Location: Ascari Race Circuit, near Ronda, Spain.
V8 Vantage S Coupe, 4.7-litre V8 front mid-mounted with Sportshift II seven-speed automated manual transmission: $275,000 (Manufacturer’s List Price)
V8 Vantage S Roadster: $299,600 (Manufacturer’s List Price)
From the very instant that you fire up the V8 in the Vantage S, you are fully aware that this is something special. It’s the extra crackle at idle that well and truly gives the game away, long before you notice any of the exterior enhancements, and there are plenty.
Light up the ‘S’ (Sport) button and moments later I’m blasting out of the pit lane and banking hard left into corner one at the famed Ascari race circuit under full load. The bark from the tuned-up V8 is more race car than road car. This is the Vantage I must have.
Aston Martin has never before launched a new model on a racetrack. The bespoke English sports car company has always maintained the line that its cars are as much about luxury as they are about performance, and therefore not relevant to the racetrack. Aston Martin Racing builds specific racecars solely for that purpose.
But the Vantage S plays a very different tune to its V8 sibling. This is a proper race bred road car that takes its influence from both the full-blown Vantage GT4 racer and the cracking V12 Vantage.
Apart from the obvious ‘Vantage S’ badge on the rear of the car, the heavy kick on the rear spoiler is an immediate give away to this more serious Vantage. The same applies to the lower front bumper and the authentic carbon fibre splitter. Apart from being cosmetically more aggressive, there is also some downforce benefit at high speed.
The car looks wider too, with more pronounced side sills similar to the GT4 car, while the Vantage S also runs wider rear wheels (10.0J x 19”) and rubber for increased traction due to the increased torque.
Aston’s engineers have extracted slightly more power and torque from the V8 to 321kW and 490Nm respectively, but the Vantage S is about a total integrated performance package that includes larger brakes, enhanced aerodynamics, and a bespoke seven-speed automated manual transmission for faster shifts and less weight.
Turin-based transaxle manufacturer Graziano, along with input from Aston Martin’s development team, developed the new gearbox specifically for the Vantage S from the ground up.
The brief was that it had to be the prefect match for a road-going sports car, but would also provide owners with a more intense driving experience than they would otherwise get behind the wheel of the V8 Vantage, with the standard Sportshift box.
After my first two sighting laps, I can assure you that the shifts are shaper and noticeably quicker. Mind you, they’re not as quick as any of the dual-clutch transmissions I have driven with recently, but then, this unit is up to 50kg lighter than an equivalent multi-clutch system, so there are pros and cons to both systems.
That said, I’ve got the Vantage S flat-out down the back straight and the upshifts are even quicker as the speedo nudges 194km/h before I tap the paddles back to third for the next series of corners.
The paddle shifters are crafted in super-light magnesium and are column-mounted so you know precisely where they are at all times, no matter what position the steering wheel is in. The Vantage S steering wheel, like all Aston tillers, is small in diameter and wonderfully tactile for that perfect grip. Buyers can option an Alcantara trimmed wheel, which although looks every bit the business, can be rather hard on the hands and better suited for those wearing racing gloves.
The first six ratios are closely spaced to take full advantage of extra wide torque curve of the Vantage S. Nearly 80 precent of those 490Nm can be exploited from just 1500rpm, making quick exits out of corners a done deal.
Several more laps later, and I’m impressed with the speed of the downshifts into the tighter corners. That is, provided you get on the brakes hard and wipe off the revs, otherwise the transmission won’t shift on your command due to the revs being too high for the lower gear ratio. While I can’t tell you what the actual shift times between gear ratios are, I can tell you that in ‘Sport’ mode, there is a decrease of 60 milliseconds either using manual or auto drive.
It’s not like you’ve got a choice either; the Vantage S comes in Sportshift II only, and frankly, you wouldn’t have it any other way.
With many of the world’s best sports car marques only offering multi clutch or automated manual systems these days, it would seem that the traditional six-speed manual has been at last relegated to a museum.
It’s very quick through the corners too. Push hard, and the feedback is “push harder, the chassis can handle it”. Apart from the omission of the regulation safety gear, and the addition of the usual suite of luxury kit that buyers expect these days, the Vantage S is halfway between a stock V8 Vantage and the class-winning GT4 endurance racer.
Ascari is a challenging circuit. In all, 5.4 kilometres with 26 corners: 13 rights and 13 left. It will expose any weaknesses or limitations on a road-going car, and also requires drivers to do more than a few laps to remember the correct line through them all.
Once into the swing of things and after 10 punishing laps, I can’t help praise the grip from these bespoke Bridgestone Potenza RE050 road tyres. They’re still as good as new and perform more like a set of quality semi-slicks than any deep-tread road tyre. Considering the punishment that has been metered out to this rubber over the past 30 minutes, the lack of wear and level of grip is extraordinary.
It’s not just the grip levels that will amaze you. It simply doesn’t matter how sharp you turn in, the Vantage S refuses even the slightest body roll. This allows you to dial in even more speed on the exit. Not only that, as a driver in the Vantage S, you never really have to work all that hard, even when under full load.
If you thought the V8 Vantage had one of the best steering set-ups for performance style driving, you’d be spot on. That’s using a steering rack ratio of 17:1. The Vantage S, however, is in another league, with a race car-like 15:1 rack ratio, and the difference is phenomenal. Turn-in is razor sharp, with minimal steering lock required in most instances. This inspires huge confidence for those in the driver’s seat.
Despite the various weight saving measures employed, the Vantage S still weighs in at 1610 kilograms, but you won’t notice it. I seriously doubt there is any other car in this luxury class that performs as well as this car on track that doesn’t have a price tag north of $400,000.
What stands out most, even after just a few laps, is the car’s outstanding agility and rigidity achieved with its bonded aluminium chassis and a near-perfect weight balance of 49:51 front to rear.
Not only that, the overall ride quality is far more compliant than I expected it to be, especially for what is such a capable car on track. On the road, the Vantage S is just as good. That same perfect mix of sublime handling and compliant ride qualities are also evident off the track.
I only had time for a quick 40km punt in the Vantage S Roadster, but by the time I was done, I was thinking that the on-road performance is so close to the Coupe that the hardest decision would be Coupe or Roadster?
Lap after lap, the Vantage S begs to be pushed harder. Even in the tighter sections of the track, it urges even more commitment from the driver, which you undertake without any hesitation whatsoever.
There are a couple of very quick left-right-left sections on Ascari, and let me assure you that the Vantage S will out-drive you and your reflexes, no matter how quick they might be.
Great stoppers are an essential bit of kit on a car like the Vantage S, and Aston’s engineers don’t disappoint. From the moment I saw the massive 380mm slotted rotors, front and rear, I knew that the Vantage S was going to be the real deal.
Without grooved discs, there is simply too much heat build-up and nowhere for that heat to go, at least in a track environment. By lap 10, after drilling the brake pedal to the firewall repeatedly, there was some slight fade. That’s entirely expected of any road car equipped with steel brakes, but what was surprising was how quickly those brakes cooled to a useful operating temperature again.
For a road going sports car, Aston Martin has provided has provided the Vantage S with what is close enough to a race-style brake set-up that simply won’t fade on the road, period.
With such a driver-focused car as the Vantage S, surely is it’s easy to forget that this is also very much a bespoke luxury ride when away from the track.
Everywhere you look inside this car is beautiful black leather of the highest quality grain, with a magnificent contrasting Cobalt Blue hand stitch which looks as though it will outlast my time on this Earth.
The sports leather seats, again with contrasting colour inserts are a work of art and are remarkable in their ability to hold you bolt upright in the tightest of corners. At the same time they offer a sumptuous seat.
The steering wheel is dressed in the same matching contrast as the upholstery and dashboard, while the shift paddles are a mix of magnesium and leather.
Even the aluminium braces that intrude into the storage area behind the front seats look to be hand-polished.
From a performance perspective, it gets to a point where you feel the Vantage S chassis could handle more power, more speed, and even less weight, given how well it performs on a challenging circuit such as Ascari. It’s a question I posed to both Dr Ulrich Bez and Marek Reichmann, and the answer I got was ‘all in good time’, or words to that effect. It’s a good thing when the CEO and the design director of a car company like Aston Martin like to go racing in the company car.
I can’t wait to see what they come up with. But until then, I’ll take my V8 Vantage S in Cobalt Blue, please.