At last, an Aston that appeals to both heart and head
When the history of Aston Martin is written, people will look back and name the DB11 as the car that started the most recent and, so far, most profitable chapter of this enigmatic brand. And they will be both right and wrong so to do. Right, because the DB11 marked the starting point of what is known as ‘the second century plan’ that has already turned around the long-term loss-making history of the company, wrong because it was conceived and underway before the current administration, led by Dr Andy Palmer, arrived in Gaydon.
So the first new Aston to be delivered in its entirety on his watch is the car you’re looking at, the new Vantage. Palmer describes it as “The most exciting car I’ve launched in my 34 years in the business.”
It is, of course, derived from many of the same modules that make up the DB11, but when Matt Becker – the former Lotus chassis guru now responsible for determining the way every Aston drives – was recruited, not a single functioning Vantage existed. So, and for the first time, here is an Aston that is exactly as its creators intended it to be.
Longer in wheelbase, softer of spring and heavier too, with a turbocharged 4-litre engine and a conventional autobox in place of the previous Vantage’s snarling normally aspirated 4.7-litre motor and its robotised manual gearshift, you might think this a gentler, more touring-orientated Vantage. Not so, say Becker and Palmer: despite the evidence to the contrary, this is a hard-core driving machine and far more sporting relative to the DB11 than was the old Vantage to the DB9.
To prove their point we’ve been brought to the wondrous Portimão circuit in the Algarve, where not only is the track available but also as punishing a road route as I’ve ever driven in a 500bhp sports car.
Make that 503bhp, from its Mercedes-sourced V8. Don’t lament the lack of an Aston Martin engine in here – truth is Aston hasn’t sat down to design an engine of its own from scratch in more than half a century, so let’s park that thought and move on. The Vantage weighs about 1630kg, perhaps 20kg more than the last, which isn’t much given it is a physically bigger car with twin turbos at one end and a big ZF autobox at the other. It also has an electronic differential with the ability to go from fully open to fully locked in the blink of an eye, and that weighs a bit, too.
The interior is plush but perhaps less so than you’d expect of a car costing £120,900, some £25,000 more than the car it replaces. Yes, its Mercedes architecture means it all works seamlessly and intuitively enough, which is an enormous step forward over the old car (I’ve been tempted to throw a brick at its operating system in the past), but there is too much recognisably parts-bin stuff in here, as there is in the DB11. It’s spacious though, more so than the old Vantage, and to those of six feet in height or more that’s going to be important.
“My goodness, it thunders. Aston has to take the motor off the AMG peg, but it can tune the exhausts”
Usually I’d prefer to familiarise myself with a new sports car on the road before trying to fling it around any track, let alone one as tricky and technical as Portimão, but today that is not an option. Literally three minutes after pressing the throttle for the very first time – the amount of time it takes to do a slow out lap, I’m driving it as fast as I am able. The engine may not snarl any more but, my goodness, it thunders. Aston has to take the motor off the AMG peg, but it can tune the exhausts itself and the engine sounds as wonderful as you could hope given it must breathe through turbochargers. And it makes the car feel fast too, faster by far than the old car – not just because it has an extra 73bhp, but mainly because it develops more torque at less than 2000rpm than its predecessor did at its 5000rpm peak. Given that this is the starting point for the Vantage and later models will have more power still, it’s very promising.
The autobox works reasonably on the circuit, though is a little slow on the downshifts: track jockeys will definitely want the manual version Aston will announce later this year. But the stand-out feature is the chassis that offers exactly the right blend of involvement and stability. Outstanding grip is summoned from its Pirelli tyres, despite the fact they are standard Zeros (albeit developed specifically for this car) and not the track-orientated Corsa or Trofeo R versions, while the car’s inherent balance and electronics keep it admirably neutral and accurate all around the lap.
Turn everything off and unsurprisingly it will slide freely at both ends. There’s a little too much high-speed understeer for my liking, perhaps because it develops significant rear downforce at speed but still has a touch of front-end lift, but you’ll need a circuit as devilish as Portimão to find it. For those who just want to skid about, few cars with this much grip were ever also this easy to drift.
Out on the road comparisons with the similarly priced, slightly heavier, but more powerful Porsche 911 Turbo are hard to avoid. Drive the Porsche hard for an hour or two and it will leave you dumbfounded with its point-to-point pace, and the Vantage never quite manages that. The Aston is quite a bit wider and much longer in the wheelbase, so it is less easy to thread down the road, less eager to angle into the apex and, with its engine up front and only two driven wheels, its traction is merely good rather than other-worldly. On the flipside it has a more intimate chassis feel, more communicative steering and provides its driver with more options just because you can overwhelm the grip in a way that’s rarely possible in the 911. The Porsche is faster, the Aston funnier: you take your pick.
It’s important to understand what Aston Martin has created here. There will be those who’ll tell you that for whatever it’s gained in performance and practicality, the turbos, automatic gears and too-obviously Mercedes-influenced interior of the new Vantage mean it cannot have the character of the old. It is not a view I dismiss. It doesn’t have the same charm as its predecessor. But to me it’s just different, not degraded. The noise is just as good, the performance, grip and on-limit behaviour far better. It is a more indulgent, more easily exploited and to my mind, therefore, a better driving machine. And you can fit into it and operate it as easily as a Mercedes-Benz, which for those who will use their Vantages every day is probably the best news of all.
The new Vantage is not perfect, but what Aston ever was? Its appeal to the heart is undiminished while its proposition to the head has been transformed. Enough to justify such an ambitious hike in its list price – and then some.