First DriveA solid and significant step in the right direction, but still a flawed package that relies on charm more than raw ability
First DriveA proper manual gearbox makes the Vanquish the car it always should have been
This morning dawned cold and clear. At 4.30am, I was walking out of a small Welsh cottage at the foot of the Brecon Beacons. In the half-light, I made my way across the drive to where the Vanquish waited.
At any time, in any place, an Aston Martin Vanquish is a thing to behold. But with the first rays of the new day glancing off the fine film of dew that had formed on its haunches, it had an almost ethereal beauty. I felt a spontaneous spasm of laughter burst out into the silent air. In that environment it was ridiculously, comically beautiful. And it was mine.
It had been a while. Three years ago I wrote Autocar’s road test on the car. I can remember how quickly it gained 175mph and how slowly it lost it again. The brakes were barely adequate. It hit 60mph in 4.4sec despite the need for a slow gearchange, but its handling was more grand tourer than sports car. It clung on well, but was as willing as Thatcher to change direction once its trajectory had been determined. Since then I’ve driven just two more, neither for long enough to be instructive.
This Vanquish is designed to address these issues. It doesn’t look different, save for the nine-spoke alloys replacing the 12-spokers of the original, but beneath lies a car on which attention has been lavished in every area of its chassis’ endeavour: springs, dampers, suspension layout, steering and brakes.
In the words of Aston CEO, Ulrich Bez, the changes are to make the Vanquish ‘slightly sportier and more focused’ and to that end it comes complete with stronger front uprights, shorter springs, firmer damping and a new front suspension wheel bearing assembly. The steering arms have been shortened, speeding up the helm by 20 per cent, and the ride height dropped by 5mm.
Those new wheels reduce unsprung weight, but the real news is behind them: at the front the Brembo brake discs have been increased from 355mm to 378mm and have a 33 per cent greater thermal capacity in an attempt to eliminate the fade of the old system. The front callipers now have six instead of four pistons to give a 21 per cent increase in pad area. At the rear the discs retain their 330mm diameter but are 2mm thicker. Finally, Pagid competition pads are used.
The original specification Vanquish remains, for a saving of £3000, but I suspect this is a similar strategy to that employed by leaving the six-cylinder DB7 in production after the introduction of the V12 Vantage. In practice, no one wanted one and it was quietly dropped.
None of this was obvious as I trickled out onto the road. The sound of its 460bhp, quad-cam, V12, 48-valve engine still moves you from the moment the first spark-plug fires and you find yourself warming it through gently, giving time for heat to build in the engine, gearbox and shock absorbers. It’s silly, really, as the engine’s heritage is linked to two conjoined Mondeo V6s, the gearbox’s to a Chrysler Viper – but it’s easy to expel such matters from your mind.
Then the time was right. Four tugs on the left-hand paddle and gearbox leapt seamlessly from a loping sixth to a screaming second. Throttles wide open, it sat back, gathered itself and speared forward. Listening to the noise, I almost convinced myself I could break down its components into every punch of a piston, whizz of a valve and sweep of the crankshaft, so multi-layered and well-defined is its note.
The gearchange comes swiftly and easily - and now we’re getting into the Vanquish’s world. Work the car in third and fourth gear and it comes alive like an old Ferrari Daytona does above 100mph. It feels unfettered from its 1800kg-plus weight through fast, sweeping curves, the grip of its Yokohamas a given, the precision of its steering a delight.
That trace of float has been exorcised by the new suspension; it’s still no Jason Robinson when changing direction, but you shouldn’t have to expect that from such a car: what matters is that the Vanquish now flows from fast bend to fast bend with authority and commitment, the steering as quick and communicative as you could hope to find in a heavy, front-engined car. In this environment, the revisions work just fine.
But for their undoubted power, the new brakes are still not quite right. The fade has gone (the next day they coped with five laps of Goodwood, braking hard from 150mph at the end of the straight), but the feel is not there. I found myself thinking about them as each corner approached, the sure sign that all is not as it should be.
And as curving country lanes gave way to uncompromising mountain roads, more limitations became apparent. For all its grip, this is not a car to aim into a corner too fast and hope to sort it out on the way through; do that and you will run wide, and you’ll need to take care shutting the throttle to bring the car back on line. It’s much better to adopt the old-fashioned approach and drop your entry speed, get the car turned in and then open the throttle to put the car where you need it.
Do this and the rewards rain down, all the way from the perfect line through the bend to the readily available powerslide at the exit. It seems odd to use the phrase ‘old fashioned’ in the context of the Vanquish, launched just three years ago as, by Aston standards, a technological miracle. Yet that’s how it feels. Its driving position is strange: the wheel is too far away, the switchgear is a mess and you can see very little out of the back.
It is entirely deliberate that I have waited this long before mentioning ‘DB9’, but it cannot be ignored. Who, after all, would pay an extra £62,000 for a Vanquish when a DB9 has better handling, a more comfortable ride and a superior power-to-weight ratio? By any objective assessment, the Vanquish goose has been well and truly cooked by its celebrity chef sister.
But I can still – just – see its point. Have no doubt that the DB9 would be the better car at the same price, but the Vanquish still has a charm of its own. If heritage is important, this is the last car Newport Pagnell will build. If handcraftsmanship is your thing, its aluminium panels are still hit by men with hammers. And if you’re after exclusivity, remember that for every eight DB9s that roll off the shiny new line at Gaydon, just one Vanquish will be assembled in Newport Pagnell.
Give me a DB9 or a Vanquish to drive and I’d choose the younger car every time until someone told me I’d never drive another Aston again. Then, for one last blast, I’d take the Vanquish. Its technical inferiority would be of no consequence then: its job would be to leave an imprint of Aston Martin on my brain, one which would conjure both the strengths and the weaknesses without which no memory of this most enigmatic marque could be fully formed.
You can say the Vanquish has the greater sense of occasion or that the DB9 is too bloody good; I choose merely to celebrate the fact that their paths have overlapped.
Though a more powerful Vanquish is on the way, one day too soon it will be gone. It is the bridge between Aston’s extraordinary past and undoubtedly glorious future, and we will never see its like again.