Power Curves

So is the new Aston Martin Vantage better than a Porsche 911 – or a McLaren 540C, for that matter? Gaydon boss Andy Palmer wants to know, and we’re sure you do too. Over to Matt Saunders

540C’s dynamic appeal could have put it ahead of the pack… if not for roads like this

Does the super-sports car actually exist? Is it really a thing? After spending a couple of days driving three new cars brought together under that banner, I have my doubts. The super-sports car may be a figment of the car industry’s imagination, I reckon; or a clever bit of profit-generating sleight of hand, more likely.

Sometimes group tests are like this. You gather three new cars together that share a broadly common price point and mission statement and you expect to find them similar; but driving them back to back at length only makes you more aware of how different they are. Of how much separates them not just in terms of motive character and dynamic appeal, but also how different are the reasons you’d buy them and the ways you’d use them. And so it is when you try to force a McLaren 540C, a Porsche 911 Carrera GTS and the new Aston Martin Vantage into the same shopping basket. They flatly refuse to share.

It may seem odd to suggest that one of the most important growth niches in the whole performance car market may be an imagined one; super-sports cars have sold rather well for the last decade or so, after all. The segment was famously pioneered by Porsche back in the 1970s, and while it now contains cars as different as the Audi R8, Honda NSX and Nissan GT-R, it’s still known by many as the ‘911 Turbo’ class because of that car’s enduring popularity.

Delicacy is a hard quality to find in a modern sports car – but not impossible. Our winner has it

Weissach’s key realisation way back when was that there were plenty of customers who wanted something better than a 911, to use in precisely the same way as a 911. The thing is, after 43 years of trying, many would say that Porsche has failed to make the car it set out to. A Turbo is certainly a faster 911, after all – but has it ever been a demonstrably better sports car? Now that both
four-wheel drive and turbocharged torque are widely available throughout the 911 range, the answer to that question seems to me more debatable than ever.

That is, however, just one of the reasons I’m using to excuse the fact that you won’t be reading about the Porsche 911 Turbo over the next few pages. It also happens to be the case that Porsche GB doesn’t have a Turbo demonstrator at the moment – and, moreover, that Aston Martin chose instead to benchmark the 911 Carrera GTS during the development of the new Vantage. So here we are, introducing this vital new Aston to a couple of cars that can be considered key rivals for it for the next few years – one of which you might even describe as formative. Or which, with some justification, you might not even describe as a key rival at all.

In recent years, I’ve seen more chassis engineers than I can remember simply nod sagely and smile in quiet awe when the GTS comes up in conversation. Suffice it to say, leaving the more specialised GT3 conveniently to one side if you’ll permit it, I reckon a rear-wheel-drive, manual, judiciously equipped GTS would be the 911 held up as the very best of the current breed for its driver appeal by most of us fortunate enough to have driven 911s fairly widely. And ‘judiciously equipped’ is what we’ve got here: standard lowered sports springs, widened rear track, PASM adaptive dampers, slippy diff, feelsome steel brakes and 20in ‘Turbo S’ wheels – with optional four-wheel steering and Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control active anti-roll bars included.

Taking the 911 as our reference sports car of choice, then, it’s interesting to observe, before we get into the detail of their respective driving experiences, exactly how both the Vantage and the 540C may be considered superior to it on the spec sheet and parked up at the kerb. Because, for a kick-off, super-sports cars have to be super, don’t they? And, in their different ways, both the 540C and the Vantage certainly seem to be exactly that.

They’ve got power and pace covered. The Vantage offers 10% more horsepower than the 911, the 540C 25% more. It won’t surprise you to learn which car is the quickest-accelerating on paper. But on all-important torque-to-weight ratio, it’s actually the Aston at the top of the pile. Even if you’re conservative with your estimate of that car’s true unladen weight (Aston only quotes ‘minimum dry weight with lightweight options’ in its press material), you’d put the car at north of 300lb ft per tonne, while the Porsche offers 280 and the McLaren 275.

The Aston Martin is also ‘super’-desirable, certainly. In a fairly reserved colour and even allowing for aggressive frontal styling that seldom attracts compliments, it’s a dominant presence in a car park that also contains a powder blue 540C and a grey 911. People notice the Vantage first and are drawn to it. That it’s the brand-new model introduction here clearly plays a part in that visibility advantage, but it was telling to me that one particular passer-by who took an interest in all three cars didn’t bat an eyelid when told the Vantage’s £121,000 asking price. “It looks like the money,” he said. Good point.

The Aston Martin is a dominant presence. People notice the Vantage first and are drawn to it

I reckon he would have conceded, if pushed, that the McLaren does too, but the 540C has the mid-engined performance purity and exotic carbonfibre construction as back-up when it comes to justifying its price. Both of those things are pretty ‘super’. It’s interesting that the McLaren’s carbonfibre tub doesn’t achieve a greater weight advantage for the car. It is only 4kg lighter than the 911 according to manufacturer’s claims. That’s certainly not a reliable indicator of how the McLaren’s driving experience will compare to the Porsche’s, though – onto which we’ll come later.

But let’s start with the Aston’s burbling V8 because, in addition to the car’s visual presence, it adds another layer of wow factor. The Vantage sounds superb: naughtier, more menacing and even more characterful than the 911 (which isn’t short on sonic appeal). On the road, I’d say the word ‘stonking’ nicely covers it. And so the Vantage has hot-rod charm to spare, if that weren’t a bit of an insult to the fine job Gaydon has done on the car’s suspension, and yet its engine is still ultimately responsible for the better part of the car’s driver appeal. Opening it up, where you can, is an addictive treat.

The Aston’s V8 is also not at all like – how can I put this – an angry swarm of giant pneumatic robot wasps from the future; not at any speed. It’s now been more than five years since I first heard McLaren’s Ricardo-built turbo V8 engine, and I still can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it sounds like. Giant robot wasps may be the closest I’ve got, for anyone who’s never heard one. It sounds unlike any other V8 you’ll ever hear, and lacks any of the woofling warmth of the Aston’s engine. But then the comparison’s not entirely fair, since the Vantage’s V8 has masses of torque and the richness you’d expect of a front-engined sporting GT – which, in a theme we’ll be developing, is what the Vantage really is. The McLaren’s V8 is shorter on richness, but then it’s got over-square cylinders, a slightly peaky and dramatic power delivery and revs to the far side of 8000rpm. All of which you’d expect of the engine in a mid-engined supercar, which is what the McLaren really is. Both V8s are, in short, very well suited to the cars they’re to be found in and neither’s much like the other.

And where, exactly, does the Porsche’s flat six come up short, then? Well, it makes for pace that’s predictably much less knuckle-whiteningly rapid than the McLaren’s above 5000rpm, and it doesn’t have the mid-range wallop of the Aston’s AMG V8. And yet, somehow, it holds its own. It has better response and a more balanced and linear power delivery than either of the V8s. It hauls with gusto and revs out very nicely indeed; latterly to well beyond 7000rpm, by which time the Aston’s V8 has called time. It is available hooked up to a lovely manual gearbox. And it still sounds great: spiky, busy, smooth and very special.

On handling, the cars are just as different from each other as you might expect of a relatively compact rear-engined sports car, a mid-engined supercar and a front-engined sporting GT that happen to be competing for the same customers’ money.

The McLaren feels the lightest and grips the hardest; it turns the most keenly and is the most exciting when the road and conditions are just so. And just getting into the car whets your appetite for what’s coming. Though the seats are comfy, they’re set low and inboard, being trickier to get into than either the Porsche’s or the Aston’s. Once you’re inside, you feel as if your hips are as close as they could get to dead centre within the car’s footprint, short of requiring a switch to a central driving position. The controls are ideally placed, with a steering wheel sufficiently vertical in its orientation and closely set to your chest as to feel like it’s come straight off a racing prototype. And, lordy, that steering’s good: heavy but so feelsome. Just magical. God bless Woking for sticking with hydraulic assistance.

Lordy, the 540C’s steering is good: heavy but so feelsome. Just magical

Had we conducted this comparison test at least partly on a circuit or in exclusively dry conditions, I dare say it would have been hard to deny the 540C the outright win that the incredible immediacy of its steering responses, the sheer swivelling agility of its chassis and the near-perfect flatness of its body control arguably merit. But this test was carried out on roads – only very fleetingly wide and idyllic ones, but much more often narrow, cambered, bumpy, busy, potholed and wet ones (sound familiar?), where the car’s firmly sprung chassis sometimes struggles for an assured hold on the road, and where its suspension occasionally runs short of the travel necessary to deal well with larger, sharper intrusions.

There’s a chink of light here, in other words, for the more softly sprung, narrower, more bump-compliant and B-road-ready 911 and Vantage to shove their pert noses through. And the amazing thing to me is that – in respect of road driving only, remember – both force their way through it. The Porsche and Aston Martin are cars I would enjoy driving more, at normal road speeds and on a daily basis, than the McLaren, though for different reasons.

While the 540C is fantastic at its best, it wouldn’t enrich everyday miles as much as either of its opponents. And if it were mine, I wouldn’t use it as much as either of the others; not for any journey involving a particularly narrow B-road, a multi-storey car park, a motorway toll booth or an on-street parking bay on a busy street. Don’t get me wrong, I love supercars; I just wouldn’t want to drive one every day.

The Vantage, on the other hand, does ‘enrichment’ very well indeed. But you can tell it’s blessed with a chassis tuned by people who consider it a much more serious driver’s car than its predecessor because it’s not satisfied to play the compliant, laid-back GT all of the time. It’ll do that just fine, with Sport mode dialled into the suspension and powertrain. But, to me, the car is at its best in Sport+, when the closeness and deftness of its ride control and the finely metered accuracy and tactility of its steering are both highly impressive.

The Vantage has cornering balance and poise too, but it feels a bit heavy and it likes a smooth surface. It’s seldom more satisfying than when flowing through fast curves, where you can feel the rear wheels pushing the mass of the front end around like the outboard motor on a powerboat. That it doesn’t deal with tighter, bumpier roads as well is to do with several factors: a rear axle with a lot of lateral stiffness dialled into it, which gets a bit excited when the bumps affect only one side of the car; a body that’s still wide and isn’t brilliantly easy to see out of, even though this is the smallest Aston; and a chassis that works its contact patches hard, but doesn’t communicate an ebbing grip level nearly as clearly as it might.

The Vantage’s active rear differential can make the car throw some truly wild shapes at low speeds, away from T-junctions and around empty roundabouts if you’re feeling like a hooligan, and its antics can be highly amusing. But they’re no substitute for true handling delicacy.

Delicacy is a hard quality to find in a modern sports car, but not impossible. It depends on compromise: just the right amount of power, grip, weight, size, body control and handling response, but not a shred too much of any one of them. Our winner certainly has it.

For everyday, real-world, real road use, the 911 Carrera GTS is the sweet spot – the definitive article – and all the sports car anyone with any sense would ever want. It can be fully absorbing at road speeds in more ways than you can count on your fingers, and without ever being brusque or imposing to drive. Its handling can be playful and adjustable in places where you simply wouldn’t risk either of its opponents. Its engine shows you that linearity, range and response matter so much more than a heroic amount of outright punch you can almost never deploy. And its suspension allows the body to move around just a bit – vertically over bumps, and rolling ever so slightly through corners – but only enough to make its handling feel all the better for it, because you can gauge perfectly how much left the chassis has to give.

The GTS feels right-sized for the road too. Even after so many decades and so many revisions and growth spurts, you just don’t worry about its width like you do a bit in the Aston, and more in the McLaren. You can see out of it, carry stuff in it, would use it for trips that you wouldn’t the others, and would be happy to leave it in places you wouldn’t the others. A 911 GTS will also never trap you at a motorway toll booth at which you’ve pulled up sufficiently close to try to reach the ‘receipt’ button without opening the door, only to find that you can’t reach, after all – and, thanks to your own stupid ambition, you can’t open the door either. Certain supercars do that, obviously. Nowadays, certain ‘super-sports cars’ do it too.

Not all of them, mind. And that’s just one of many reasons why, over a wet couple of days on the road in the British springtime, the new Aston Martin Vantage had the practicality, character, richness and dynamism to see off the challenge of a McLaren 540C. The leap the Aston has taken is quite plainly about so much more than an AMG engine and an aggressive new look, and we’ll investigate it in greater detail in weeks to come.

What the Vantage hasn’t done, on this evidence at least, is change the foolishness of looking beyond one of the greatest versions of what continues to be one of the greatest sports cars in the world: the 911 Carrera GTS. Maybe it isn’t ‘super’ like a Turbo – but a wise man would settle for ‘better’, wouldn’t he? A



Company insiders have already confirmed that a Vantage with the same seven-speed manual gearbox found in the outgoing car will come along in due course, and that a Roadster will be added to the showroom range before too long. History teaches us to expect a V8 S version with a little more power and purpose than the standard 503bhp car too – and given Gaydon’s precedent with special editions, perhaps an even more powerful N-prefixed V8 in due course along the lines of the old N430.

But it’s what Gaydon will do to succeed the vaunted GT8 and GT12 high-performance versions of the car that’ll interest many enthusiasts – and exactly how its AMR and AMR Pro sub-brands will translate onto the car. Using what’s happened to the DB11 range as a guide, it’s likely that the Vantage AMR will be a fairly direct replacement for the old Vantage V12 S, adopting the firm’s twin-turbo V12 engine in a tune lesser than the one in which it will power the recently announced DBS Superleggera, but still likely to make more than 600bhp.

A track-only AMR Pro version could, of course, go even further, but if it did, it would likely be made in extremely low numbers and towards the end of the car’s life.