately narrow and tall; think a Rolls-Royce golf cart.

The iQ is only 117 inches long (that’s less than 10 feet) and 59 inches high, but it seats four. It’s powered by a 998-cc 3-cylinder engine, with a 1,300-cc 4 optional, and a 5-speed manual transmission. A CVT automatic is optional, and the iQ is expected un the U.S. next year as a Scion.

Toyota sells the iQ in England for 10,000 pounds (more than $16,000), but the Cygnet (with wood and leather interior accents) is likely to cost double that.

Francesca Best, Aston Martin’s public relations manager for North America, stresses that the Cygnet is a luxury commuter-car concept.

“The Cygnet would provide our customers a distinctive and intelligent solution to travel in style, luxury and environmental consciousness for commuting or city driving,” she said.

Aston dealers are not so sure.

One East Coast veteran franchisee, who pleaded his name not be used, said of the Cygnet’s introduction at the end of June, “We all thought it was an April Fool’s joke, and then I looked at the calendar.” He added that the ghost of David Brown, the owner who launched the James Bond DB models in 1948, “should rise from the dead and burn Gaydon down.” Gaydon is Aston Martin’s factory in England’s Midlands.

What prompted Aston Martin to consider the Cygnet is likely the need to diminish its carbon footprint and raise its corporate average fuel economy above an Exxon Valdez rating with the V-8 Vantage and V-12 DB9.

But the attempt to leave one’s niche, be it up- or downmarket, is fraught with risk. Ask Cadillac about its Chevy-based Cimarron, Jaguar about the Ford-based X-type (with a wagon) or humble VW with its pretentious Phaeton phiasco?

Industry observer Peter De Lorenzo of was blunt.

“Talk about blowing up one’s brand image in one fell swoop. The Cygnet is an unmitigated disaster. If this is really what the automotive world is coming to, with luxury, high-performance brands having to offer microcars as emissions ‘ringers’ to boost their fleet average, we’re in deep trouble,” he said.

“Pay a fine, pay off the bureaucrats, pass the costs onto the consumers, but for heaven’s sake don’t pass off a microcar as part of the Aston Martin brand.”

Anticipating sales to Aston owners for town use, Chief Executive Ulrich Bez has described the Cygnet as “akin to an exclusive tender to a luxury yacht.” And there is some basis for this metaphor.

Mediterranean yacht owners in the 1950s and ’60s often carried “beach cars,” such as the Fiat Jolly and 500 Gamine, Citroen Mehari and Siata Spring, that were unloaded by crane at Monte Carlo and other ports of call.

“Dr. Bez thinks these cars can be used as tenders for yachts? He can use them as anchors instead for every DBS he won’t sell because of this miscue,” said the East Coast franchisee.



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