Aston Martin has an insane amount of competition. For decades, the brand has relied on its gorgeous looks and prestige, but in this day and age, that just isn’t enough.
The battle at the very top of the car market for those high-margin premium dollars has never been so intense, which is why the British brand has found itself appealing to purists by offering a manual in the Vantage.
Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren buyers no longer know what a manual gearbox is. The supercar brands have long ago ditched their gated transmissions, knowing full well that a dual-clutch rapid-fire automatic will get them the 0–100km/h times that so many buyers today hang their hat.
It’s a shame actually, because being able to lose your licence half a second quicker than the next guy isn’t really the point of owning a supercar or a super sports car. At least, not for those of us that enjoy driving for the sake of the noise, the emotion, and the focus on the journey rather than the destination.
This author owns two manual cars (and three automatics), a previous-generation Aston Martin Vantage N400 and a current-generation series 3 Lotus Elise. Both of them are slow to get to 100km/h in today’s ‘three seconds or go home’ culture.
At the same time, there is also a Ferrari in the garage that will do the dash in exactly 3.0 seconds flat, but when it's late at night and the mountain roads are calling, it’s the two manual cars that always get the nod.
It was with that same enthusiasm that we travelled all the way to the Nürburgring to visit Aston Martin’s AMR testing facility and drive the new 2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR.
To get some clarity around the idea of AMR, it’s kind of like the brand’s performance badge… Even though there are really no slow Astons these days. It has produced a few other models in the past, and it will produce plenty of new models going forward, but its first work on the Vantage is the manual.
The seven-speed manual Vantage is being launched as an AMR with just 200 editions ($369,950). However, that doesn’t mean there are only 200 manual Vantages. You can now order a normal Vantage and tick the manual box for around the 300 mark.
The AMR cars gain a whole heap of carbon and other weight-saving features to justify their additional price tag and badging, but the power and transmission are the same as a regular Vantage manual.
As you’d expect, the manual cars continue with the same AMG-sourced 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 offered in the regular Vantage, making the same 375kW of power but only 625Nm of torque, which is 60Nm down on the stock car, to protect the manual driveline.
This marks the first time that well-known Mercedes-AMG unit has been hooked up to a manual transmission. It’s interesting that Aston Martin has done this, because in the past when we had asked AMG engineers if this could be done, they first of all asked ‘why would it?’ and then it was followed by a ‘no’.
It’s a familiar gearbox, too. Located in the rear of the car, the seven-speed unit is developed by motorsports mob Graziano (which makes gearboxes for a whole bunch of cars, including the Lamborghini Aventador), complete with the same dogleg first featured on the transmission in the previous Vantage V12 S. To be fair, it's more than 95 per cent the same gearbox as the one you’ll find in the old Vantage V12 S.
The only other comparable brand that still offers a manual gearbox is Porsche. You have to really drive a manual 911 GT3 flat out on a racetrack to realise just how good a manual gearbox can be. Flat-shifting gears at redline is a feeling that every car enthusiast should feel at least once. The transmission found in the Vantage is excellent, but it’s not at this level.
Firstly, being a dogleg pattern means that first gear is to the left and down (instead of up, for our automatic drivers). This is something you will (kind of) eventually get used to, but it can be a bit of a pain. There is also a rather long throw between gears, and we feel like it can really do with a short shifter of some kind.
Secondly, looking at the gearknob itself, it simply doesn’t belong in an Aston Martin. The brand says it spent countless hours refining the gearknob to suit the dogleg pattern (in terms of its shape), but we feel that to come from having made such amazing-looking gearknobs in the past, and go to something that looks like it belongs in a rental car from Hertz, is a little underwhelming.
The good news is, there is an optionable and better-looking one available – either that or just replace it with the glass/crystal one from a previous-generation DBS.
Those two things aside, the manual transmission is excellent. Aided by a feature called AMShift, not only will it rev-match on downshifts, removing the need to heel-and-toe, the system allows drivers to keep the throttle pinned through upshifts.
So, literally, we had the accelerator pinned to the floor, put the clutch in and shifted from first to second – which doesn’t sound nearly as cool when you have to move the gearstick to the right and up rather than just slamming it down – without ever having to lift off the right pedal. It’s still not the flat shifting you get in the Porsche, but it’s almost as enjoyable.
Just over a decade ago, people bought manual cars because they were faster than their automatic equivalents. That is now a foreign concept, so the whole point of buying a manual gearbox these days is to compromise on straight-line performance for the enjoyment of the drive. So then the question becomes, is the manual Vantage more enjoyable? The answer to that can be preceded with a lot of cursing, but ultimately it ends with a big yes.
Through the winding and twisty roads that surround the Nürburgring (yes, we came all the way to the best racetrack in the world and didn’t go in), the manual Vantage proved itself to be spectacular. Still insanely fast, but now in total control of every emotion.
It should definitely be a lot louder, and just like the automatic, we wish that Aston would just put an exhaust button rather than making us pick through the driving modes to make it sing. But even in the loudest setting, it doesn’t hold a candle to the previous car.
Thanks in large part to the two giant turbochargers, and also the new and ever-tightening European emissions regulations on noise and CO2. Even so, it’s nothing an exhaust modification wouldn’t fix.
In the case of the new Vantage, there are more benefits than just emotional appeal, because shedding the automatic transmission has also helped save weight.
The new gearbox, along with the mechanical LSD, lighter wheels and the inclusion of carbon-ceramic brakes as standard (AMR), have cut a huge 95kg from the Vantage's weight sticker. That means a 0–100km/h time of 4.0 seconds flat – a good 0.4 of a second slower than the automatic, but you’ll be having a lot more fun.
As a car, the Aston Martin Vantage manual remains very similar to the automatic. It has the same AMG-sourced switchgear and infotainment alongside the plush interior. But as a driver's car, we couldn’t feel the lighter rear end of the manual during our on-road driving, but suspect it will make some difference to the balance on-track or when pushed to the limit.
We do have to applaud the clever Skyhook dampers feature – developed by folks formerly from Lotus – which really does allow for suspension settings (Sport, Sport+ and Track) that give it a wide usability factor, from daily commute to twisty roads and the racetrack.
Overall, the new Vantage is meant to appeal to owners of the previous model, where the only real option was the manual. If you want to shift gears yourself, but are a bit like this author and couldn’t imagine owning a 911, then this is a damn good choice. You just have to pick if you’d fork out for the AMR or a regular manual Vantage.