On the first working day of 2018, a press release landed at Autocar HQ to gladden the heart of anyone who has watched the challenging and often financially perilous history of Aston Martin.In the release, the Gaydon firm announced that 2017 had been its busiest and strongest calendar year for unit sales in almost a decade.
Aston had sold more than 5000 cars for the first time since 2008 and was on course to declare a phenomenon that so few of the company’s proprietors have consistently known: profitability. Aston’s punishing tide of aggregated losses year after year had finally turned.Now consider that happened while the most successful and biggest-selling individual model in Aston’s history, the V8 Vantage, was in effect in run-out. Has the time finally come to lay to rest that infamous quip of 1980s chairman Victor Gauntlett, that “the only way to make a small fortune out of Aston Martin is to start with a large one”?
The subject of this week’s road test, the all-new Vantage, should offer an answer.
How much more quickly can Aston’s fortunes be transformed than is currently happening, you might wonder. Is this the car to deliver lasting stability for its maker as well as short-term success? And if it really is to be the bedrock on which that grand and transformative ‘Second Century Plan’ is built, is it good enough to withstand the pressure?
The new Vantage, which is set to remain Aston’s entry-level model for the foreseeable future, certainly seems to have been forged in the spirit of ambition. Making the switch from an atmospheric V8 engine to a significantly more powerful and much more torque-rich turbocharged V8 from strategic partner Mercedes-AMG, it adopts Aston’s new bonded aluminium platform and has the most purposeful mechanical specification of any Vantage to date.It’s plainly intended to take an even greater chunk of the global super-sports car market than its predecessor managed, despite a price hike that, in the UK at least, makes it 20% more expensive than the car it replaces. In which case, we’d better find out how it might achieve it.
Aston uses words such as “aggressive” and “predatory” to describe the appearance of its new 4.5m-long two-seat coupé — and it overwhelmingly prefers to refer to it as a sports car rather than any kind of front-engined sporting GT.
The fact is, of course, that the new Vantage retains the long bonnet, front-mounted engine, cabin-rear silhouette and driven rear wheels that, most would agree, continue to define modern GT coupés, but its styling is a marked departure from that of the almost delicately pretty V8 Vantage that preceded it.
The new car’s large and imposing front grille typifies a design that seems to suggest this car’s creators don’t much care whether you think it’s particularly pretty. Rather, they probably do care that you notice when you’re in the new Vantage’s presence and, moreover, that you can tell that it means serious business.
The Vantage is 80mm longer, almost 80mm wider (with its door mirrors folded) and very slightly taller than the car it replaces, and its wheelbase has grown by more than 100mm. It’s built on a bonded aluminium superstructure related to the one you’ll find under a DB11 but made of 70% new metalwork, making for a car that is 30% more rigid than the DB11.
The Vantage also carries its 503bhp 4.0-litre V8 engine almost entirely behind its front axle line and uses a propeller shaft and rear-mounted transaxle eight-speed automatic gearbox, both of which distinguish it from its bigger sibling. It has a weight distribution claimed by Aston to be perfect at 50/50 front to rear. We measured it, on MIRA’s weighbridge, at 49/51.
Perhaps more telling, we also measured our test car’s overall mass at 1720kg. Aston’s claim is that, with every weight-saving option selected, the car’s dry weight may be as low as 1530kg. Even so, considering it’s competing against one or two rivals that weigh little more than 1400kg in running order, weight plainly has the potential to be a handicap for this car. We’ll see if it turns out that way.
Suspension is via double wishbones at the front wheels and a multi-link configuration at the rear that differs from what you’ll find on a DB11 primarily by its rigid mountings. Steel coil springs and Skyhook adaptive dampers cradle the car’s mass and, in a first for any Aston, a clutch-based active torque-vectoring e-diff distributes driving torque between the car’s rear wheels.
You feel deeply rooted in the driving experience you’re about to have when you slide on board the new Vantage.
You felt as though you were perched on top of the last Vantage at the wheel but you nestle low and snug in the new one, with a steering wheel homing in towards your chest and a high shoulder line surrounding you.
Visibility takes a hit as a result. The Vantage’s scuttle can seem high, and its glasshouse slim and slightly obstructive compared with some rivals. The driving environment is a rich, luxurious and enticing one, though.
It’s also an interior that more discreetly integrates what switchgear and cabin architecture is sourced from the Daimler parts supply network than the DB11 manages, not least because it contains so much switchgear that we haven’t seen anywhere before.
Whereas the DB11’s heating and ventilation systems are controlled on a sleek touch-sensitive black panel on the car’s centre stack, the Vantage has an array of physical knobs and buttons presented in close proximity to the glass ‘engine start’ and transmission control buttons, the latter being set in an arrowhead shape at a more accessible level on the centre console than is the Aston-typical shoulder-level location.
Below, there are a couple of lines of quick-fire shortcut buttons for the infotainment system and easily accessible switches for the parking sensors, hazard warning lights, engine stop/start system and dynamic stability control. You needn’t go rooting around in infotainment sub-menus to manage the systems you’re likely to want most commonly to turn on or off. Thumbs up.
The Vantage’s 8.0in infotainment system is instantly recognisable as Daimler componentry — and those who know Mercedes cars well will also know that it’s not the best equipment the German maker offers. Merc’s bigger cars have later-generation systems with screens of up to 12.3in.
Still, it serves the Vantage pretty well. It isn’t a touchscreen, so you operate it with the touchpad for fingertip gesture (a cost option), a rotary input device and voice command; and because the voice recognition software is Mercedes tech, it works well.
You get navigation, a AM/FM/DAB radio tuner and Bluetooth media streaming as standard. Our test car had Aston’s standard-fit audio system, which sounded pretty powerful and clear, but a more powerful premium system is available at extra cost.
Storage is in plentiful supply in the shape of shelf-like interior door pockets, a good-sized armrest cubby and a shallow shelf behind the seats that can accommodate smaller bags and boxes.
The boot is easily accessed by a liftback-style hatch, is wide enough for a small set of golf clubs and can be expanded longways for larger cargo. All of which makes the Vantage one of the super-sports car class’s more usable constituents.
Much as the uninformed may be tempted towards faintly jingoistic comments about the idea of a sports car as British as an Aston using a German engine, we need hardly acknowledge here that the firm has been fitting V12s built in Cologne to the better part of its model range for nearly two decades now.
But does the Vantage’s Mercedes-AMG V8 have the richness, character and strength Gaydon is looking for to turn the cheapest Aston into a car that could persuade someone out of an Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo or McLaren 540C?
The cars at the very quickest end of the Vantage’s competitor set now offer outright acceleration that wouldn’t shame a modern supercar. Several are capable of hitting 60mph from rest in quite a lot less than 3.5 seconds, 100mph in around seven seconds and a standing quarter mile in little more than 11 seconds.
And although the Vantage gets a lot nearer to those competitive benchmarks than its predecessor would have, the fact that it missed all three by fairly significant margins on a dry test day is your first clue that it’s offering a particular compromise compared with its quickest rivals; a touch less outright pace traded for a touch more combustive character and drama, and an ability to enrich everyday miles and speeds in a way that its opponents can’t.
Which isn’t intended to suggest that this car doesn’t feel very fast in subjective terms. The torque of that turbo V8 shoulders the car’s mass easily, so the Vantage feels instantly and accessibly fast in a way the old V8 Vantage never did. The car needs less than five seconds to get from 30mph to 70mph in fourth gear and it’s quicker in that respect than the last Mercedes-AMG GT S we tested (2015), a current R8 V10 Plus and a 911 Turbo S (2013).
The Vantage’s engine is loud but sounds predictably great in all sorts of dimensions; epic at high revs, operatic through the mid-range and soulful and interesting at low speeds under load. It suits a modern sporting GT car almost perfectly.
The Vantage’s gearbox mixes smoothness with responsiveness in a way that’s equally befitting of a daily driven sports car. In D, it’s rarely out of step with your intentions and keeps up with your input very well, even during full-blooded track driving.
The iron brakes, meanwhile, have strong outright stopping power and work through a well-metered, progressive pedal, resisting fade well.
Ride and handling
Aston’s decision to make the new Vantage a wider, meaner and more purposeful-looking sports car also makes it physically wider on the road — and it feels like it to drive.
You’re aware that there’s plenty of bulk to keep from straying across the white lines of a typical British B-road, and plenty of mass for the suspension to manage, too.
The steering is, thankfully, every bit the precise, predictable, weighty and feelsome instrument it needs to be to guide the car with real accuracy. Although this is a much firmer-sprung car than we’re used to from Aston, it’s still a great, soulful, unwearying tourer over distance.
Mostly, it’s the lateral stiffness of the car’s rear axle that sets it apart from its forebear’s dynamic mould. That makes for a little bit of fidget and head toss over uneven Tarmac but is also responsible for the first-rate handling precision and agility, comparable with that of its most agile opponents.
Even though you feel the car’s mass in the slightly brusque way, it deflects over bigger lumps and bumps, and the suspension’s ability to keep close vertical control of the body seems particularly sophisticated when you’re using Sport+ mode on the Skyhook dampers.
There’s very little hint of excess mass evident from the flatness and immediacy with which the Vantage corners, or the ability of the rear axle to follow quickly and neatly in the wheel tracks of the front when you want it to. Not that you will always want it to.
The Vantage offers Sport, Sport+ and Track modes for both its powertrain and suspension, and you’ll likely enjoy dabbling with Sport+ and Track on a circuit; as well as with the TrackDSC and ‘off’ settings for the stability control.
Track mode shows how great a dynamic departure this car is from its immediate forebears, because although the more sporting Astons have long been ready to indulge in big, smokey slides, they’ve never had the first-order grip or handling precision of the new Vantage, or its ability to carry speed so purposefully.
The sheer stability of the rear axle on turn-in can be breathtakingly good. In Sport+, your options are expanded to include a very lurid cornering style, should you want one.
Even here, though, the Vantage isn’t willing to be ‘backed in’ to oversteer on a trailing throttle and, once enticed to slide with power, much prefers a lot of drift angle to a little of it.
In characterising the effect of that active locking differential on the Vantage’s handling, it’s remarkable how stable and well tied down it can make the car’s driven axle when you’re carrying lots of speed on a circuit and also how mobile it can make it when you’re in a bullish mood on the road.
In the latter respect, the Vantage can find very strong traction and adopt an indulgent but controlled slew of attitude, if you fire it keenly away from T-junctions or tighter bends, and doing so is particularly good fun.
At other times and at bigger speeds, the sheer grip level and handling composure make the Vantage perhaps a tiny bit less effusive and involving as a road car than the very best rivals.
In general, though, the car’s evident, ever-present dynamism and its capacity to entertain are highly compelling.
MPG and running costs
So, does the new Vantage merit a £20k premium over the outgoing V8 one?
Taking into account its burbling muscle car character, its fairly big-hitting performance and its remarkably purposeful, multifaceted handling, the answer’s not difficult to arrive at.
Moreover, it looks every bit like a £120,000 car as well as driving like one and doesn’t want one iota for desirability or exotic sense of occasion.
As for how much of that original value it’s likely to retain, there’s good news for Vantage customers. Value expert CAP currently forecasts it will outperform the residuals of both a 911 Turbo and an R8 V10.
It’s unlikely that Vantage owners will expect any different, but this car isn’t one to delight you with its unexpectedly good touring economy; our testing suggests you’ll do well to record a true 25mpg on a long run. Still, a 73-litre tank at least helps put a few extra miles between fills.
The Vantage’s rivals may have more or less a common price, but they’re designed to be used in subtly different ways and to appeal quite differently. But the Vantage brings real breadth to the super-sports car class and covers a lot of territory.
It’s a car you could drive every day if you chose to, and is probably more easily, comfortably and widely than anything with a mid-mounted engine. It can perform at close to supercar pace and now has fully formed track handling credentials, but it is also more characterful and fun at everyday speeds than plenty of its opponents. It has the kerbside desirability, interior richness and sense of occasion to rank as a genuinely exotic luxury product, too.
That’s a pretty complete array of qualities for any £120,000 sports car. We regret a little bit that Aston’s decision to give the car a more impactful look has made it less visually alluring (to most testers’ eyes) than its predecessor, as well as less compact and perhaps less well suited to some UK roads.
Still, we can’t think of another super-sports car that would make you smile more often, or for quite so many reasons.