The Aston Martin guide to towing
Can you combine a city car with a V12 GT? We strap a trailer to a Virage and tow a Cygnet through Monaco...
This is a new level of flustered, bordering on stark, hot, sweaty panic. While cruising through Casino Square in Monaco towing a trailer, a policeman has noticed my bizarre little combination vehicle and run towards me frantically windmilling his arms. Feeling a little pressured by the situation - and subject to the total and utter unfounded guilt I always feel when faced with a Person of Authority - I have... ignored him. Driven smartly past. He has leaped unceremoniously out of the way as I ploughed off down a tiny one-way street, a street with cars parked haphazardly on either side, and up to a junction.
Words: Tom Ford
Photography: Joe Windsor Williams
This article was originally published in the October issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
At which point, I have pulled halfway out, to be faced down in a classic chicken situation by a Monaco Principality bus. A big, uncaring edifice of a bus, whose driver is staring at me with a mixture of paint-stripping contempt and poisonous hatred. The traffic has immediately started to back up, the horns are already angrily blaring, and I must reverse. Reverse a trailer longer than my car, 70° down a street with six inches of space either side, slightly downhill, with the margins populated by very, very expensive cars. And I must do so before the currently briskly pedestrian policeman catches up, and throws me in jail for attempted murder. Frisson of urgency, then.
There is one other small thing. I'm driving a brand-new, quite low and very wide Aston Martin Virage. And towing a rather lovely low-slung Brian James trailer with an Aston Martin Cygnet perched like a tiny bronze gargoyle upon it. So I can't see directly behind me, and must complete the current manoeuvre via the door mirrors, using a 490bhp V12, carbon ceramic brakes and the vaguest peach-fuzz memory of the street I've just driven up. Suffice to say I can hear my heart beating a dubstep rhythm. In my throat.Advertisement - Page continues below
Obviously, I immediately turn the steering wheel the wrong way and end up with one outrigger mere millimetres from the side of a Rolls-Royce Ghost. I then flail from lock to lock like some kind of insane slo-mo reverse fishtail until the bus can slither past, staring manically down at the steering wheel as the clot of traffic finally passes, and trying desperately not to look at the approaching angry cop. Just as the policeman arrives at my driver's window and raises his white-gloved fist to rap on the glass - he's had to step over the trailer, which is snuggled some 3mm from the side of a pristine, yellow Jaguar XJ-S convertible - I pull away again. Possibly over said policeman's foot. Take that, The Man.
Now convinced that I'm about to enter into the world's most bizarre - and slowest - cop chase, I accelerate away with just a hiss of wheelspin, up around Casino Square and then right and down and around the famous Loews Hairpin - the one we always see on the TV with the red-and-white kerbing. This also sounds like a much calmer adventurette than it actually is: Loews is smaller than it looks on the telly, and the Virage-plus is bigger than it looks in the pictures. Or, more pertinently, from the driver's seat in a massive panic and with a distinct lack of brakes on the trailer.
Plus, there are cars coming the other way, which probably doesn't happen much during a Grand Prix. I'm doing no more than 25mph, but it feels like about 80. Then it's down to the roundabout, right, and explode very gently off through the Monaco harbour tunnel, Virage making a noise like an earthquake playing a trumpet and the Cygnet bobbing around atop the trailer a foot above and a couple of feet behind. It's not exactly how I imagined firing through here in dreams, but being as I'm not currently in police custody, I'll bloody well take it.
A brief pause inside Monaco harbour to breathe deeply, complete the panic cycle, and get the blood back into my face, and the reason I've inadvertently ended up assaulting local law enforcement is laid out before me in all its expensively moored, multi-million-pound glory. Aston Martin described the Cygnet city car as a ‘tender'... like the little boats that parasite the sides of ocean-going vessels too big for harbour. So, to continue the analogy, you have a rational and tiny Cygnet for the city/harbour, and a ‘proper' (read massively engined) Aston for the country/ocean.Advertisement - Page continues below
Taking the notion more literally than Aston Martin would ever have suspected possible, TG has created a 12-wheeled, 16-cylindered, 30-foot-long, transforming, mega-Aston that can account for all possible mobility situations. A GTSSCC, or Grand Turismo Super Sports City Car. The Aston Martin Vignet. If only because ‘Cyrage' sounds a little too Shakespearean. Whichever, it's an as-yet-untapped vehicular niche. I'm beginning to suspect, for a very good reason.
Of course, I hadn't actually intended to drive around serially congested Monaco in the Vignet, but had failed miserably to find a decently level parking area to morph my maxi-machine on the way in, and had hence found myself lost and alone in perhaps the one vehicle least suited to urban use this side of an Airbus A380 with a puncture. So it's back out of town and up into the hills, creeping past oncoming traffic with nerves fraying like an ancient woolly jumper. The Virage doesn't even notice the extra weight, but, seeing as the trailer is wider than the actual car, there's a very real chance of hoiking it onto whatever's on the inside of the road. Or clipping an oncoming Monte Carlo-bound mopeddler. Which would probably be quite messy. Eventually, I find an only slightly cockeyed lay-by and unload the Cygnet, heading back into town wearing somewhat more comfortable attire. The difference is nothing short of revelation.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Cygnet is basically a Toyota iQ with a fairly large injection of Aston Martin semi-bespoke. Most of the body panels are changed, the interior is swamped with at least a smallish herd of dead cow, but the basic layout and hardware is the same: 1.33-litre, 97bhp engine up front driving the front wheels, tiny proportions, seating for three-and-a-half people. There are a lot of Aston Martin badges - in case you forget - and a whacking great Aston grille. It remains, as any well-designed city car does, a complete joy in the urban dice, nippy and thrusting, a profound and slightly smug joy to park. And yes, you can park it rear-wheels against the kerb and just about get away with it. In the almost violently congested towns of Monaco and Nice, you can slip it between bollards to confuse traffic attendants, whip neatly into gaps too small for superminis. And you can be constantly assaulted by fragrant leather and an incipient superiority complex as you do so.
The super-rich and urban-bound of the French Riviera give precisely not one brass farthing what's underneath this petite Aston-lite. They simply see a small Aston Martin - the correct brand association, in other words - that would fit neatly with their urban-locked lifestyle. Here, the only issue with ‘badge engineering' is how you stick enough of the right ones on. The attention is nothing short of astonishing. There I was, preparing for frowns and tuts, and, when I explained the iQ-connection was met with nothing more than eloquently Gallic shrugs. The rich-people equivalent of ‘bovvered'. The iQ is a reliable Toyota, seemed to go the general opinion, so this will be a reliable Aston Martin. There's logic in there somewhere, if you manage to peer past your petrolhead prejudices.
To give you an idea of the kind of people we're dealing with, one chap inquired as to the cost of the towbar/trailer combo on the Virage. I said that it was custom-built by Aston, and that it doesn't appear on the options list.
"A pity," he said with genuine regret. "This would have perfect for towing my boat."
"Oooh. Brilliant. Which kind?" I enquired, being nosy, and fully expecting a small dinghy-based conversation.
"I forget. The leetlest one. The big one is over there..." he said, pointing to a floating block of flats with a bow. "That one we 'ave to put the Aston and trailer onto EET!"
He laughed uproariously, and clutched both hands to his belly, like a perma-tanned, billionaire Father Christmas, and wandered away up a gangplank as I stood with my jaw round my ankles. The point is that if Aston can buy a £12k iQ, sprinkle l'essence de Aston Martin on it and sell it for £30k-plus, then that's simply good business. And people will buy it. Judging by the Monégasque reaction, a lot of people. If it paves the way for new, big cars and bespoke Aston Martin engines, the price of success is cheap, and I'm all for it.
But, of course, there's a heartland of Astoninity, and it isn't throbbing to the tune of four cylinders of variably valve-timed efficiency. So it's back up to the lay-by in search of driving rather than merely urban transport - something to make the penguins cough. It's time for the Virage. Time for six litres of V12 that launches from the trailer - unhooked, obviously - like someone just switched gravity 90° east. It falls away from Brian's hitch with massive wheelspinning exuberance, bellowing defiance at the Cygnet and trailer that has - up to this point - hobbled it. The towball, hanging from the back like experimental, stupid-person aero, looks really very odd.
The harassment of the day becomes suddenly ghostly and transparent, burned through by the vivid shape and sound of a big Aston on a big mountain road. Classic, almost clichéd territory for this kind of car. Sonic and automotive porn. The Virage is rapid: 0-62mph in a decent chunk under five seconds and a wilting 186mph, but more than that, it has the deep-surging, chocolatey geyser of V12 power and torque, garnished with a sound like someone ripping open the sky. It doesn't flow so much as bully the entire road into submission, booming and growling aggression and joy. It makes the Cygnet look like a child's toy. With a sudden rush of adrenalin and fierce noise I realise something very important. This is what the brand is all about. This is Aston.
The ride stays the right side of firm, neither giving ultimate feel nor irritating niggle, the steering levering the car into the hairpins accurately enough to manage the bulk. The carbon brakes stop it with surprising regularity - a steel brake would be chewed through in mere minutes on this kind of road with the Virage's weight to temper - and there's just enough oversteer available in ‘Track' mode to give half-a-turn of satisfying showboating out of hairpins without risking forcibly inserting yourself into the rocky scenery as something for Time Team 2035 to ponder over.
As with all Astons, it never quite feels like a smaller car, and the torque-converted, paddle-shifted auto 'box - though by no means disgraceful - can be a little tardy at times. It feels, unsurprisingly, like a well- set-up DB9 (making the DB9 more than a little bit redundant), but not quite as aggressive as the DBS. It might not be a revolution - I'm not sure many people actually noticed this was a new Virage - but it's certainly an Aston. Big, blood-red and meaty. The complete antithesis of the Cygnet.
Too soon, the light is fading. You can tell, mainly because we're on the road that leads up to Monaco's only golf course, and the stream of high-end traffic that fires past us is bordering on the ludicrous. White versions of the Ferrari 458 Italia and Porsche 911 GT3 RS. A silver BMW Z8 and three gorgeous 1970s 911s. Classic Ferraris, a Sixties GT that looks and sounds expensive, but flicks past too fast to identify. A purple Lamborghini LP670-4 Murciélago Roadster - one of only a very few. They all slow to look at the Cygnet. Or possibly to ogle the Virage's oddly-engaging tow hitch.
Which, I am forced to admit, is probably the only surprise about the Aston Virage. Essentially, the newest V12 model is a neat bit of diversification that will sell more cars. It's basically a niche-creation, but a bloomin' beautiful one, and Porsche has been doing the many-model Lego range thing for years and nobody has caught fire in indignation. The argument here is about the Cygnet. An argument that comes down to dilution versus diversification of the Aston Martin brand.
The Toyota iQ is a brilliant little city car, and the upscaling by Aston doesn't make it less brilliant, just more expensive and fragrant. It's an accessory, an extra. After all, nobody needs a four-grand Hermès handbag. It doesn't shorten the waiting list or stop them selling like superheated Battenbergs. Think of the Cygnet as Aston Martin's Porsche Cayenne moment: it might not be within the strict measure of the brand's accepted norm, but it opens out a revenue stream that will keep the company healthy. And ‘healthy' means more of the type of cars that really represent the spirit of the brand.
Which, I am forced to admit, the Vignet does not. The Cygnet works in the urban sprawl, armoured with borrowed Aston image and clever Toyota design. The Virage is overlord of the open road, imperious, impressive, and best off not hamstrung by a twin-axle trailer bobbing around behind it, the Cygnet dragged around like a puppy lashed to a lion. There's nothing wrong with moving a brand in a new direction, expanding horizons and breaking new ground. But I have a suspicion that where a city car might just survive Aston's evolutionary cull, Top Gear's Vignet might be two axles, a towball and a trailer too far.