Defining Sports Cars, Dogs’ Legs and Bees’ Knees
The venerable messieurs Merriam and Webster, who have been doing this sort of thing since internal combustion was a term to describe indigestion, define the sports car as “a low, small, usually two-passenger automobile designed for quick response, easy maneuverability, and high-speed driving.”
There is no mention of acceleration. Not a hint at “cutting-edge technology.” And they describe a vehicle that’s easy to handle, not one that can generate one-point-howmanyever g’s of lateral acceleration. That’s because those terms describe supercars, not sports cars. The Mazda Miata is the best example of a sports car on the market today. You’d be sorely misguided to buy one so you could brag about its top speed.
Even the historical sports-car gold standard, the Porsche 911, doesn’t resemble a sports car these days. It’s a supercar with a driving experience defined by computer-controlled gadgets to improve acceleration and racetrack lap timesâthings such as turbochargers, a dual-clutch automatic, active anti-roll bars, magnetorheological engine mounts, torque vectoring, and rear-axle steering. To some extent, all of these devices remove the driver from the process of driving only to attempt to add him or her back in via simulated feedback from, among other things, an electric motor on the steering rack.
We continually hear people say that this is the golden age of horsepower. It’s true, but this is also the golden age of enhanced-reality video games on wheels that can pull enough g’s in all three dimensions to distort your face in any matter—except, paradoxically, replicating that most revered human facial expression: the smile. It takes seconds behind the wheel of an Aston Martin V12 Vantage S to understand the appeal of an actual sports car over a supercar.
You don’t even need to start the Vantage to start to feel the difference. Its driving position is perfect, with a steering wheel and three pedals directly in front of the driver. The clutch pedal is a kneecap-breaker, a clear indicator that you’re going to have to work for your speed. And then you reach for the gearshift. It’s thick and stubby with delightfully short throws, clearly defined detents, and enough sticktion to remind you that its beefy internals are charged with managing planet-distorting firepower from a big V-12 up front.
Then you look at the shift pattern. The knob tells you that second gear is where you expected first to be. The numbers on the top row are all even—second, fourth, and sixth gears. First gear is all the way down and to the left. This is a true dogleg manual, the first we’ve seen in a new car in America for 16 model years.
The dogleg transmission is something of enthusiast lore. The term refers to a manual transmission whose shift pattern is such that first gear is not part of the H-pattern of gears. Like so many of the automobile’s most interesting curiosities, the dogleg comes from racing. The addition of a fifth gear to race car transmissions meant that one gear would be outside the H. Since first was only used to get moving from a dead stop in pit lane, it was cast aside in favor of fifth, thus putting the gears used in the heat of competition within the quickly shiftable H.
The five-speed dogleg appeared in a wide variety of vehicles through the years, all of which had just one thing in common. They were special. Many were cool on their own (Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsche 928s, Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16s), but even those that weren’t particularly noteworthy on their own became legends by mere virtue of their shift pattern. (The 1990-1993 Mercedes 300SL was sold here with a dogleg five-speed. Bet you never knew you wanted an SL.)
The dogleg faded away with the five-speed. (A six-speed pattern fits easily into a simple, extended H.) The last dogleg sold in the U.S. was the five-speed 2001 Lamborghini Diablo. Now that manuals are starting to cram seven gears, there’s an opportunity for the dogleg once again
The dogleg alone would be enough to make the 2017 V12 Vantage S a cool car—indeed that’s really the only functional difference between it and last year’s V12 Vantage S, which used an automated version of this same Graziano transaxle. But unlike the other seven-speed manual cars sold, the Vantage uses all seven of its gears to hit its top speed. (Both the Porsche 911 and Corvette Z06 achieve top speed right after you’ve shifted into sixth gear. Their seventh gears are strictly to reduce revs while cruising—fuel economy gears, you could call them.) Despite the stratospheric 205-mph (330-km/h) top speed, the Aston has seven incredibly short, deliciously closely stacked gear ratios.
You shift the V12 Vantage S constantly. At full bore, you’re in first, second, and third gears each for 2.5 seconds or less. Fourth is over after just 3 and a bit. By the time the quarter-mile marker passes, you’re well into fifth gear.
This continual rowing of the gearbox is something missing from almost every quick car on the road today. Because of it, this Aston feels like an Alcantara-lined Miata—albeit one with a 563-hp V-12 that pulls so hard to its 7,000-rpm max that you’re deep into rev limiter before the tachometer has a chance to catch up.
First gear is so short and second is geared so close to first that the V12 Vantage S makes it to 60 mph in the same 4.4 seconds regardless of whether you launch in first or second gear. If you can get the Pirelli Corsas to hook up, starting in first gives a half-second advantage to 35, but that advantage is eaten up by the (relatively slow because it’s not a straight shot) 1-to-2 shift.
When driving any dogleg car, shifting becomes a cerebral, you-better-think-about-this process, but this one is especially difficult given the number of gears. Particularly tough to get right: a quick 3-to-4 shift. Do it without thinking, and you’ll wind up in sixth by mistake. If Aston Martin was obsessed with acceleration numbers the way so many other car companies are, it would have never chosen this transmission and certainly not these gear ratios. We’re so thankful it did. In a world where performance car companies are trying desperately to stay relevant by adding tech, tech, and more tech, Aston has it figured out: Concentrate on the experience, not the numbers.
The V12 Vantage S has no tricks to excel at accel, no computer-controlled gadgets to help handling. It has no torque vectoring, just a mechanical limited-slip diff. It has no turbos, just a quad-cam V12 that only recently got variable valve timing. No launch-controlled all-wheel drive for a quick launch, just sticky tires at the back that well, they don’t stick all that well. The 121.6-mph (196-km/h) trap speed at the end of the quarter-mile run highlights that lack of grip. Every car we’ve ever tested with a trap in the 121s has pulled off a 0-60 between 2.9 and 4.0 seconds. The only exceptions: this car and its automated-manual predecessor.
Who cares? I defy you drive this Aston on the road or on a racetrack and argue that it needs a turbo or two. This monster will spin its tires in fourth-gear corners. It’ll drift around high-speed bends at half-throttle in third, all the while spraying spectators with unmuffled V-12 exhaust noise so rich and complex you’d swear you can hear each of the 24 exhaust valves slamming shut. Could the V12 Vantage use more rear-axle traction? Yes. Would it improve the experience? Certainly not.
If the Vantage were German, its engineers would fix that—and then add in all those other supercar tricks, too. They would have ruined the car. If the V12 Vantage had a long-legged dual-clutch automatic and a downsized turbocharged engine, maybe it would have performed well enough on EPA fuel-economy tests that it wouldn’t need to be sold under an emissions exemption.
Then again, worrying about fuel economy in a compact sports car with a 5.9-liter V-12 is like obsessing over the incremental carbon released into the atmosphere because of the extra power demands on your iPhone’s cpu when you’re playing Candy Crush. Get a grip.
The only problem with this sports car being a fuel hog is that Aston Martin was able to receive permission to sell just 100 manuals in the U.S. They’d better all be sold immediately—not just because Aston built this car in response to buyer demand (we love you, Aston customers) but because this is one of the most involving, most fun, and ultimately most rewarding cars in production today. This dogleg-trannied bee’s-knees work of art, if you will. If Merriam and Webster were alive today, they’d agree that this is the very definition of a perfectly executed sports car.
|2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINE||5.9L/563-hp/457-lb-ft DOHC 48-valve V-12|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,677 lb (53/47%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||172.6 x 73.4 x 49.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.4 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||12.5 sec @ 121.6 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||114 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.97 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.3 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)|
Seven gears, three different shift patterns
There are three cars sold with seven-speed manuals in the U.S. The Corvette packages its seven gears in traditional fashion, with reverse below seventh. The seven-speed Porsche 911 simply adds seventh on as a dogleg to its six-speed. Aston Martin chose the brave route. The seven-speed Vantage S has reverse up to the left, with first gear immediately below it and the remaining six gears in the usual extended-H pattern.