Aston Martin reintroduces a manual gearbox to its V12-engined sports car, but it's a seven-speed unit and not without its quirks. We test it

What is it?

The return of a manual gearbox coupled to a Aston Martin V12 engine in the Aston Martin line-up. Why now? Because when you talk to people at Aston, 'Andy' comes up a lot. 

Andy Palmer, still a relatively new incumbent to Aston Martin’s top job, has been driving product development like nobody at Aston before him, and the hope is that profit will accompany it like at no other time for Aston. Models need to feel distinctly different from each other, Andy says, and they should arrive more frequently and be augmented by twice-yearly special products. And, oh yeah, always make sure there’s a manual gearbox option.

This is that. When the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S replaced the V12 Vantage, the old six-speed manual was dropped (although you can still have it in a V8) because few buyers really wanted one. A seven-speed automated manual, a single-clutch transaxle unit with two pedals and flappy paddles, was standard instead, but its hesitancy has always been a weak spot compared with the dual-clutch automatic units in rival cars. 

Alongside Palmer’s belief that a sports car company simply ought to offer a manual, so interest in manuals has resurfaced. But instead of reviving the old six-speed ’box, Aston has instead, in effect, fitted a manual shift mechanism and pedal-operated clutch to that ‘Sportshift 3’ robotised seven-speed transmission.

What's it like?

When Porsche fitted a seven-speed manual to the 911, it put seventh on a dog-leg up and right and did some clever things with the planes so that, depending on which gear you’re coming out of, the right set would be neutrally weighted. But the rest of Porsche’s seven-speed H-pattern is familiar from first through to sixth.

Aston has been quirkier - more old-school. With a dog-leg first, below reverse, second to seventh are now in a double H-pattern, a similar idea to old dog-leg racing cars because you were more likely to use second upwards (usually to fifth) than first when under way. Here, second to seventh are the most easily found gears, with fourth/fifth on the neutral plane.

Frankly, in a road car that develops 457lb ft in all, and 367lb ft of that at just 1000rpm, you could probably get away with only having three gears, but anyway, here we are.

A gear indicator is front-row centre of the instrument binnacle, but if you’re used to first being up and away, initially it’s like seeing the word 'red' printed in blue ink and being asked what colour it is. It takes a bit of thinking. “I’m in fourth, therefore…wait, what?” Best to ignore the dial and know that moving up like normal, and down like normal, does normal things. The shift is short, imperfect but mostly sweet, with some notch before the gearlever drops home and weighting that sometimes found me hooking towards first instead of third when dropping out of fourth at lower revs, if decelerating towards, say, a roundabout. 

After a half-hour’s familiarisation, though, like getting into a left-hand drive car, it becomes more natural. A Sport mode enhances throttle response and a prolonged hold of that button switches on and off the automatic downshift blipping. 

The rest of the V12 Vantage S experience is as it always was: an interior that feels bespoke, a firm ride, terrifically communicative steering and a nose that’s heavy but, if managed well on the way into a corner, gives great balance and adjustability on the way out.

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Should I buy one?

We were big fans of the V12 Vantage S even with the flawed Sportshift gearbox, so yeah, you might well. The new ’box doesn’t transform the V12 Vantage S, but it removes the head-nodding frustrations of the paddleshift while adding engagement and interest. 

When Porsche launched its Cayman GT4, its engineers called it "old-school but not old-fashioned". It’s the same deal here. Is it immersive? Put it this way: the automatic downshift blip works perfectly, but it’s much more satisfying to do it yourself.

Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Manual

Location Warwickshire; On sale September; Price £138,995; Engine V12, 5935cc, petrol; Power 563bhp at 6750rpm; Torque 457lb ft at 5750rpm; Gearbox 7-spd manual; Kerb weight 1665kg; 0-62mph 3.9sec; Top speed 205mph; Economy 20mpg (est); CO2/tax band 325 g/km (est), 37%

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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eseaton 18 May 2016

I'm thrilled and amazed that

I'm thrilled and amazed that the scales are dropping from the eyes of manufacturers re the joy of changing gear yourself. My only disappointment is how little part Autocar played in this.
eseaton 18 May 2016

I'm thrilled and amazed that

I'm thrilled and amazed that the scales are dropping from the eyes of manufacturers re the joy of changing gear yourself. My only disappointment is how little part Autocar played in this.
Lessis More 18 May 2016

Yes Aston :-)

Buy it, treasure it forever.