Aston Martin Vantage

Tested 28.3.18, Portugal On sale Now Price £120,900

Mighty twin-turbo V8 up front, two seats in the middle – and the back? You can make the back do whatever you want

Is it better than the Porsche 911?” That’s the question Aston Martin boss Andy Palmer asks his engineers and it’s not an unreasonable one for you to ask too.

And the answer is? Well, as they’ll tell him and I’ll tell you over the next 1500 words or thereabouts, it’s not that simple, guv. In some ways, yes, it is better; in many ways, no, it isn’t; but, for the most part, it’s just different. And that’s fine.

Where are we, then? Two models into the ‘second century plan’ that’ll see a new Aston Martin launched every year until 2022, when the cycle begins again. It’ll be a range of sports cars under constant reinvention, with profits from the first providing the investment to develop the next. Like a normal car company. “It’s not rocket science,” says Palmer.

First, then, was the DB11, the big, comfy grand tourer, at one end of the sports car scale, and now there’s the Vantage, which sits at the other end, but using a fair degree of DB11 parts.

It’s a strict two-seater, with a Mercedes-AMG 4.0-litre twin-turbocharged V8 engine sourced from Aston’s partner (and part-owner) in the front, and power going from there to the back via an eight-speed transaxle torque-converter gearbox and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.

It has been engineered by people who believe cars should handle properly beyond the limit

To see beneath the new Vantage’s skin is to see the advances Aston has made since the old VH architecture died and the new, still all-aluminium structure arrived. Only 33% of the structure is shared with a DB11, which, at 4465mm, the Vantage is 274mm shorter than but, at 1942mm across the body (2153mm to the mirror ends), 2mm wider than. A 911 is a thumb’s width longer but, at 1808mm, rather a lot narrower. Which could be important.

There are more pressings and castings than extrusions in an Aston’s make-up these days. They’re more expensive but more space efficient for a given strength, so the Vantage seats two big people very comfortably and the boot, underneath a hatch tailgate, is big enough for two golf bags. The skin is a mix of aluminium and plastic composites, and dry weight is quoted at 1530kg including the lightest options. A 911 GTS is less than that even full of fluids and with a statutory 75kg added to it to represent driver and fuel. Like for like, the Vantage could be 10% heavier than a 911. That could be important too.

For the first time in a generation, the Vantage is wilfully different from other Astons outside (do you like it? I do on three sides and the front I’m getting used to) and inside too. I like most of the inside as well: the finish is good, the plastic on the air vents grates a bit less in a sports car than a grand tourer and you can, apparently, have a round steering wheel. It all works most nicely with the racier Alcantara trim, to my eyes. The leather looks a bit stretched around some seams and stitches
but, well, I suppose it’s a sports car. Shouldn’t things be pulled tight? A bit racy?

Mechanically, it sounds like they are. In the V8 DB11, which shares this engine and its 503bhp tune, the engine’s note – so raucous and voluble in its AMG applications – has been turned right back. Here, they’ve let it rather loose again. A few years ago, you could have chosen any of several different Astons for the same job. This one, you’re in no doubt, is the loud one.

That extends to the drive modes, which, of course, it has. Ultimately, these policies mean more to Aston than us, but whereby the DB11 has GT, Sport and Sport+ chassis settings, the Vantage’s dampers are shifted along an imaginary scale to Sport, Sport+ and Track, all intended to be tighter, firmer, to the point that Track is arguably too stiff for bumpier race tracks. It’s good on those, though, Aston says. In fact, they say, it slides quite easily.

Aston Martin is good at understatement.

There’s a great sense of agility because it feels like the car pivots around its centre

Remember a few things: yes, the Vantage is heavier than a 911, but the 1630kg or so it’ll weigh is competitive among the other company the Aston will keep. Its mechanical layout (the entire block sits behind the front axle line) means that the weight distribution is 50/50 front to rear. Only one tyre option, a bespoke Pirelli P Zero, is offered. It has all been engineered by people who believe that cars should handle properly beyond the limit. And off means off on the three-stage stability control. Goody gumdrops.

On a circuit, then, the Vantage is terrific. The engine note is as raucous and hard as you’d want it to be, the (optional) carbon-ceramic brakes stop it brilliantly and hold out in warm temperatures, and the tyres resist wear better than 505lb ft from 2000rpm has any right to allow.

Body control is good, even in the slackest of suspension modes, and there’s a great sense of agility because it feels like the car pivots around its centre – where you’re seated. The front goes where you point it and there’s a terrific level of control and precision over the rear. The rear subframe is rigidly, rather than squishily, mounted to the chassis and that apparently gives excellent lateral stiffness, so the car’s back axle does what the engine and e-differential (which can be fully locked or fully open, depending on what’s being asked of it) wants it to do.

Under power, on a track, what it wants to do is lock up to precisely your amount of bidding, making the cornering line entirely your choice. It’s not unlike a Ferrari 488 GTB in that fashion – only, because the engine is mounted low and at the front, the beyond-limit balance is even better, to the extent that I’m not sure there’s another current production car this docile on a circuit. You can drive it in a racier fashion too, where it’s still balanced and beautifully neutral but less incisive than a 911. So they do different things better. The 911: nuanced steering precision. The Aston: antics.

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Anyway, that’s all jolly, but this is a road car, after all. It’s one whose ride is composed and fluid, especially in Sport mode, but Sport+ doesn’t usually throw it out of kilter. The engine and transmission go through various stages of angry as you turn those up, but the moderate one is good for the road – grumbly and growly and plenty responsive enough – while the big, easy paddles, fixed to the steering column so they’re always where you left them, are some of the easiest to use in the business. Pulling one puts you in manual mode, an extended pull of the upshift puts you back in D. All shifters should be like this, especially when mated to a gearbox that’s as smooth as the ZF eight-speeder. (It sometimes hesitates to give you downshifts on a circuit, though, which is a Mercedes-ish thing to do, so is perhaps down to the engine, not the gearbox.)

It looks like someone in a hat and glasses poking his tongue out but it all works well

The steering? On track, it is full of feel, which, at lower cornering forces, naturally it doesn’t quite replicate on the road – a 911, which has a lightly loaded front end and less need of assistance, is, I think, more talkative – but that’s fine. It is smooth and fast, centres as it should and says as much as you’d hope. The balance and poise are still there too, albeit with the caveat that this is still a wide car, and from inside, you can see none of the exterior bodywork. So it’s just as well it is poised, responsive and predictable, because you’re relying on it to do the shrinking around you. To an extent, it does: with the aural and tactile cues this car gives you, it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

And here’s the thing: I’m considering the Vantage against consistently the best sports car in the business here, and it goes toe to toe with it. The others at the lofty £120,900 the Vantage demands? Some offer different things, better in one or two areas, but I’m pretty confident none is overall as complete and enjoyable as the Aston.

So is the Vantage better than a 911 GTS? Perhaps not. But it’s different enough, and good enough in enough ways, to be a genuine, desirable alternative. To be considered different rather than worse. And to do quite a lot of things better. When you consider the respective sizes, budgets and facilities of Aston and Porsche, that in itself is a spectacular achievement.

MATT PRIOR

 

Tester’s note
Mercedes-based comms system is as good as most things in this class. Instruments are not. But ergonomically, the Vantage is sound. MP

Aston Martin Vantage
Raucous engine and riotous handling make the Vantage different from, rather than better than, a Porsche 911

Price £120,900
Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo, petrol
Power 503bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 505lb ft at 2000-5000rpm
Gearbox 8-spd automatic
Kerb weight 1630kg (est)
Top speed 195mph
0-60mph 3.5sec
Fuel economy 26.8mpg
CO2, tax band 245g/km, 37%
Rivals Jaguar F-Type SVR, Porsche 911 GTS

WILL IT GET THE TWIN TURBO V12?
The inevitable question goes like this: are you going to put a V12 engine in it, then? It’s a question they bat away with great patience, and the official line is that there are currently no published plans to do so. That they haven’t decided to do so. I think they probably have, to be honest.

The first thing to know is that the 5.2-litre, twin-turbocharged engine does fit in the Vantage body, by dint of the fact that a fair degree of it is derived from the DB11. And Aston’s designers themselves think the front end could look a bit more striking. I suspect it’ll get so at a midlife refresh, but some big vents to cool a bigger powertrain wouldn’t hurt, would it?

What there definitely are no plans for, mind, is to fit Mercedes-AMG’s new 3.0-litre straight six, as dropped into the CLS 53. It makes a decent amount of power, is incredibly smooth and is turbocharged, electric-supercharged and electrically assisted, so could usefully lower the range’s CO2 output too. It’ll probably remain not part of the plan but, still, what a thought.