Right now it’s a stunning one-off concept car, but Aston Martin has a chance to turn the V12 Vantage RS into its best ever road car
By Andrew Frankel
To the driver of the Aston Martin DBR9 Le Mans car, it must have been a bewildering not to mention somewhat frustrating experience. As he swept through the fast left flick that led onto the race track’s massive straight, the sight of the Aston road car at its exit barely registered. With his slick tyres and huge wings he was cornering at a speed quite beyond that of the little Vantage coupé and simply swept past, 600bhp V12 race engine howling with approval. But at some stage during the next 1.8 flat-out kilometres he would have looked in his mirrors and seen a sight he did not expect. Instead of the road car being a mere pin prick in the distance, it was right behind him. And if he looked closer still, a fathomable thought might enter his mind: could it be that it was gaining on him?
This tale is not that of a modern Mitty but a real event that took place on the famed Mistrale straight of the Paul Ricard circuit. I know this, because it was me who happened to be in the road car. I’d like now to say that, in turn, I duly shot past the DBR9, broke the lap record, got the girl and rode off into the sunset, but sadly that would bear little relation to the truth. Nevertheless the very fact that an Aston road car could cling even briefly to the shirt-tails of a GT1 class-winning Aston race car suggests that there is rather more to this Vantage than is immediately apparent.
And so it proves. This is the Aston Martin V12 Vantage RS and though it will go into production next summer, for now this is the only one in the world. The louvred bonnet is not difficult to see but I wonder if you also spotted the carbon-fibre splitter at the front, or the slightly more dramatic kick to the lip spoiler on its tail. You certainly won’t have been able to ascertain that the bonnet, bootlid and door inners are carbon fibre, nor that, unlike any normal Vantage, behind those 19in wheels lie massive carbon- ceramic brakes.
But none of these really played much of a part in that oh-so brief moment of glory in the slipstream of the DBR9. It was helped for sure by all those wings on the race car seriously limiting its acceleration above 170mph, but most of all by the fact that the Vantage also has a 6-litre V12 engine under its bonnet pumping out the same nice, round 600bhp.
But these numbers, mighty as they are, fail to do justice to the way this, Aston Martin’s most exciting road car since at least the DB4GT, goes about its business. For a start it’s not only massively more powerful than a normal 4.3-litre V8 Vantage, it’s also lighter to the tune of 130kg. But the real revelation is that engine. It’s not to the same specification as the ultra-exotic DBR9 motor, but then again nor does it need to be in order to produce similar power because it has no need to breathe through inlet restrictors. The engine is, in fact, from the GT3 category DBRS9, but fitted with a dry sump and free to gulp in as much fresh air as it likes. Which is about 600bhp’s worth.
Aston chairman David Richards was at Paul Ricard for the test and it was he who confirmed to me that the car, which until now has appeared only as a static ‘concept’ exhibit at the Geneva Motorshow, would become a production reality. “I don’t think we’ll make many,” he said, “but perhaps a couple of hundred a year for three years or so.” Price? “Around £150,000 sounds about right to me.” Production begins next summer.
If I had the money and knew that the production car would be as viscerally exciting as this, I’d already be in the queue. Its closest rival, both in concept and price, is likely to be Ferrari’s 430 Scuderia, but having driven both now I am confident the Aston is quicker and at least as much fun.
Perhaps its most impressive aspect is how right it already feels despite having had little or no development time. When I climbed aboard, its engineers were keen for me to understand that it was just a starting point and the process of refining the chassis was not even started let alone completed, so allowances would need to be made.
But they were wrong. I’ve driven a load of one-off concept cars in my life and, until now, every one of them has come with a speed limit imposed by its manufacturer of 50mph or less and all have felt dreadful. But not this one. It’s true that some aerodynamic work is needed because the nose starts to wander enough above 150mph for you to be quite glad by 170mph that the straight is coming to an end, but that will be easily cured in the wind tunnel. Likewise the disconcertingly inconsistent response of the brake pedal will vanish once they have ducted some more cooling air to the front discs. Set these issues aside and what’s left is fundamentally well balanced and predictable despite the presence of all that power, the absence of any driver aids, the shortness of its wheelbase and the early stage of its development.
And it’s going to come at exactly the right time for Aston Martin, for next year it will also introduce the Rapide, its first four-door model since the infamous Lagonda. It will be large, luxurious and almost guaranteed to spark a certain constituency of die-hard Aston fan to conclude the company has gone soft. There could be no better rejoinder than the most exciting car Aston Martin has produced in almost half a century.
I should, however, attach a small health warning to this, for it remains to be seen exactly how diluted the V12 Vantage RS becomes while being prepared for production. At the moment it weighs just 1500kg but undoubtedly some weight will have to be added, not least because right now the car has neither airbags nor air conditioning. There will be a temptation simply to take the Vantage and equip it with a standard V12 engine like the 470bhp unit just announced for the latest version of the DB9. That would be cheap to develop, quite quick and an entirely missed opportunity.
With volumes as low as Richards envisages, the potential to create a stand-alone, truly specialist Aston Martin is clear, one that focuses as much on the removal of weight as the provision of power. No, it won’t come to market with a full race engine, but something with 530-550bhp should be easily possible in a car weighing less than 1600kg. With a properly honed chassis and a few of the most basic creature comforts, there is no reason at all to suspect that the result would be anything less than the greatest-driving Aston Martin road car the company has ever produced. And from the company that has already given us the Ulster, the DB2, DB4GT and the original V8 Vantage, that is truly saying something.