Our brooding, dizygotic twins line up thus. The Vantage is a 2011 car kindly lent to us by Aston Martin Walton-on-Thames (01932 506947), where this particular example is for sale at £55,995 with a 12-month, unlimited-mile warranty. In extremely tidy nick after a scant 16,000 miles, it does without the optional Sports Pack (lightweight alloy wheels, stiffened suspension) and features the six-speed manual gearbox rather than the Sportshift robotised manual, which would have struggled to mix it with our M2’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. No manual M2 was available to test, but our cars’ respective gearboxes arguably show them in their best light regardless.
Wheels aside, the 4.7 V8 Vantage is externally indistinguishable from the 4.3 (and not much different from the current iteration, either) but benefits from the DBS’s centre console, an alloy engine that’s upgraded from its cylinder heads down to its dry sump and revised, Bilstein-damped passive suspension claimed to improve both ride and handling.
Our M2 is loaded with life-easing niceties that push its price up from a base of £45,750 to £53,070. The £2245 M DCT gearbox is its sole dynamic option, but the electronically controlled, multi-plate Active M Differential, stiffened and reinforced suspension and twinscroll turbocharged aluminium engine that all bear influences from the M4 are standard. Unlike its big brother, though, the M2 is passively damped, leaving the car’s Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes to alter the drivetrain, steering, exhaust and ESP calibration.
Suitably wooed by the Aston’s graceful yet athletic exterior and glamorous up-and-out door action, I’m ready for a hit of luxury inside. And it’s there, with leather, Alcantara and real metal finishes covering most of the surfaces you’ll see and touch. Even the seatbelt buckles are sheathed in hide. Installed between door and chunky transmission tunnel, you sit fairly low in enveloping, supportive seats, peering out through the slim, high glasshouse.
Now, Aston has come an awfully long way since the Ford era during which the Vantage was born, and this progress will no doubt be borne out by the next-gen car, but the other side of that coin is manifested in shortcomings that become clear on closer acquaintance with the cabin. Although its rotary dials feel solid, other switchgear is less convincing, and the plastic column stalks and oddly placed seat and mirror controls are plain ugly. The flip-up sat-nav is archaic and fiddly, the cupholders mainly accommodate your left elbow and the steering wheel won’t go quite high enough for me. They’re minor complaints individually but collectively worth flagging to those expecting perfection from their cut-price luxury sports car.
It’s obligatory to mention that the M2 shares its cabin architecture with the cheapest BMW (the £21,420 118i) and to point out that the likes of M badging, contrast-stitched leather and Alcantara and rough ‘open-pore’ carbonfibre cladding can’t transform its interior into a place of intrigue and opulence. But despite the remaining abundance of hard plastics and sobriety, there’s a certain luxury to be had from its fuss-free design, precision fit and top-class tech.
The sculpted seats are a little higher and firmer than the Aston’s and they push your shoulders forward a bit, but there’s good adjustability, a better view and superior ergonomics, and the iDrive set-up is as impressive as ever. There’s also the bonus of two rear seats where the Vantage offers only storage. Admittedly, only shorter adults and kids can occupy them comfortably, but the seatbacks fold flat to extend a 390-litre boot that already trumps the Vantage’s 300-litre load space. So far, so surprisingly practical for the BMW.
The Aston’s appeal is rekindled when you ignite its Jaguar-derived, 32-valve V8. As with most of its controls, the throttle needs positivity when pulling away, but the rich, maritime burble it brings is a delight. The short-throw gearshift needs deliberate marshalling when crossing axes but doesn’t baulk at rapid single-plane shifts and feels worthy of a muscle car. The pedal setup encourages heel-and-toeing, but the revs are slow to rise with a blip, so it’s a slightly laboured routine. Be lazy with the stick and the V8 will pull contentedly from 1000rpm, but the surge of power really begins at 4200rpm, swiftly followed by the opening of the exhaust baffles at 4500rpm, at which point the engine’s gruff roar becomes wonderfully snarly and metallic and the throttle response sharpens to a bristling point. In this zone, the Vantage is joyously rapid and aggressive.
There’s less aural appeal in the M2, which is dominated by exhaust noise at lower revs. Push harder and a breezy whoosh accompanies a steady, building thrum that quickly turns into a heady, screaming roar. Lag loiters at all points but diminishes at high revs and is never burdensome, and the acceleration between 1800rpm and 7000rpm is both manic and brutal, the M2’s power deficit allayed by its generous torque spread.
Both cars hit 60mph in under five seconds, and although the M2 feels markedly quicker than the Aston, the difference would be lessened were the BMW a manual. But while we have the M DCT, we should recognise its talents. In Sport mode, paddleprompted upshifts are lightning quick yet jolt-free, and downshifts are almost as faithful. You can make the tacho dance like a puppet on a string, such is the gearbox’s responsiveness, yet it’s relaxed and discreet when dawdling in auto. Both cars brake well, although the BMW has the edge.
In Comfort mode, the M2’s steering feels light for such a burly machine, yet it’s a tad too hefty in Sport, when its overt tautness off-centre borders on wooden. There is a little feel, but it’s the electromechanical helm’s responsiveness that shines on Oxfordshire’s B-roads; turn-in is whiplash quick and there’s massive lateral stability even on tight, aggressively taken bends.
Despite its front/mid-engined layout, the Aston’s snout isn’t as alert. It doesn’t roll that much more than the BMW but can’t match the M2’s incisiveness. Unsurprisingly, there’s more feel and weight variation from the Vantage’s hydraulic steering, but moments of gentle kickback, too. As with the BMW, there’s tenacious grip postapex in the dry, although unless you choose to hush up their electronics, both cars are quick to intervene if you’re over-eager with the throttle.
There’s a price to pay for the M2’s tacky alertness, though. You won’t notice it if the blacktop is pristine – where the little BMW clamps its jaws around the road and mauls it like a wounded rabbit – but bumps and ridges bring a vertical reactiveness that not only scuppers comfort but also deprives the bushless rear end of the contact patches required by all that torque. On an imperfect motorway, it’s annoying; on a rippled back road, it produces a skittishness that forces you to back off and is much magnified by rain.
Yet the ‘firm but not harsh’ cliché rings true. In town, the M2 jostles around without any hint of resonance or reverberation and intrusions are fleeting, dispatched with clinical disdain. Inertia is disregarded; point the M2 at a humpback bridge and it’s up and down like a showjumper at Olympia. As other testers have noticed, there’s also an uncanny sensation coming up through the floor that transmits a facsimile of the road’s coarseness to the driver. It’s not unpleasant – more a reminder of the M2’s hardcore pretensions.
The Aston can’t brush off scars and ridges with the same indifference as the BMW and shivers a little in their wake, but it has the wider repertoire, including some muchneeded fluidity over the weathered furrows of our test route to keep the 275-section rear tyres grounded where the M2 heel-clicks. At a cruise, the used car’s wind noise is countered by the new one’s road noise, but again it’s the Aston that offers superior comfort over variable surfaces.
The Vantage offers an abundance of attractions, chief among them style, luxury, character, pace, dynamic versatility and the enduring spell of a big, lusty, atmospheric V8. But despite its unforgiving ride, the firecracker baby M car’s combination of performance engineering, quality and, indeed, practicality can’t be overlooked. Both are a steal at the price, but it’s the BMW we’d swipe first.
1st place - BMW M2 M DCT
Price new £47,995 Price now £47,995 Engine 6 cyls, 2979cc, turbo, petrol Power 365bhp at 6500rpm Torque 343lb ft at 1400-5560rpm Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic Kerb weight 1595kg 0-62mph 4.4sec (to 62mph) Top speed 155mph Fuel economy 35.8mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 185g/km, 36%
2nd place - Aston Martin V8 Vantage (2011)
Price new £95,684 Price now £55,995 Engine V8, 4735cc, petrol Power 420bhp at 7000rpm Torque 346lb ft at 5750rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1630kg 0-60mph 4.7sec Top speed 180mph Fuel economy 20.4mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 328g/km, 37%