When it comes to career highlights, it doesn’t get much better than canyon carving above California’s Palm Springs in a spanking new Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Roadster.
It’s the combination of drop-dead looks, brute power, a brilliant chassis and one of the most intoxicating exhaust notes on the planet that make driving this high-powered Vantage soft-top a genuine bucket-list contender.
It’s 4:00am, there’s almost no traffic and the stars are out in Southern California for the start of what should be an epic day of high-powered, open-air motoring in the desert.
The superbly crafted canvas top is closed for now, but give it about ninety minutes and that’s the last we’ll see of any kind of roof today.
Wearing a price tag of $418,425 plus on-road costs, the V12 Roadster represents the very pinnacle of the Aston Martin Vantage range, priced well above its $389,300 coupe sibling.
It’s big money for a relatively small package.
Then again, rivals like the Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet will set you back a cool $466,900 and the Ferrari 458 Spider is priced at a stratospheric $590,000 – both cars loaded with the very latest technology.
On the other hand, Aston Martin has had its fair share of financial woes over the years, so their cars have generally lagged behind offerings from Porsche and Ferrari in the technology stakes.
That hasn’t really changed, despite the herculean efforts of former CEO, Dr Ulrich Bez, who is credited with bringing the company back from the brink during his 13-year reign at the helm of the bespoke British sports car manufacturer.
Apart from the now dated (but beautifully finished) interior, the V12 Vantage S Roadster has to make do with a less-than-ideal seven-speed automated manual transmission from Italian manufacturer, Graziano.
It’s fine – in fact it’s sonorously rewarding when you’ve got the throttle pinned to the firewall and you’re banging through the gears like there’s no tomorrow. But hit some slow moving traffic or get trapped on LA’s gridlocked freeways and the gearbox becomes indecisive, nervous, and downright annoying.
At the very least, this highly engaging automobile deserves the more polished ZF eight-speed box out of the Vanquish, though my wish is for a faster-shifting dual-clutch transmission – a much better match for the smooth-spinning V12.
In other sports cars, this underwhelming piece of technology might be a genuine deal-breaker, but not in the Aston. There’s way too much else to like, not the least of which is its supersize 6.0-litre (technically, its a 5.9-litre) engine.
Again, we can thank Bez for wanting to shoehorn a potent V12 into the brand’s smallest model. After all, he was an experienced GT endurance racer who thought nothing of jumping in the company car to go racing.
And what an engine it is. It makes 421kW of power and sends 620Nm of torque to the rear wheels. There’s 510Nm on tap from just 1000 revs, so when you punch it in any gear, you’ll be heading towards the horizon at a truly epic pace.
With enough clear road and the appropriate legal clearance, the V12 Vantage S Roadster will do 323km/h and hit 100km/h in 4.1 seconds from a standing start. Granted, it’s not the quickest sports car off the line, but it is one of the most rewarding to drive, especially in these fast-paced bends above Palm Springs.
But all this isn’t even the half of it, at least not for me. With Astons, it’s never been about outright pace, it’s more about the total ownership experience and the feeling you get from the pilot’s seat.
Few would argue that this is one of the most gorgeous drop tops on the planet – roof up, or down. Its combination of beautifully sculptured lines and masculine stance is simply majestic, and in my opinion, it has few - if any - peers.
As you’d expect with a hardcore Aston Martin, the driving position is spot on. You sit low and close to the rear wheels, with that big, multi-vented bonnet extending out in front of you.
The complete absence of any forced induction also means the V12 Vantage S Roadster puts its power down in a more measured way than some of its rivals, though mid-range punch can be equally colossal and just as savage.
There’s nothing more rewarding than charging towards a tight canyon bend and pulling on the carbonfibre downshift paddle for what is one of the most scintillating throttle blips in the business, before getting back on the throttle for a repeat performance.
Naturally, you’ll want to choose manual mode in either the Sport or Track setting, and roof-down status is mandatory, if you want that exhaust note delivered in full 360-degree surround sound at 7000rpm. It’s also turbulence-free and allows for conversation at any legal speed.
In fact, on any road and at any speed, the V12 Vantage S Roadster feels rock solid and astonishingly agile, despite tipping the scales at 1745 kilograms. It certainly hides its weight well thanks to a brilliant chassis that provides as much driver feedback as you could ever want for.
You’ll also be hard pressed to feel any discernable difference between this and its V12 Vantage Coupe sibling, as far as torsional rigidity goes. Even with the hood down, there is no ill affect on the chassis, at least on these relatively smooth roads.
That said, with the suspension set in the Normal setting, the ride is generally firm, but it’s not uncomfortable. In fact, it’s exactly what I was expecting, given its hunkered-down feel from behind the wheel.
The Servotronic power-assisted steering is pinpoint accurate with a cat-like response for rapid changes of direction and minute mid-corner adjustments, when needed. Depending on what drive mode you’re in, the weighting is either more or less, but perfect in Sport mode for more serious punting.
With huge cornering speeds on offer, you want big braking performance and the V12 Vantage delivers it in spades. With massive carbon ceramic discs and six-pot calipers up front (four down back) it doesn’t seem to matter what speed you’re doing, the car will stop – very, very quickly.
Best of all, it’s fade free, even when hammering from corner to corner, for hours on end.
Despite the Vantage approaching it’s tenth birthday, the V12 S Roadster certainly doesn’t want for luxury. Supremely comfortable sports seats upholstered in the softest leather, beautiful glass switchgear and the signature crystal key in the middle of it all, make this a very special place to be.
Our test car had too many options to list, but the highlights are the sensational Bang and Olufsen audio system that’s capable of delivering concert hall clarity at full tilt, as well as the aforementioned, handcrafted carbonfibre paddleshifters. Just these two add $20,000 to the price, but if you’re spending nearly 420-grand on a car, you may not flinch.
There are faster and more agile cars for the money, but none can deliver such a stunningly sporty yet classy open-top experience as the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Roadster.
But that doesn’t mean this future classic wouldn’t benefit from a more contemporary interior and a better-suited transmission – let’s hope Aston can benefit from its Mercedes-Benz AMG stakeholder and produce the perfect Vantage.