There are two very different ways you might approach reviewing a halo car. In this case, a re-imagined super sports car from a prestigious marque boasting one of the richest heritages in the game.
For the all-new Aston Martin Vantage's international launch last year, Option A put resident brand fan-boi and Vantage owner Alborz Fallah (plus Anthony Crawford in tow for double measure) to the task, given he knows a thing or three about maker and model.
“Better than a Porsche 911,” he wrote in review.
For the new Vantage's visit through the CarAdvice garage, we exercised a quite different Option B: me, armed with a fair bit of experience with the 911s, the Audi R8s and the Mercedes-AMG GTs the Vantage competes with, though I could count the times I’ve driven Gaydon’s machinery, literally, on two fingers.
To date, I've driven one older Vantage and a Rapide, I think… And ‘I think’ reveals how much, or perhaps how little, Aston Martin resonates with me. As a review strategy, I'm tasked with a counterpoint opinion.
No, no, no, don’t get the wrong impression. I don’t dislike Aston Martin at all. We’ve simply crossed paths very infrequently. You say 'ignorance' while I say 'ambivalence', but the fact is you could line up the marque’s range from any recent era before me, and I could tell you some models have names starting with ‘V’ and others with ‘DB’, but I honestly couldn’t tell you which is which.
So with as little expectation and prejudice as I could muster, I climbed into what’s clearly, even for me, a distinctively different Vantage. By the time I clambered out of it, 250km later, I would concur with most of Alborz’s largely glowing appraisal from Portugal. All except the 911 bit.
It’s really nothing like a 911, be it the Carrera S version the new Vantage was apparently benchmarked against or otherwise. Nor is it really that much like the Mercedes-AMG GT two-door coupe – base, S, R, it doesn’t matter – with which the $300K Aston shares more than a few bits of oily DNA. Instead, it’s a bit of a conceptual middle ground: an experience somewhere between the Stuttgart steed’s Zen-like driving synergy and the Affalterbach beast's more fiery and unhinged nature. But it's a proper alternative with an inimitable character all its own.
Styling, design, engineering – even I can see that the new version breaks the traditional Vantage mould inside and out. From 20 paces, the old coupe was suave and handsome, like Sean Connery’s Bond in a tuxedo with a shaken martini in hand. The new one’s more a pec’-flexing Daniel Craig Bond after a brawl with henchmen from Spectre. In fact, web lore claims this new Vantage apes the fictional DB10 concept car from that movie.
Arresting from some angles (in profile) yet downright awkward from others (that roof taper in three-quarter view), its drama won't be to all buyer tastes. Particularly up front, where the impossibly broad snout yells purpose, yet those squinty headlights appear an afterthought. It's more convincing and striking, Alborz assures, in bold body colours rather than the ‘almost black’ dark mica blue of our tester. Its handmade form, too, doesn’t stand up all that well to close scrutiny, if mostly for its inconsistent shut lines.
The doors swing outwards in a shallow upwards arc – partly for showmanship, partly necessity of form – and you nestle down into the ornately stylised buckets that match the ornately stylised door trims, complete with backwards door releases and novel 'strap' handles. It’s extroverted in purpose, what with its racecar-like ‘square’ steering wheel, jetfighter-esque central stack with oh-so-supercar transmission selector buttons, and strange seat adjustment controls located by your knee on the trans tunnel.
It’s a functional and purposeful workstation for the business of driving fast; its ambience leaning harder into supercar than grand tourer territory. Much like R8s and McLarens, if quite unlike a 911, the Vantage lacks a bit of ergonomic resolve as the wheel could do with more vertical adjustment, and it’s a fiddly process to tune up the stiffly padded, not-quite-deeply-bolstered-enough seats for genuine long-haul comfort.
But settle in and you quickly acclimatise to those funky driver controls, the crystal-clear driver's instrumentation is excellent, and it does a decent job of masking the old-Benz parts-bin integration in conspicuous (infotainment and rotary controller) and less obvious (indicator and cruise-control stalks) areas. And there’s ample ‘feel-goodness’ in real metal details and satin raw carbon-fibre inserts to disguise the impracticalities: pitiful stowage, some ill-placed controls, and the apparent lack of a single USB port anywhere in sight…
There’s also no exhaust mode button; a minor oversight you’d think, until you get down to business and crank 4.0 litres of AMG-bred bi-turbocharged bent-eight goodness into life and think, well, it sounds good but not that good. And that's in default Sport drive mode – there's no Comfort here – before climbing to hardcore Sport+ and Track settings.
Clever and extremely handy, though, is that all three are made available for powertrain and suspension separately via right and left buttons respectively on the steering wheel. There’s some of that signature AMG ‘gargle’ to the soundtrack, it’s just muted and lacking gusto, volume and bit of crackle, and the lack of a louder exhaust mode misses a trick on the machine that otherwise drips so much mojo.
Exiting CarAdvice HQ and aimed for the hills, it’s surprisingly placid to drive around town, such is the low-speed friendliness of the torque and toey V8 paired with, somewhat surprisingly, a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transaxle (interestingly, rather than the seven-speed dual-clutch design AMG uses in its GT range). This ‘M177’-spec engine, as used for AMG’s C63/E63, produces an identical 375kW to the current C63 S, if with an extra 15 Newton metres, and provides effortless roll-on thrust for a device tipping the scales at a little over a tonne and a half.
There's nothing overly prickly about the powertrain. I sample Track, just to see, which reveals itself as a mode far too hairy and visceral for realistic street use. Yet thus armed, the engine seems to swell outputs that the transmission meters out to the 295mm Pirellis without attempting to rip them violently from their rims. It's easy to harness the bi-turbo V8's energy, making its maker's 3.6-second triple-figure sprint claim seem realistic.
But for the lion’s share of balanced driving, Sport is perfectly placid, flexible and useable enough, even in the thick of stop-start traffic. That said, there’s ample ‘abrasion’ in the experience, for good and bad, when tooling around the burbs to remind you that this is no boulevard cruiser at heart. It is quite thirsty, too, hovering around the 15–18L mark per hundred around town, with a best of eight or nine for light-throttle highway work.
The suspension is firmly set – just pliant enough for daily friendliness, but with plenty of transmitted patter from the road surface and a sharp jolt if you drop one of its fat Pirellis into a shallow pothole. The brakes are touchy and grabby and want for some low-speed progression. And while forward vision is decent bar the tree-trunk-sized A-pillars, the rear view is obscured enough to cause you to double-take every eyeshot in the wing mirrors.
What’s with the parking sensors? Around town they yelp incessantly in traffic like some overexcited pooch, seemingly triggered off by everything – including the road itself – and nothing all at once. They’re easy to switch off, but with all the low-slung aero addenda hanging off either end of the car, you really don’t want to forget turning them back on when it’s time to park. No problem, drive faster, right? Sure, but I’d wager you’d never find such poor calibration in a 911…
Find some decent curves well away from prying eyes and ears, and driving rewards come thicker and thicker the faster you push. True signs of proper super sports car soul and capabilities that feel, in isolation, up to the fight with any of its key rivals. You really want your pulse to rise in unison with pace and RPM, and the new Vantage certainly elevates all and sundry beyond the levels the old car dared.
By our own accounts, the magnitude of handling talent this Vantage produces when wrung out on-track – including its impressive ability to hold powerslides at the driver’s whim – is something to behold. But push on with Sport+ engaged, and the Vantage really starts to come on song, sonically and dynamically, beyond a threshold that’ll increasingly risk damage to your licence and wallet.
Chasing tighter corners to drop the risk and road speed, it’s impossible not to marvel at the humongous road-holding grip those Pirellis drill into the hot mix. And that’s with the default Sport suspension mode opted for, with two harder-core calibrations in hand.
The more energy and inertia channeled through the dynamic package, the better it becomes. The steering, a touch darty off-centre and slightly inert at low speed, becomes rounder, more even, and provides more driver accuracy on a charge. The once touchy brakes develop more even power and progressive pedal feel. And the chassis, with its broad track and scant wheelbase, begins to extract an assertive change of direction with quite electric response to the driver’s inputs, and enhanced further by just the right amount of power and torque to allow some sublime rear-steer effect.
If there’s a downside to all of this goodness, it’s the sense the car’s nowhere near its capabilities, with more potential goodies to deliver large if I’d just up the pace way too far into the 'you’re nicked' zone on a public road. And that’s with the powertrain understressed, small stabs of full-throttle rush between corners, and without as much as a peep from the sticky rubber. Shades of blistering quickness yet completely safe as houses, where the way to up the heat further is on a racetrack.
Again, the Vantage does a convincing job of pitching a unique and alternative position in the super sports car universe. No, it’s not as progressive or polite as a 911 experience. And, no, it doesn't have the white-knuckled sting of AMG’s GT breed. I don’t have to drive the three back-to-back to stake that claim.
But if the notion is of some missing link that draws equally from the former’s friendliness and the latter’s fire, in the vehicle not even remotely copying or pretending to be either, then there’s an awful lot to draw you towards what’s clearly a very different Aston Martin Vantage – even for those of us with little experience on the subject matter.
Last year, Alborz said the Vantage would “deliver a sense of excitement and passion missing” from what’s shortly to become an old-generation Porsche 911. Fair enough. My take is that I suspect it’s closer to the middle ground of what’s an extremely diverse and vibrant segment, and different conclusions might be drawn matching the Aston up against a McLaren 540C, the Jaguar F-Type V8 SVR, Audi’s R8 RWS or Lamborghini’s Huracan LP580-2. Or the new 992 911 for that matter.
Against Porsche, which gets chastised for being resolved to the point of being bland, the Vantage is both flawed and extremely characterful in what is, 911 apart perhaps, a segment full of flawed and characterful choices. Its biggest strength, though, is that it's unique enough to convince you that it's really not like any of its rivals at all. And you don't need any of its competition around to be convinced of it either.