For once, I’m glad that the English weather is delivering as anticipated. Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire is covered with a chill grayness, what his Bardness once described as “barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold,” and the roads are damp and greasy. This is the perfect location to answer some of the more significant questions we have about the new Aston Martin Vantage ahead of its formal launch later this year.
As you’d expect from James sometimes-favourite car company, the proceedings are very cloak and dagger. Although we’ve already seen what the finished Vantage looks like and experienced it from the passenger seat in frozen Sweden, our first drive is in a prototype that wears a deliberately ugly yellow-and-black disguise and carries no Aston Martin branding, although it does have the logo of tire-supplier Pirelli writ large on its doors. I’m also accompanied by Matt Becker, Aston’s chief vehicle attributes engineer and a man who knows more about tuning sports cars than practically anyone else on the planet—his previous gig was as Lotus’s handling boss.
This definitely isn’t a test of anything but the driving experience. External styling is effectively hidden by the psychedelic zebra wrap, and the interior bears the scars of a life lived hard; development engineers often seem to regard testing the durability of trim and fittings as part of the job. Compared to the bigger DB11, the seating position feels lower, and although there is a good range of adjustment, being positioned closer to the windshield means the fat A-pillar eats up more front-quarter visibility. Both cars share the same steering wheel and three-part digital instrument cluster, but the Vantage’s switchgear and gear-selection buttons are clustered lower on the center console.
From the moment the engine starts, it’s clear the Vantage is a different beast. It shares the DB11’s AMG-sourced twin-turbo 4.0-litre V-8—the DB11 is also available with a twin-turbo V-12—but gets a much darker soundtrack. Our test car was exhaling through what will be an optional sport exhaust, but even leaving Aston’s new Wellesbourne engineering center at a respectful pace it sounded both louder and angrier than anything else fitted with this engine, aside from a Mercedes-AMG GT R, that is. Becker says the exhaust note has been tuned to give more higher frequencies, as they are better suited to the character of the car; there are some impressively loud pops and bangs when lifting off the throttle, too.
The prototype’s ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox will be the only transmission choice at launch, although a seven-speed manual will follow. The transaxle is rear mounted to help optimize the Vantage’s weight distribution—quoted as 50:50 front to rear—but powers the rear wheels through an advanced electronically controlled limited-slip differential, something the DB11 doesn’t get in either eight- or 12-cylinder form.
A More Energetic Drive
Even at low speeds the Vantage feels clearly different from the DB11. While the steering rack and ratio are identical, the Vantage’s wheelbase is four inches shorter, making the front end noticeably more responsive. The suspension feels firmer, too—the Vantage has punchier chassis modes, with the steering-wheel-mounted control cycling among Sport, Sport Plus, and Track, while the DB11 has GT, Sport, and Sport Plus. Becker says the rear suspension subframe is rigidly mounted to the bonded-aluminum body, creating a stiffer (but louder) structure than the DB11’s bushing-isolated subframe. Sport mode still feels acceptably compliant over some of the rough-hewn road surfaces we take toward the Fosse Way.
As well as being one of the oldest roads in Europe, originally built by the Roman Empire to make it easier to pacify rebellious Celts and Angles nearly 2000 years ago, the Fosse Way is a favorite of the U.K.’s chassis engineers thanks to its low traffic levels, well-sighted straits, tricky cambers, and often medieval surfaces. Besides various Astons, we see several disguised prototypes from Jaguar Land Rover’s nearby Gaydon engineering base being hustled along.
It’s no surprise that the Vantage is quick. The AMG V-8 has bountiful low-down torque, but like many a true thoroughbred, it’s happiest when being rapped by the whip, pulling increasingly strongly as it closes in on the 7000-rpm redline. As we noted with the DB11 V-8, the marriage between the engine and the ZF auto—which AMG doesn’t use in its own models—is a particularly happy one, delivering shifts that feel subjectively as quick as those of a dual-clutch automatic in the powertrain more aggressive modes. Becker admits that in Track mode upshifts are actually slowed fractionally over Sport Plus to give a bigger torque bump and a louder exhaust crack. The 295/35R-20 rear tires find plentiful grip in the slippery conditions, and the chassis shrugs off surface imperfections.
So far, so Aston, but turning onto smaller and tighter roads reveals what the Vantage is really good at. The front end stays faithful and communicative as speed increases, and now the diff at the back also gets a chance to show how clever it is. Becker says that it can produce up to 1845 lb-ft of locking force almost instantly, much more than a conventional mechanical limited-slip differential. This helps to both maximize grip and to vector torque across the rear axle. The result is outstanding traction in the greasy conditions yet without the low-speed understeer that aggressive LSDs often engender. It feels nimble and secure but also throttle steerable to an impressive degree, even with the stability control switched fully on—and it’s rowdy without being scary with it switched off. As such, the new Vantage is a car capable of doing seemingly contradictory things. That the manual-gearbox version will have a less advanced mechanical differential is likely to limit its appeal even further than the prejudice that buyers seem to have against cars with clutch pedals.
Other impressions are necessarily fleeting; in assessment terms this is a hurried cup of tea rather than a full English breakfast. The Vantage’s brake pedal has a nice firm weight but little travel, retardation being down to pressure rather than movement. Becker says that the Porsche 911 GT3 was the inspiration for the pedal feel. The seats feel comfortable after an hour behind the wheel, although the cockpit is starting to feel tight rather than cozy by the time we get back to Wellesbourne.