Fast and fruity, but not without flaws | by Andrew Frankel
You might not have heard of Andy Palmer and, were it not my business to know of such people, I might not either. After all, who but an industry analyst is going to care much about the name of Nissan’s sales and marketing chief? But you’re going to be hearing a great deal more of him because, shortly, he is to become the new man in charge of Aston Martin.
This might seem an unusual way to start a product review, but Palmer’s appointment is so crucial to the present and future of the company, and the news so fresh, it would have seemed contrived to begin any other way.
For this renewed Vanquish is the last car to be launched under the old regime of Dr Ulrich Bez, whose first launch was the original Vanquish back in 2001. It was Bez who used Ford’s money to drag the company into something not far from the 21st century, building its then brand-new factory in Gaydon and launching the V/H (vertical/horizontal) platform upon which every subsequent production Aston Martin has been based. And it was Bez who oversaw Aston’s return to racing and its multiple class wins at Le Mans and elsewhere. It was also Bez who stayed in charge after a David Richards-headed consortium bought the company from Ford in 2007. It was also during Bez’s watch, however, that Aston failed to replace its model lines with genuinely new product… and reputedly sank into considerable debt, despite current profitability.
So Palmer arrives with much work to do. He must juggle the competing interests of Aston’s Kuwaiti, Italian and, in the form of Daimler’s five per cent holding, German owners, oversee the adoption of Mercedes-AMG architectures and make sure that the new DB9 – Aston’s first new-from-the-ground-up design since the last DB9 in 2003 – is fit for purpose in an increasingly competitive market. When Bez arrived he delayed the first Vanquish until he deemed it fit for market. That Palmer has the talent, interests and disposition to do it is not in doubt: he is an engineer by trade, a rabid car enthusiast and a skilled businessman who rose to become the second most important man in the vast Nissan-Renault alliance after Carlos Ghosn. Whether Aston’s owners give him sufficiently free rein to do the job is the most important issue he faces.
So look at this Vanquish as the ultimate expression of what Aston Martin could manage in its now former life, a barometric reading of what Aston Martin can achieve in the here and now and, as such, as good a measure as Palmer is likely to get of how much further forward the company now needs to move.
As it happens, the Vanquish is particularly effective in this role because it represents a concentrated shot of all that is good and bad about the company’s product strategy of late.
The bad is that, like all other recent Astons, it is a car merely evolved. While much modified over time, the chassis is still closely related to that of the original DB9, and the same can be said for the 6-litre V12 engine that was itself the result of a union between two Ford V6s back in the 1990s. The interior is unchanged and, as illogical and infuriating to operate as it is, undoubtedly beautiful.
But one vital, much overdue modification has been made and that is to get rid of the old six-speed auto gearbox and instead fit one with eight ratios, also supplied by ZF. How much difference can such a change make? You might be surprised. Top speed rises from 183mph to 201mph and the 0-62mph time falls from 4.2 to 3.9sec. Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions have improved by more than 10 per cent. While those considering a Vanquish are unlikely to be members of the green lobby, they should remember this also means a better than 10 per cent increase in the number of miles the car will cover between visits to the fuel station.
Aston Martin has also tinkered with the suspension, raising the front spring rates by 15 per cent and those at the rear by 35, a move that comes coupled with a thicker rear roll bar and new toe and camber settings, all designed to make the car feel more sporting and more neutral on the limit. Bespoke Pirelli P Zero rubber is mounted on lighter alloy wheels that remove 7kg of unsprung weight. I drove the Vanquish around Scotland and also tried the four-door Rapide, which now also gets the eight-speed gearbox. Interestingly the DB9 is denied this long overdue advance, into which we can safely read the fact that its replacement is too close to make the change worthwhile. The Vantage continues as Aston’s only manual transmission car, with the option of a seven-speed single clutch robotised manual paddle-shift system.
If the idea of Aston Martin having four entirely different transaxle gearboxes in such a small and narrow range of cars strikes you as a bit bonkers, you are not alone.
But I digress. My time north of the border reminded me of a truth about Aston Martin that has endured for as long as I’ve been writing about them: almost all have charm. I can remember driving the Virage, undoubtedly the worst Aston I’ve tested, and still not being able to denounce it entirely because I could see that it almost worked for a certain sort of undemanding gentleman. And while the Vanquish can be criticised for lacking anything like the performance of the Ferrari F12 and, despite all the suspension changes, still not being as light on its feet or comfortable in its ride, I was still sorry to park it and catch the plane home. For all its flaws I loved the way it looked, sounded and responded – call it what you will, but it is true to the wings on its nose. Even so, this is a curious sort of Aston Martin. When I drove the Rapide I could see exactly at whom it is aimed: those wanting the sight and sounds of an Aston but needing something more practical. In that regard it does Aston Martin more favours than the Panamera does Porsche.
I’ve always liked the Rapide and pound for pound I’d rate it a better Aston than any other, save the V12 Vantage S. But the Vanquish? It’s still not entirely sure what it wants to be: its ride is too rough to convince as an out-and-out GT car, while its performance and handling are too limited to hack it as a pure supercar in the era of the outrageously able F12 and extrovert Lamborghini Aventador.
I liked the Vanquish, but there are others in this market – and even other Astons – I’d prefer.
Into such a melting pot is Mr Palmer about to plunge and it will require all his political, diplomatic and engineering skills if, with competing ownership interests, the adoption of Mercedes technologies, the relaunch of Lagonda and the forthcoming SUV, it is not to turn into a cauldron of confusion. For my simple mind the range should look thus: the Vantage as the sports car of the stable, the DB9 as the GT, the Rapide and SUV looking after the family side of things, leaving the Vanquish as a pure flagship supercar, and not the spiced-up DB9 it currently is.
A decade ago Aston Martin had the world at its feet with brand-new product and a brand-new factory. Palmer will have his work cut out to inject that sense of freshness and excitement back into the brand. If his shareholders give him the space to operate, though, I’d back him to get the job done.
Engine: 6.0 litres, 12 cylinders
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 465lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: eight-speed double clutch
Top speed: 201mph