The Complete Works

The kind men at Aston Martin have designed a works-built 600bhp Vantage. Gavin Conway staps himself in for the ride of his life.

Photographer Andrew Yeadon's eyes are better than most. They can hang an empty airfield with art, spot a water-streak on polished alloy, judge distance with millimetric accuracy. He knows exactly how far that oncoming, yellow HGV is from the nose of our Aston. So I understand his yelp of shock as I move the brooding Vantage into its path.

Yelp turns to laugh. We have despatched three loiterers and tucked back in with a big margin of safety intact; even Yeadon's massive experience with supercars hadn't quite prepared him for the titanic thrust of a 'Works Prepared Driving Dynamics' Aston Martin Vantage V600. Now he knows.

Created for the 200 current Vantage owners for whom too much is not enough, the V600 upgrade has created the ultimate Aston Martin. Even the factory admits that there will never be a more powerful, works supported Vantage. And the numbers are breathtaking; the V600 boasts 600bhp, making it the most powerful GT car currently made in the world, and 600lb ft of torque, placing it second only to Bentley's mad Continental T.

Aston Martin says the V600 is 'very strictly' an aftermarket upgrade. Because a number of the changes haven't been homologated for production, you would need to buy a regular Vantage, register it for the road and then bring it back to Newport Pagnell for a bit of a tinker. With a £43,000 price tag for the V600 package added to the cost of a stock Vantage, you're in for £232,950. Mammoth price, mammoth car.

And here is, happily, power with responsibility. The development programme has run over two years, and Aston has taken pains to ensure that the chassis, driveline and brakes are up to the task of containing all of that awesome power. That power; the Vantage's 5.3-litre V8 with twin Eaton superchargers and intercoolers is joined by two more air/water radiators. That's the real trick here. By keeping the intake charge temperature below 35deg C and increasing the blowers boost, Aston has wrung an extra 50bhp and 50lb ft out of the stock engine. Also helping the cause is a freer flowing Super Sport exhaust that sounds fabulous while reducing backpressure.

And the numbers get better. Aston took the V600 to the Bruntingthorpe airstrip to run some performance figures; its driver came up with 0-60mph - the car is geared to do 61mph in first gear - in an astonishing 3.9sec. The V600 went on to record 0-100mph in 9.9sec and a top speed of 181mph. Compare that to the results Autocar achieved with a stock Vantage - 0-60mph in 4.6sec and 0-100mph in 10.1. And while Bruntingthorpe isn't long enough to explore the V600's ultimate speed, Aston reckons it was still pulling hard enough to have cracked 200mph. It's geared for 220mph.

Yeadon isn't, so we take a break. A roadside café with superbikes all over the place. They're from a magazine, doing a little photography. One of their number wanders over and asks after the Aston, nods deeply and says yes, that is real performance. Respect from one who knows what 0-60mph really means. We finish our tea and go. The V600's cabin closes in around the driver, not so much cramped as cosy. That massive driveshaft does move the pedal-box over for a slightly awkward driving position, but the wheel is adjustable and the seats supportive. Pungent leather covers everything, and even the headliner is gloriously stitched suede. The steering wheel, though, could have come from a British Leyland parts bin. And I think Aston have missed a trick here; if ever a car deserved the red-button starter treatment, it's the V600.

Details. Turn the key and this Vantage stops making excuses. The Super Sport exhaust sets up a thunderous, loping rhythm at idle that barely hints at what is to come. Blip the throttle and discover another subtle change - Aston has modified the throttle linkage to reduce friction and pedal travel, while also giving better, more progressive response. The five-speed gearbox has shorter throws, too, while remaining a heavy, notchy affair. Likewise, the clutch is heavy but without being a torture

It's a bit like uncorking the Hoover dam. Give the Aston its all without the traction control on and you'll move off very slowly indeed. Amid billowing clouds of Goodyear, that is. A more circumspect launch with traction control on will whirl you to supercar velocity with a noise that you simply won't be able to get enough of; the rumble turns rock hard at about 3500rpm, then gets metallic-frantic, then is joined by the shriek of supercharger. It's an epic noise, not as sonorous and sentimental as the Italian greats but more inspiring because of the Forth Bridge enormity of the physics and engineering behind. You probably won't hear the final chorus that often, though; take the V600 to its maximum 6500rpm in second gear and you'll be doing 91mph. Try the same in third and you'll be doing six months at Her Majesty's pleasure. For the record, 127mph.

Still, the V600's five-speed gearbox is a lot more sensible than the stock Vantage's. The usual six-speed ZF box is a necessity on the regular car to enable it to meet drive-past noise regulations, but since the V600 is an aftermarket fixture, a five-speed is viable; Aston will install ratios to suit the customers taste. I found that the test car, geared for 33.7mph per thousand, was still able to respond with a big shove at motorway cruise. Such is the torque of this car that huge increments of speed are available at the flex of your foot.

No surprise, then, that Aston dedicated so much thought to the brakes on this nearly two-tonne GT. Six-pot AP Racing calipers grab the front 385mm discs, and four-pot AP's squeeze the 310mm rear discs. Amazingly, the Vantage's regular rear calipers have been relegated to hand-brake duty. The anti-lock remains unchanged, as does the yaw control, which helps square the car up if you brake unwisely in a corner. And these brakes do a superb job in that most important measure - confidence.

The V600 is a massive car, and as such, it is essential to have faith in its ability to shed speed consistently and predictably. The V600 achieves this, with an anti-lock system that doesn't butt in until the last. The anchors are surprisingly resistant to fade, too.

Which all suggests that this Vantage can be driven rather more quickly than its bulk would imply. True enough, the chassis has received equally focused attention. Stiffer springs and revised rebound rates on the dampers have helped tie down the car's behaviour over dips and crests. The front roll-bar has been uprated and is now connected by spherical joints. Even the car's roll center has been raised to give it more effective roll stiffness.

The result is, quite simply, the best handling Vantage ever. The V600 can cope with changing cambers, uneven, dipping surfaces and quick left to right transitions. Sure, delicacy and finesse will never figure with a two-tonne carcass to haul around, but there is great fun to be had in going quickly. Even though the Vantage never quite lets you forget the size issue, adjusting the V600 on the throttle is easier than you'd think but with the amount of road required, is best left to the confines of a private circuit.

Another surprise is the civility of the thing, in spite of the chassis mods, and while the tyres are simply massive 245/45 ZR18 Goodyear Eagles, Aston has deployed a really neat trick with the wheels. The magnesium five-spoke Dymags are actually hollow. This means that when the tyres roll over potholes and bumps, there is more air to compress, and hence a more progressive reaction to road nasties. Aston claims the effect is like dramatically increasing the tyres sidewall profile, as if the V600's tyres were 55 instead of 45 profile. The result is a ride that defies the brutish nature of this Vantage.

Then there is the Ford factor. We've seen what great things its ownership of Jaguar has done for the quality and integrity of those cars, and it is evident here, too. Apart from a couple of pre-production rough edges, this is the best built, most rattle-free Aston that I have yet encountered. The finish in the cabin is first rate, and the ambience such that you really do forgive the obvious presence of Ford switchgear. Vantage owners can specify any one of the multiple upgrades comprising the V600 package, but Aston says most customers will opt for the whole package. I can believe that, because you certainly wouldn't want the power without the brakes and the chassis to back it up.

Finally Yeadon relaxes, and begins to believe in the torque. Hours of cruising have brought us within striking distance of Goodwood, and it just seems natural that we steer the Aston under the tunnel and onto the circuit. It's closed today, so gently does it and photos only is the word. Just as well. The fabulously swift and delicately aspected DBR1 took victory here in the '58 TT with Salvadori and Moss at the wheel, and any pretence that the V600 can trade on such glory is, frankly, stretching the point beyond breaking. Still, the instinct to develop thoroughbred sportscars survives at Aston Martin. One development man confides a desire to take masses of weight out of the Vantage V600 and create something truly spectacular. That's not likely to happen, though. Fair enough. Because if there's one thing the Vantage V600 isn't short of, it's spectacle.