Is the Aston Martin Vanquish S any more refined or better than the standard car?

Today I’m thinking strange thoughts. One keeps coming back as I carefully nose the fastest Aston Martin ever made around Bristol. Would Isambard Kingdom Brunel have been happy with the sport shift mapping on the new £174,000 Vanquish S? Brunel died before the technology that would have such a profound effect on human lives – the internal combustion engine – had been invented, but the answer would still have been a definite ‘no’. Were he alive, IKB would reckon it too slow and too harsh as the hydraulically actuated clutch re-meshes the cogs. Then he’d set about fixing it.

As a visitor, it’s difficult to walk anywhere in Bristol and not be reminded of the influence he had over its major architecture and his notable engineering successes. But as a Bristolian the bond is stronger. Not through pride, though: Bristolians are too pragmatic for that. A local taxi driver summed it up perfectly for me a few years ago: ‘Well, we’d be stuffed without our Kingdom. No train station for gettin’ ’em ’ere, no boat for lookin’ at and no bridge for walkin’ over.’

So we’re going to saunter around his train station (Temple Meads), his boat (the SS Great Britain) and his bridge (the Clifton Suspension Bridge) in Aston’s revised Vanquish S. After the closure of Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant I feel the need to celebrate some British engineering, current and past, though I’ll stop short of sticking small plastic St George motifs on the side windows.

Tellingly, no one in Bristol has any idea that this is a significantly different car to a standard Vanquish. The only way of spotting it is the rather scrappy S motif on the bootlid which, along with a boot-lip spoiler, a redesigned front grille and a sizeable front splitter, add a dose of seriousness to the standard shape from most angles. Such subtleties are insignificant when the basic Aston shape can divert glances from a hundred yards.

We really feared for the Vanquish when we first drove a DB9 earlier this year. But despite the presence of an in-house infant phenomenon, Vanquish sales have remained strong; Aston will still make 350 this year. The situation is the same at Lamborghini – demand for the Murciélago is still remarkably high despite the new Gallardo – and it proves that people are graduating from lesser brands and not trading down. It seems that in the world of big-number cars, those with the biggest wallets will always want the most expensive toys.

Beautiful though the DB9 might be, this car has twice the presence. Compound that with the fact that it makes twice the noise and somehow much of the staggering £71,000 price difference between DB9 and Vanquish S is justified. The Vanquish’s case is made even stronger by what is bolted between the front suspension uprights. This is the engine the car should have had from the start: 520bhp sounds like the sort of poke one might expect from a 5.9-litre Aston V12.

Squeezing out the extra 60bhp over the standard Vanquish has been pretty hard work, though. The engine gets revised cylinder heads with reprofiled inlet ports and combustion chambers, stronger con rods, a higher compression ratio, new injectors and a remapped ECU to take advantage of the improved fuelling and airflow. For the same increase on a Porsche 911 Turbo, you just insert a screwdriver into the boost controller and crank it in the direction marked schnell. But then this is about as far removed from Porsche’s philosophy as it gets.

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This, finally, is the definitive front-engined two-seat British super GT. The S doesn’t correct all of the basic car’s flaws, but it gets closer to the car Brunel might have built, and addresses enough of them to allow the Vanquish’s considerable character to shine through undiminished. Until earlier this year, the Vanquish’s main strengths against a Ferrari 575 Maranello’s were its styling and engine noise. Then the ‘Dynamics’ pack was introduced, with uprated suspension, steering and brakes. It closed the gap significantly. This car takes those settings and adds its 520bhp at 7000rpm and 425lb ft at a high-ish 5800rpm to create a car that is finally a match for the Ferrari.

I’d be less happy rolling it around the Hotwells area to gain a shot of SS Great Britain if I hadn’t had the chance to hammer the Aston across the Midlands earlier in the day. A combination of long bonnet, chunky A-pillar and considerable price make it scary enough to drive around town, but it’s the control weights that add to the intimidation factor. The steering’s heavy, as are the brake and throttle pedals. In fact, the Vanquish is rather corpulent – 1835kg at the kerb. Still, Brunel would have been fascinated by its bonded aluminium construction.

And I still don’t get on with those gearshift paddles. Around town you should use the automatic function, but either my throttle inputs aren’t to the liking of the gearbox’s brain or the changes are far too slow in response to a pushed pedal. The manual change is easier, but standard parking manoeuvres can put years on the driver. The clutch smells worse than an Intercity 125’s brakes after an emergency stop. And this is a car that will spend as much time (if not more) stumbling around Mayfair as it will on moorland roads.

It’s a shame there aren’t more hyper-wealthy types in Clifton, because the Vanquish looks sharper parked in front of the suspension bridge than it does anywhere else in the UK. A liberal smattering of them in dark metallic shades would certainly aid the view, but then I’m biased. There’s no point trying to cosy the car and bridge together in terms of importance: even a Vanquish seems utterly inadequate in front of arguably the finest example of Victorian engineering.

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The changes made to the Aston’s chassis aren’t revolutionary, but they are certainly effective. It sits 5mm lower than the standard car, has a 20 per cent quicker steering rack and firmer springs and dampers. It’s certainly a little lumpier around town, but then the basic car’s no limo. Aston has managed to bring extra control where the car desperately needed it without having it crash across anything less than a croquet-lawn surface. But it’s a crime jerking the car around town, so we head out on the M4 to Wales and some very fast, empty roads.

The Vanquish isn’t too bad on the motorway. That strange driving position remains (wheel too far away, seat too high) and tyre noise from the Yokohamas is pronounced – they like to report back the surface grade at all times. But the hi-fi’s excellent and the new winged bucket seats are more supportive than the standard items. The view is also far more attractive because the grey plastic centre console is now covered in leather. Only now do I realise how much I disliked the old one.

Three years ago we drove a standard Vanquish over this road and it didn’t acquit itself too well. At speeds that would barely have woken some rivals’ chassis it bottomed out and became very lively. It was an 80 per cent car. This version is a 90 per cent car. It controls its mass so much better, changes direction with more commitment and accuracy. It is also much more accelerative. An altered differential ratio makes as much of a performance difference as the added power and torque, perhaps more. Aston claims 9.8sec to 100mph, and that’s probably a little on the cautious side. There’s no reason to doubt the claimed 200mph top speed.

The engine seems smoother, too. Mechanical refinement has never been a weakness, but from idle to the 7200rpm limiter this is John Travolta-slick. You spend more time delving into the power plateau, too: above 4000rpm (with the secondary exhaust valves trumpeting a noise that you just wouldn’t credit from Siamese Ford Duratec V6s) it provides reason enough for many people to chose Aston over Ferrari. The only problem is that you leave all the commotion behind, so you have to lower the windows to hear it yourself.

Downshifts are excellent: timed to perfection and hardly disrupting the car’s chosen line, but going up through the ’box – which you’d assume was an easier activity – isn’t so great. The shifts seem ponderously slow and even when in sport mode they aren’t anything like fast enough to justify the harshness.

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But in other areas the Vanquish deals with Aston’s current predilection for heavy controls better than the DB9 does. Because this is a more robust, speed-driven experience, the heavy brake pedal is more in keeping with the overall character. They’re decent stoppers, too: 378mm front discs clamped by a six-piston calliper and 330mm (same as before but 2mm wider) out back. They do fade considerably under duress, but if you adjust the pressure applied accordingly they continue to work.

It’s a compelling car, the Vanquish S. I’ve driven much faster, more competent machinery, but very few that I’ve disliked giving back as much as this. The changes are subtle; the cumulative effect they reap more significant than I’d expected. Depreciation aside, it would be a delight to wake up every morning with a Vanquish S on your driveway and know that it now drives almost as well as it looks. They just need to get Brunel to look at those upshifts.

Chris Harris

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