IF YOU'VE ALWAYS loved Aston Martins but have been perpetually frustrated that these most entrancing motor cars are routinely trounced at the edge of the performance envelope by machinery infinitely less comely, the recently launched V12 S variant of the venerable Vantage could not only rekindle your romance with the marque, but even leave you hopelessly besotted. For though its essentials may appear all too familiar, this latest incarnation of Aston’s “entry-level” offering finally reveals the snarling hooligan that we’d long suspected lurked beneath its lovely lines, yet had almost given up hope of ever encountering.
Unveiled as a concept more than 10 years ago, then launched into full production in 2005 with a 4.3-litre V8 under its bonnet, the Ian Callum and Henrik Fisker-designed Vantage was always envisaged as a hardcore alternative to the British manufacturer’s more urbane DB9, DBS, Vanquish and Virage models. Its gorgeous coupe body, which remains virtually unchanged today, is compact and yet sleekly curvaceous, a ravishing beauty when compared with the ruthlessly utilitarian beast that sat in the crosshairs of Aston’s gun sights – the Porsche 911. It’s nicely balanced, the weight of its front engine being almost completely offset by the rear-mounted transaxle. And, thanks to the motor mounted low in the chassis, its centre of gravity sits impressively close to the road.
But as is the way with many cars approaching mid-life – and in spite of periodic upgrades down the years that have included the introduction of a roadster, capacity increases, V12 power, tuning packages, and tweaks to engine management, chassis and trim levels – the Vantage, while being never less than utterly covetable, had somewhat mislaid its mojo. Admittedly it was faster and way better looking than a Mercedes SL or a Jaguar XK, but Ferraris and Lambos had moved on since the midnoughties, and nowadays even some 911s are quicker and sharper to drive than the gracefully ageing Brit.
Aston may lack both the resources and the economies of scale of its bigger competitors, but that also means it’s small enough to be responsive – and it has a genuine car nut, in the person of dynamic 70-year-old CEO Dr Ulrich Bez, to guide it. Formerly of Porsche, BMW and Daewoo, the unfeasibly youthful Bez (who is also a ferocious competitor on the race track) recognised there was far more life left in his old dog than was generally realised, and that the Vantage might even serve as the basis for the fastest road-going Aston ever.
He set his engineers to work on achieving just that, and the result was revealed last October with the announcement of the V12 S. Replacing the Vantage V12 that’s been in production since 2009, the S is leaner and infinitely meaner than any other production car to wear the winged AM motif, and to my eyes it’s easily the most desirable of the current crop.
Purposeful and inscrutable in black and silver (the latter adorns the roof and a panel between the rear lights, as well as a daub of “lipstick” around the nose), and with liberal use of carbon fibre for the front grille and splitter, rear diffuser and bonnet cooling vents, my test car looks more thrillingly menacing than any automobile I’ve driven. Save for the taillights, the only colour in evidence on this ruthless street fighter is on the enormous, bright yellow brake calipers. These bite onto even more massive carbonceramic discs, which can be spied behind the Vantage’s 10-spoke, matt-black, 19-inch, forged-alloy wheels that come shod with Pirelli P Zero Corsas, the current highperformance tyre of choice.
It certainly looks the business, but what matters most are the changes Aston has wrought to the drive train and chassis. The AM V12 has been updated yet again, providing sizeable – and instantly discernible – increases in both power and torque. The former has been boosted by 11 percent to 565bhp at 6,750rpm, while the latter is up to 620Nm at 5,750, with incremental increases across the rev range that significantly improve the engine’s flexibility and responsiveness. The V12 S is no sylph despite its aluminium, magnesium alloy and steel construction, and weighs in at more than 1.67 tonnes, yet the additional urge and twist reduce the 0-100km/h time to 3.9 seconds, compared with the 4.2 of the V12 coupe it replaces, while top speed is up to 33okm/h (in other words, it exceeds the magical 200mph by a comfortable 5mph).
Standard equipment on the coupe is a seven-speed Sportshift III “automated manual” gearbox, which to the best of my knowledge is the first such transmission to be fitted to an Aston. Sourced from Graziano, which also supplies Lamborghini and McLaren, it promises to be an improvement on AM’s existing six-speed units that are now clearly showing their age, is considerably lighter, more compact and shifts faster, too, but it’s still not a proper-dual-clutch affair or, for that matter, an old-school manual with three pedals and a stick – standard on the outgoing Vantage V12 and still the sort of gearbox that this bruiser cries out for.
Also new for the S is revised suspension with three damping modes – Normal, Sport and Track – and dynamic stability control that’s been optimised to handle the increased power. Purists might baulk at the Servotronic steering, but as few supercars come without such electronic assistance we can hardly expect Aston to buck the trend.
And then there’s the interior, which looks very cool with its bright yellow door flashes and stitching on the lightweight seats, and a broad swathe of carbon fibre above the lacquered black central binnacle with its multitude of push-buttons. While something of a trademark, the latter is unfortunately no easier to fathom that it’s ever been, so that while attempting to interface my iPhone with the ICE system I inadvertently call a friend I haven’t spoken to in years…
Fortunately there’s nothing so random about the way the V12 S goes, handles and stops. The engine note is never less than spine-tingling, rising from a muted roar to a full-throated bellow as the revs mount – and the normally aspirated 12-cylinder really does love to spin. There are no turbochargers, so throttle response is instantaneous and the resultant acceleration heart-thumping and breathtaking – even more so as I’ve got the window wide open to savour the glorious accompaniment that’s trumpeting from the tailpipes.
It sounds positively brutal to the point of being old-fashioned, yet there’s an equally palpable sophistication about this device that becomes more apparent the faster I drive it (around town it feels unsettled and just a little uncomfortable). As the speed piles on I begin to appreciate how direct and wonderfully precise the steering is, and how that’s matched by superb balance and grip, so that even when powering out of bends the Aston’s relatively short chassis is never overburdened, either by that huge lump of motor or the enormous power it produces.
Braking is equally impressive, though at the outset I’m less enamoured of the gearbox, a refrain that regular readers of this column are becoming all too familiar with. Driven slowly in auto it’s a bit of a slush pump, but as the confidence builds and I start using the paddles I’m beginning to find the transmission’s sweet spot, with shifts that feel as snappy as a racer’s. My God, I chuckle to myself as the corners on my favourite stretch of road arrive with ridiculous haste, this is a seriously brilliant car.
So is it the best Aston yet? I’ve never driven a DB4 Zagato (and as only 20 were made, back in 1961, I probably never will) so I couldn’t honestly say, but of the current line-up the shatteringly quick and fleet-footed V12 S is in a class of its own. Few cars engage their driver so completely, and though it’s still marginally slower than a 458 Italia, an MP4 12C or a 911 Turbo, is there a contemporary vehicle on the road that looks better than this? Try as I might, I can’t think of one, which is yet another compelling reason to make room for a Vantage in your garage.