Our first taste of Aston Martin's new Vantage takes place at -14 degrees
We're driving the new sports car in Lapland - proper Father Christmas territory
That means we have 503bhp to unleash...
...on freezing snow, which is no easy feat
Our car is fitted with optional Pirelli winter tyres that are well within their operating range
The new car's chassis is 20kg lighter than the old Vantage’s was
It is also 30% more rigid, as well as being 10% more rigid than that of a DB11
It uses most of the same suspension hardware as a DB11...
...but it’s significantly differently tuned
And although the steering box is the same, the effective steering ratio has increased...
...because the wheelbase is 100mm shorter than a DB11’s
This means that even on snow, we'll feel the difference
The car uses an AMG-sourced 4.0-litre V8 engine
That puts out 503bhp
Aston Martin claims a 195mph top speed
Not that we'll be getting particularly close to that today
Although this is a prototype...
...the car's interior feels remarkably well finished
The seats offer more more lateral support than a DB11's
Illustrating the Vantage's more sporting character
There is a ‘road’ out there somewhere, but you’d only know it by the gap in the trees and the succession of poles sticking up stripy and proud out of the frozen whiteness.
Blanketed in thick, powdery snow that’s reflecting the hazy morning light in picture-postcard fashion, with heavy-laden pines stretching as far as the eye can see, the scene through the windscreen looks utterly serene. It’s not exactly asking to be disrupted by a 500-horsepower V8 – but never mind. Stuff happens, doesn’t it? Even in Lapland.
And however treacherous you might imagine those conditions to be, the car we’re driving has been coping with them just fine so far. It’s 14degC below freezing, and we’re 200 miles north of the edge of the Arctic Circle at the TestWorld proving ground in northern Finland.
Up ahead on the handling course we’ll shortly be turning on to, there will be sharp twists, steep gradients and nasty cambers. All of them are guaranteed to be slippery, and all of them easily convincing enough to make most Aston Martin owners I’ve met put their show ponies away and take the Range Rover to work. For most Aston owners I’ve met, the vague threat of an air frost and a gritter is more than enough to do that – and it’s an instinct I understand completely.
But Aston Martin still has to do as thorough an engineering job on all of its ‘second century’ products as Porsche, Mercedes-AMG, Jaguar or anyone else does on their new cars. That means mile after mile of durability testing is on the menu, as well as altitude testing, hot weather testing and cold weather testing not unlike the kind we’re getting a taste of today.
Having already done all of that (and being now just weeks away from the start of building customer Vantages at its Gaydon HQ), Aston already knows its new 503bhp entry-level super-sports car can cope with all of this – and nobody more so than the man on my left, Aston Martin head of vehicle dynamics Matt Becker. He knows the car’s optional Pirelli winter tyres work fine on compacted snow and in ambient temperatures colder than today’s. He knows the car’s traction and stability control systems will keep us out of the snow banks for as long as we care to leave them turned on. And he knows that won’t be for very long. Becker will, for all these reasons and more, not be learning much today about the car he has been working on for so long. And yet, because it will be another few weeks until we can drive a Vantage on the road in conditions more conducive to meaningfully judging it as one of 2018’s most alluring new sports cars, we’ll learn what we can from our first turn at the wheel.
Becker has already delivered a technical briefing on the car that could have won awards for its shortness and sweetness. It went something like this.
“The car’s more or less the same width as a DB11, but shorter than a Porsche 911. I’m not sure you’d guess that last bit by looking at it, but if anyone’s to blame for that, it’s the colouring-in department.
“The chassis is 20kg lighter than the old Vantage’s was and also 30% more rigid, as well as being 10% more rigid than that of a DB11. It uses most of the same suspension hardware as a DB11, but it’s significantly differently tuned. And although the steering box is the same, the effective steering ratio has increased because the wheelbase is 100mm shorter than a DB11’s. Even on the snow, you’ll feel the difference.
“The V8 engine is pretty much as you’ll find it in a DB11 V8, but there’s 7lb ft more torque here available over a broader band of revs, and we’ve done a lot of exhaust tuning to give the car its own audible character.
“Downstream of that, there’s the same eight-speed transaxle gearbox as a DB11 has, but we’re using a much cleverer electronically controlled e-diff from GKN. That means we can adapt and control the Vantage’s lateral dynamics in many more ways than we could with the DB11: at low speeds, at high speeds, when manoeuvring, on track and in low-grip conditions. We’ve also got a rigid-mounted rear suspension subframe where the DB11’s is bushed so the driver gets much better feel for the rear axle.”
Becker then showed us a Powerpoint slide with a multicoloured graph of engine sound harmonics to prove his point about the Vantage’s unique engine note but quickly realised it’d be much easier just to start up the engine of the disguised production prototype that we were gathered around at the time. And so he did. Bwarp bwarp, cackle snap, gargle gargle. Hmm… it’s different again: different from a DB11 V8 and Mercedes-AMG GT. Angrier than the DB, but not too bassy and not as comically overdone on the overrun as some. Approving nods all round.
Now, after showing me the way around TestWorld’s snaking forest handling track and making the Vantage look hilariously easy to drive both with the electronic aids fully operational and with them switched off, drifting through bend after bend in Track mode with just one hand on the wheel, Becker smiles, gets out of the Vantage’s driver’s seat and lets me have a go. “There’s one particularly tricky downhill, tightening bend where we’ve seen some incidents,” he says, alluding to other hacks who’d evidently forgotten the testing job they came to do and become carried away with their drifting practice nstead. Unforgivable. “But keep the speed down, remember we’re not on studded tyres, and you’ll be fine.”
A quick look around the cabin before we move off. This is a late prototype outwardly disguised with striped tape, but it can’t be too far off production form inside. The materials look great, the finish is impressive and the seats are good (a touch more hugging than a DB11’s but better for it).
The centre console is different from the DB11’s, too: higher-rising and busier with buttons. Aston has moved the familiar strip of engine and transmission control buttons (Engine start/stop, D, N, R, P) downwards and closer to the natural resting position of your left arm. It has also included a nest of buttons immediately below that with shortcuts for the infotainment system and for switching off the stability control. The move certainly makes interacting with the car easier.
Just as they are in the DB11, though, the Vantage’s various operating modes for its powertrain and suspension/e-diff are controlled through thumb toggles on the steering wheel: it’s left thumb for powertrain modes, right for suspension. But whereas a DB11 has GT, Sport and Sport+ modes, a Vantage shifts your options one step further towards the sporting end of the dynamic spectrum and gives you Sport, Sport+ and Track settings to choose from with either thumb.
Becker admits the Vantage’s rigid-mounted rear subframe does make the car’s ride noisier than a DB11’s, but it’s still quieter, he reckons, than that of a 911 or a Mercedes-AMG GT – “and not without decent ride compliance in Sport mode”.
We’ll have to take his word for that today. Compacted snow isn’t known for its bumpiness, after all. But after tootling out onto the track with a fair bit of circumspection, it takes all of two or three corners to confirm what he said earlier about the Vantage’s DB11-topping handling response. Even on snow polished marble hard, the car turns in with the immediacy you expect of a much lighter sports car, and it isn’t at all difficult to keep its nose right where you want it.
The steering weight is only medium heavy, but that’ll change on a grippier surface with a bit of lateral load in the suspension, and its pace is medium quick but sensible. There’s plenty of steering angle available, too. We might be needing that in a minute. But the stability control is on and has been working hard and well so far, keeping such a tight rein on the throttle as to make the Vantage’s power delivery feel entirely smooth and to keep its handling completely benign, even here.
Time to start pressing buttons. Its calmer settings keep the throttle map nicely linear, but it transpires you need the powertrain in Track mode to make the V8 (optional sports exhaust fitted, by the way) sound really exciting. That’s what we’ll have, then. Put the suspension in Sport+, Becker tells me, to make the dampers firm up a bit and the e-diff have the greatest enlivening effect on the car’s cornering manners. Righto. “Fully locked, the diff can transmit 1844lb ft of locking torque,” he says “which makes a massive difference to the car’s counter-steer stability and T-junction start traction. A typical mechanical slippy diff has a range of about 369lb ft to 738lb ft.”
Sounds impressive. But the e-diff’s effect on the Vantage’s limit handling balance is a lot more telling even than that might imply – and so clever. In ESP off mode, the diff seems to have just the right amount of locking on a trailing throttle to make the car rotate gently towards the inner snow bank as you settle its nose on turn-in. Then, as soon as you need in enough power to stabilise the car’s attitude, pick up some yaw and forward momentum and usher it into gentle, snowy, 30mph oversteer, the rear axle feels so controllable that it’s uncanny. It doesn’t take much power to do it, either, so the delicacy of those rear diff settings really matters. Any inconsistency would instantly show. But there’s none: this is amazing mid-corner poise for a front-engined car.
Sliding this 503bhp Aston Martin between snow banks becomes thoroughly instinctive. Easy? Not quite. The snow isn’t forgiving of so much as an inch too much accelerator pedal, or tolerant of as much as 2mph too much carried speed, as I find out with a few low-speed spins. Next I encounter what Becker and the team call ‘snow bank assist’ – what happens when you lean the outside rear wing of the Vantage on a powdery snow verge just to arrest its ever increasing drift angle.
A couple more corners like that and, in his genial way, Becker reminds me that if I happen to be looking for it, I’ll find the stability control button on the centre console, exactly where I left it. Hint taken. I’d learned what I needed to about this car a while ago: that it’ll take Aston into a stronger position than the original Vantage ever claimed in what has probably become the most important segment in the performance car market. That much seems unquestionable – even at this stage. I can’t say how fast the new Vantage feels, how good the body control or brakes are, or whether it’ll have such remarkable mid-corner poise at 80mph on a dry track as it does at 30mph on a snowy one; but there’s every reason to be hopeful on all fronts.
More than anything, it’s great to see a truly telling blow for the frontengined, rear-driven, old-school option landed in a segment where almost all of the really great headline makers of the past few years have been mid-engined. Right back atcha, then, NSX, 570S, R8 and others: the classic V8 sports coupé has a new handling champion. And who knows just how good it may yet prove to be?
Aston Martin Vantage
Price £120,900 Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo, petrol Power 503bhp at 6000-6500rpm Torque 505lb ft at 2000-5000rpm Gearbox 8-spd automatic Kerb weight 1530kg (dry) 0-62mph 3.6sec Top speed 195mph Economy 26.9mpg CO2, tax band 245g/km, 37%
The biggest year in Aston Martin's history: what's coming when?
DB11 VOLANTE: ON SALE NOW
We drove the convertible DB11, available exclusively with V8 power, abroad last month and will drive it on UK roads very soon. Production has started and deliveries are under way.
VANTAGE: ON SALE NOW
The international press launch is under way in Portugal as you read this, and you’ll be finding out what we think in early April. But if your order isn’t in already, it’ll be 2019 before you’ll get one.
DB11 V12 ‘V2’: JUNE 2018
The big-daddy DB11 gets a power hike to around 630bhp as well as the chassis and steering revisions that were made for last year’s V8 version. Expect the top speed to rise well beyond 200mph.
VANQUISH: JULY 2018
Aston Martin’s most powerful V12 series-production flagship model is next up to be replaced and set to become an even more focused driver’s car. It’s expected to be announced in late June – and it’ll have more than 700bhp.
VALKYRIE PROTOTYPES: AUTUMN 2018
The forthcoming hypercar is expected to be at an advanced stage, ready for ride-along stories, by the autumn – with production starting in 2019. Still, we should get our first taste of it – all 1130bhp of it – this year.
ST ATHAN PROTOTYPE PRODUCTION: AUTUMN 2018
Aston’s new factory will eventually build its biggest cars – the Lagondabranded SUV and Rapide replacement, not due until the next decade. But parts of it will be opened this year, notably the prototyping workshop.