A Little Blue Pill From ZF Means 3.6 Seconds to 60
My driving partner is hustling the 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish across the scenic Scottish Highlands on paved, twisty singletrack narrow enough to require pull-aside-to-pass spots. Most drivers — even a fast group on street bikes — are yielding, smiling, some giving thumbs-up as we surge by.
“It’s like you’re famous,” I say to the driver, who is intensely focused as he again hammers the accelerator. His reply, with a slight “no” motion of his head: “Nah, the car’s famous.”
Yes, the car Jonny Lieberman called “Big Sexy” upon its debut two years ago is famous. Especially in the Highlands, home to James Bond’s fictional Skyfall family estate. (Hey, Aston doesn’t miss an opportunity to slip a Bond reference into conversation; why should we?) And now the visually stunning Vanquish and 2015 Aston Martin Rapide S sport serious performance upgrades.
The standard prescription for cars in need of a vitality boost seems to be “take an eight-speed ZF and call me in the morning.” That tonic has significantly awakened these two, which share Aston Martin’s VH architecture.
The four-door Rapide S ($207,820) and Vanquish coupe ($287,820) had a lot going for them already. The hand-built cars really are sexy (We’ve never been approached by as many female car fans as when behind the wheel of a Flugplatz Blue 2014 Vanquish), powered by V-12s with a gorgeous sound, and are bathed in luxury touches. So while they weren’t ailing, they were trailing — in the performance department. That’s largely the fault of the old-school six-speed automatic that was in both cars.
How much life has Aston Martin breathed into their top two models? How’s a half-second faster to 60 mph? (Aston says 3.6 seconds for Vanquish and 4.2 seconds for Rapide S.) And how’s a top speed for both of 203 mph, up 13 mph for Rapide S and 20 mph for Vanquish?
But really? It’s that simple? New transmission? Kinda. Aston Martin did other things too — design director Marek Reichman calls it a “major refresh under the skin” — all of which add up to significantly more athletic cars. And let’s face it: Aston has design and luxury pretty much under control. Reichman said the majority of improvements are about giving the cars, especially the Rapide S, “more sporting character.”
First, about that 8HP gearbox from ZF. It has become an industry standard, appearing in a raft of BMWs, Bentleys, Jaguars, and more.
Astonishingly, the new transmission is almost 9 pounds lighter than the previous six-speed and fits in the previous case. Aston Martin engineers took the lead from there, tuning it to work with the V-12. Why now, after almost everyone? Aston is small — the Gaydon factory produces only about 4000 cars per year — and changes must be deliberate. It also helps line efficiency to put the ZF into both cars.
Aston Martin says shifts between gears are completed in a maximum of 130 milliseconds. Translation: Faster than you can say “Q.” That’s with the paddles, too. While driving the 2015 Vanquish and 2015 Rapide S on some truly glorious, low-traffic, mountain and coastal roads dotted with only the occasional village, sheep herd, or speed camera, the cars would upshift before I finished pulling back on the paddle, raising the revs and re-engaging the grin-inducing pull of the V-12 (576 hp/465 lb-ft for Vanqish, 560 hp/465 lb-ft for Rapide S).
Two nifty software touches: Adaptive Drive Recognition tailors shift points in standard Drive mode to your style behind the wheel. So if you’re aggressive, you’ll quickly feel a change in the shift map even if you haven’t engaged Drive Sport mode. The car constantly collects data beginning with each engine start, so it will morph during your drive if necessary.
Nifty touch No. 2: If you hold down the left (downshift) paddle, the transmission skips as many gears as necessary to find the right ratio. On our drives in the Rapide S and Vanquish, that maneuver worked great on the winding roads, where we’d be pulling hard in sixth but needed to haul down to second in a hurry to set up a tight curve.
Even with those performance improvements, the transmission comes with a bonus: big improvements in fuel economy. The Vanquish gets 14 mpg city. On the highway, a 16 percent improvement gets it to 22 mpg. The Rapide S gets 13/21 mpg city/highway, an 11 percent improvement on the highway. It’s easy to see why: At 70 mph, the V-12 hums along at a very leisurely and quiet 1500 rpm in eighth gear. In fact, eighth is strictly for economy, as top speed is reached in seventh.
In Drive mode (that’s normal automatic shifting), though the transmissions are tuned for quickness, they still keep the car in relatively low rpms unless you slam your foot down. It was far more fun to use the paddles to keep the transmission between 3500-5500 rpm, where maximum torque — and near-maximum music from the engine and exhaust — takes place.
Slowing the Astons from speed is more confident, as the brakes have retuned boost to allow for a stronger initial bite. And the Rapide S has larger front brakes, increasing to 400mm diameter with six-piston calipers (the Vanquish’s brakes stay the same at 398 mm and six pistons front and 360mm four-piston rear). At the back, Rapide S has a 360mm four-piston set. We experienced great, consistent feel in both cars, and no discernible fade, though the roads had enough variety that there was usually plenty of cool-down between extreme situations.
Both cars ride on beautiful, 20-inch 10-spoke forged alloy wheels that are 15 pounds lighter per set than the wheels on the 2014 models.
Working with the ZF transmission is a new Bosch engine management system for both cars, and both cars now have carbon-fiber drive shafts for an increase in power transmitted to the drive wheels, and a new alloy torque tube for quieter performance.
The Rapide S really benefits from Aston’s efforts to reduce noise. Reichman credited some of this improvement to a specially designed low-rolling resistance tire from Bridgestone. Wait. They increased performance with an LRR tire set? Apparently. The Rapide S supplied plenty of confidence as we blasted around mostly in Sport mode on both suspension and throttle/shifting (they’re adjustable separately).
And the cars felt more sure-footed at speed, especially when those mostly empty Scottish roads (our least-favorite sign: “CATTLE GRID”) threw the occasional off-camber corner, or fast sweepers with unsettling undulations, at us. Aston Martin says it worked to create a greater difference in damping between Sport and Drive, and passengers could easily guess which setting the cars were in. We never really futzed with Track mode, as it was inappropriate for unpredictable conditions.
Steering in both was above average and unchanged from the previous models. The Vanquish is a little quicker (2.6 turns lock-to-lock vs. 3.0 on the Rapide S) and transmits slightly more feel — in a good way — about where the wheels are and the condition of the road.
Inside the Rapide S and Vanquish is the same Aston Martin luxury one comes to expect, such as full-grain Luxmill leather over most of the interior and Alcantara headliners and steering wheel. One Vanquish our group drove even had an optional quilted-leather headliner with contrast stitching. Some thought it a bit much, but I couldn’t stop staring. Newly available interior color options include Fandango Pink (for trim only, please) and Dark Knight, a black-ish blue.
Aston Martin admits that the infotainment system leaves a bit to be desired, with its tiny nav screen. But that’s where future refreshes could receive big dividends from its partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which mostly has created buzz around replacement of Aston’s V-8 engines. Could we see a COMAND-like system in future Astons? “The engine side of the agreement is only one part,” Reichman said. “The electrical [infotainment] architecture is the other.”
Fair enough. Just promise we’ll still get those gorgeous glass buttons and what may be the world’s coolest ignition key (it’s crystal, embossed on one end with the Aston logo) in these now quicker and more responsive examples of hand-made art on wheels.
For more than 100 additional images of the 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish and 2015 Aston Martin Rapide S, head to the second page of this review.
|2015 Aston Martin Vanquish||2015 Aston Martin Rapide S|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 4-pass, 2-door coupe||Front-engine, RWD, 4-door, 4-pass sedan|
|ENGINE||5.9L/576-hp/465-lb-ft DOHC 48-valve V-12||5.9L/560-hp/465-lb-ft DOHC 48-valve V-12|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||3850 lb||4400 lb|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||184.7 x 75.2 x 50.9 in||197.6 x 75.9 x 53.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.6 sec (mfr est)||4.2 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||14/22/17||13/21/16|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Third quarter 2014||Third quarter 2014|