The proper British sports car challenges continental coupes
It’s been dry in Portugal for months. The farmers have been complaining about drought conditions threatening the season’s crops. But for the past week, it has been pouring rain like the Almighty Himself is offended at the southern tip of this country.
While the red dirt of Portimão gratefully soaks up the airborne bounty, this onslaught of precipitation is pooling in the corners of the nearby Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, where we have been invited to test the limits of Aston Martin’s latest high-performance coupe.
Push the ignition button, and you are greeted by a snarling startup. The 503-hp 4.0-liter hot-vee turbo engine is sourced from AMG, but you’d never know it from its note. In Aston’s bay, it has the sound of restrained fury rather than the aggressive anger in AMG’s setup.
It’s frustrating to drive 505 lb-ft of rear-drive torque on a slippery, technical track known for its brutal intolerance of early corner-exit throttle. But rain is a great equalizer of both test tracks and driver skills. It slows everything down and (as it turns out) provides a more accurate barometer of the communicative nature of Aston Martin’s redesigned Vantage.
Although senior vehicle engineer manager Craig Jamieson is quick to praise the AMG powerplant, he notes that Aston Martin converted the engine to a wet-sump oil-handling setup, installed different intake and exhaust systems, and of course changed all the ones and zeros during calibration.
Taking the power to the pavement is a ZF eight-speed torque-converter automatic. The Zed Eff is pristine in high-speed corners when you need to grab a taller gear. In the fast off-camber sweeper leading onto Portimão’s front straight, I asked the ZF to shift while banging at redline, and there was nary a twitch. The dynamic stability control, linked to a Graziano-sourced electronic rear differential, helps temper a quickened pulse.
Here’s the thing about the Vantage: It’s really forthcoming, damn near telepathic. A lot of folks buy exotics and pootle around most of the time. Then, when urged to drive hard by their mates, they overplay their hand, and the net result ends up on wreckedexotics.com. The Aston’s drive modes and traction settings are always present, in the foreground, but never aggressively intrusive. You feel this reassurance in your fingertips, your feet, your buttocks. You know that feeling when your car starts to lose it and your legs get watery in micro panic? The Vantage all but banishes that sensation.
I did say “all but.” I occasionally forgot how much low-end torque the Vantage has, thanks to those quick-spooling twin-turbos. The old Vantage needed a bit of high-end caning to get it properly motivated. But this is a different animal. And that ever-present torque, in the wet, means the new edition can get a bit twitchy anywhere in the rev band.
It’s frustrating. You know the car is urging you to do more, is capable of more. After a couple practice laps I lay into the throttle a bit early on corner exit. The back end slips. Not in a fun, lurid slide but in a snappy way. I have the stability control set at the most conservative traction setting, which results in the car grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and saying, “Not so fast. We still have a corner to finish.” Notching into Sport+ or Track mode quiets the nannies a bit, but given the saucy conditions, I decide not to test the upper limits. Carrying the next-higher gear through the corners is advisable, and with the low-end presence of the turbos, you get plenty of thrust rather than lag.
For your soundtrack, you have a choice of twin or quad muffler pipes—which aren’t just two more pipes; they have different mufflers, ports, and perforations. There’s no fake engine noise pumped into the cabin through stereo speakers, but according to Jamieson, certain sounds are “amplified” as engine revs reach crescendo.
The Brembo brakes are poised, especially in the soupy swale at the end of Portimão’s long front straight. I’m carrying a buck fifty and climbing as I hit the brake zone, and the carbon ceramics bite confidently, with the slightest hint of swim at the back. At lower speeds, the ceramics squeak a bit, and engineers note there’s still some fine-tuning to be done.
Then there’s the look. First thing: There’s no grille. Have no fear; there is a massive air intake mouth that carries the classic David Brown design. Then there are the LED headlamps, which, let’s be honest here, are small and anonymous. Aston chief designer Marek Reichman gets a shade defensive when noting that the lamps had to be packaged that way to let the engineers push the wheels further toward the corners of the car (with a side benefit of easier repair after a low-speed shunt). It’s a form-following-function concession to the engineers.
Fortunately, the rest of the Vantage is flat-out gorgeous. Note the sheetmetal shoulder crease that starts at the tip of the hood and runs the length of the body side, ending in a muscular rear haunch. That’s made possible by the massive clamshell expanse of the hood, which wraps over the front wheel arch before there’s a cutline. Then the side gills bleed air pressure from the front wheel arches. At the back, the ducktail trunklid combats front lift. Underneath, where no prying eyes can see, there’s a sequence of Venturis, fences, splitters, and diffusers to direct airflow and reduce turbulence.
Getting down to the vehicle architecture, Aston delivers a top-notch body-in-white. The tub is all aluminum, and the exterior panels are a mix of composites, aluminum, and carbon fiber—and no steel. The outgoing VH aluminum platform was extrusion-based; this version involves deeper-draw pressings. The rear subframe is solid-mounted. “We traded refinement and NVH for responsiveness,” Jamieson notes. Ah, British understatement.
Then there’s the paint: While maintaining its traditionally muted color palette, Aston Martin is aiming younger with some outrageous optional hues. It refers to its radioactive-chartreuse paint as “Lime Essence,” but you color-theory geeks can refer to it as Pantone 13-0650 TPX Sulphur Spring.
Inside, the layout might seem a bit retro in this world of scroll wheels and touch screens. A lot of buttons are haphazardly placed in the center console, but it proves the Brits have a wry sense of humor: The SOS button is directly above the button to defeat traction control. Also, my co-driver accidentally pressed reverse when he meant the adjacent park button; in considering the Vantage’s interior ergonomics, it wasn’t a dumb mistake. Hmmm.
The seats on all the test cars were tightly bolstered Alcantara, which essentially adheres occupants in place. (There were no opportunities to experience the Strathmore, Caithness, or Balmoral leather seats.) There’s plenty of headroom for a 6-foot-1 driver. The windowsills are high, so you can forget resting your left elbow up there. Exiting is a cinch, thanks to swan-wing doors that easily clear the most impudent curbs.
As for sightlines, a narrow greenhouse, sharply raked windshield, and stern A-pillars combine for a massive blind spot looking through left-hand corners. For underhood packaging reasons, the wipers sweep from inside-out rather than right to left.
Aston Martin calls the Vantage “a sports car, not a supercar.” With its 0–60 of 3.5 seconds and a 195-mph (314-km/h) top speed, that line is getting pretty blurry. But the Vantage’s usability factor is strong, from the multiple USB ports to the Mercedes-based infotainment system (which annoyingly still turns off navigation if you mute audio). The door handles, shift paddles, scroll wheels, and dial rings are brushed aluminum. The ignition and gear-selector buttons are glass. The hatch area can swallow two golf bags. Alas, there’s no glove box, and the piano black climate vent surrounds and slats feel plasticky.
For the road test outside Portimão, we are given Vantages with cast-iron brakes, which are reassuring and smooth to modulate in the wet. Interestingly, Aston went with 20-inch wheels shod with Pirelli P Zeros (255/40R20 in front, 295/35R20 in back) instead of Corsas. As we ease around sheer drop-offs with no guardrails, we bless them their decision.
The suspension—up front an upper A-arm and L-shaped lower control arm with caster control and bushings, in back a multilink setup—is pretty damn stiff. It’s great on the track, but even in the most road-going setting, vertical insults are transmitted rather abruptly into the cabin. There’s no magic carpet “rough road” button like in the Ferrari 488.
Similarly harsh are the abrupt manual downshifts, which are reassuring on a racetrack but aren’t as welcome when driving at a more leisurely pace. It’s easier to just pop it in drive for comfort.
Aston Martin has priced the Vantage just above $150,000 USD. That’s a bit more than a comparable Porsche 911 GTS, which starts at $121,750 USD and gets you a back seat. And it’s a hedge fund rounding error with the Mercedes-AMG GT C coupe (which shares the same engine, remember) at $145,995 USD. Which raises the question: Is the Vantage a better car than the AMG? Does it have the daily driver chops of the Porsche? Or is it merely competitive? Stay tuned for our Best Driver’s Car competition to find out.
Aston Martin’s first shot at this segment was hamstrung by coincidentally awful timing. After a couple years of encouraging sales, the first-generation V8 Vantage was swept up in 2009’s global recession. Then owned by Ford, the automaker had grand growth aspirations with the Vantage, whereupon the economy stuck a Fairbairn-Sykes right in its back. Fast-forward to 2018, with the world well into another boom cycle, and now-privately held Aston Martin again seeks to expand. Hopefully, this time around the Vantage gives the storied British brand a proper crack at greatness.
|2019 Aston Martin Vantage|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-passenger 2-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||4.0L/503-hp/505-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,650 lb. (est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||175.8 x 76.5 x 50.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.5 sec (mfr)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet tested|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Fall 2018|