Aston takes aim at Porsche 911
It’s 10.30 a.m., the sun’s just peeking above the horizon, and I’m riding in a dazzle-camo’d 2019 Aston Martin Vantage. The black and neon lime wrap doesn’t exactly blend into snow-covered landscape, and with Ivalo Airport just a few hundred yards away, Millbrook Group’s Test World seems a strange place to test top-secret prototypes. But here in Ivalo, 145 miles (233 km) north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, the winter climate doesn’t encourage looky-loos. Last week it was minus 35 degrees. Fahrenheit.
Today, though, it’s a balmy 23 as Aston Martin vehicle attribute chief engineer Matt Becker guides a validation-prototype Vantage over fresh powder to one of the short test tracks that dips and winds through the snow-covered trees. Becker and his team have spent the past few days confirming the final tune of the new Vantage’s chassis and powertrain before the car goes into production at Aston Martin’s factory in Gaydon, England.
The suspension, engine mapping, transmission, and e-diff software have all been signed off for production. The steering is not quite ready to go, however, though it’s only a few bits and bytes away from final spec. This Vantage is also fitted with the optional quad exhaust, and the optional Sport Plus seats.
Less than a mile long, the snow-handling track is one of seven at the Test World facility, and doesn’t look particularly difficult. Especially riding alongside Becker, who, after switching the stability control off, dances the Vantage around it with deft, minimal steering inputs and smooth applications of throttle and brake. But with 503 hp and 505 lb-ft of torque under your right foot, and studless Pirelli SottoZero winter tires—255/40 R20 front and 295/35 R20 rear—interfacing with the white stuff, it’s as challenging as a mini-Nürburging. I slide gently sideways into a snow bank on the exit of a decreasing radius, off-camber right hander. On my first lap. With the stability control on. At 5 mph (8 km). Yep, it’s that slippery…
After a couple more exploratory laps, I switch the stability control off, and have a bit of a play. Though this is the second Vantage I’ve driven—I had a run in a very early prototype at a test track in Italy months ago—I can’t tell you much about how the Vantage feels on the road or at the limit: You’ll have to wait until Mark Rechtin gets behind the wheel of a production car in southern Portugal next month for the full story. But I can tell you the 2019 Vantage feels agile and responsive in the snow, with a more incisive feel to the brakes than you get in a DB11. The quad exhaust pops and crackles gently on the overrun; it’s not the mobile artillery barrage you get in an AMG GT.
With an identical engine making the same power and torque as that in the DB11 V8, and driving through the same eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, it’s tempting to regard the Vantage as a cut-down DB11 V8, with four inches less between the wheels, a weight advantage of at least 200 pounds (90 kg), and perfect 50/50 weight distribution. But there’s a little more to it than that.
To enhance the handling improvements inherent in making a car shorter, lighter, and tighter—torsional rigidity is 20 percent better than the DB11—the Vantage comes equipped with a computer-controlled electronic differential, rather than the conventional limited slip differentials used in the bigger Astons. Becker says the e-diff is key to giving the new Vantage a significantly sportier dynamic character than any DB11.
Most automakers link electronic differential functionality to the stability control settings, but in the 2019 Vantage that functionality has been linked to the shock settings: As you switch the shocks through Sport, Sport+, and Track modes, so the e-diff changes its operating protocols. “A change in the shock mode means you get a change in vertical motion of the car, which changes its response,” Becker explains. “We’ve linked shock modes to the e-diff to make sure they all complement each other.”
The e-diff also enables more effective torque vectoring by brake. “It allows torque vectoring to be a lot stronger,” Becker says, “because when you’re vectoring the torque you can open the diff. A conventional limited slip differential has an amount of torque to overcome when you’re using the brake for torque vectoring.”
And by increasing its torque threshold, the e-diff helps improve high speed stability and stability under braking. In simple terms, it slows down steering response. As any backyard racer knows, a car with a locked diff will understeer. “It’s a lot more complicated than that in terms of the algorithms that are going on in the background,” Becker says, smiling, “but simplistically, that’s what’s going on. You vary the torque according to what you want the diff to do. It’s basically a response management tool.”
This is the first of a series of Vantages aimed squarely at Porsche’s more expensive 911s (the 911 GTS has been the benchmark car during development) as well as the Mercedes-AMG GT, with which the Aston shares its twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8. There will eventually be a Vantage convertible, along with a higher-performance Vantage with at least 600 hp. Rear wheel steering will arrive with a mid-life refresh, and 21-inch wheels are coming to deliver even greater chassis response.
“[Aston Martin boss] Andy Palmer’s brief to me was ‘you need to make the cars drive like they look,'” Becker says. If the early glimpses given by the prototypes are any indication, job done.