FOR DECADES most Aston Martins have looked the part but proved a letdown. From the latest flagship Vanquish Volante to genuine superstars such as the DB5, more often than not they have been a disappointment to drive. Even James Bond’s Aston was no exception: in Goldfinger it is clear that the spy owes more to his DB5’s Browning .303 machine guns and ejector seat than the car’s performance and roadholding for ridding him of the bad guys.
So it is pleasing to report that the recently launched V12 Vantage S proves Aston’s engineers can deliver the goods. However great you think this model is to look at, I promise you that for once it is even better to drive.
Aston Martin introduced the V12 Vantage in 2009. Engineers squeezed their largest engine into the company’s smallest car — not counting the late but unlamented Cygnet — to create the most exciting Aston in at least a generation.
However, some customers found that the combination threatened to overexcite their pacemakers: while they liked the idea of the V12 Vantage, the reality of driving a car with ultra-firm suspension and a heavy manual gearbox was a different matter.
The raison d’être of the S version of the Vantage is therefore as much to do with making it easier to live with as better to drive. Out goes the wonderful six-speed manual gearbox, to be replaced by the seven-speed paddle-shift transmission already available in lesser, V8-powered Vantage models. And to make the ride more comfortable, electronic dampers are fitted.
On paper it all stacks up beautifully. The extra power and quicker shifts bring the 0-62mph time down to 3.9 seconds. Top speed goes from 190mph to 205mph, more than 20mph above what the top-of-the-range Vanquish can manage with the same engine. This Vantage even uses less fuel than its predecessor: 19.2mpg is hardly going to win the green vote, but it’s a mighty improvement in both consumption and range over the 14.3mpg of the old V12 Vantage.
But when you sit in the Vantage S you’ll find that, badging and gearchange paddles aside, the interior is unchanged. This means the illegible dials, nonsensical switchgear and glass key with a fondness for pinging out of its slot on the dashboard and disappearing under the seat endure.
Press the key home and you’ll be greeted with the same spine-tingling growl as you’ll hear in any other V12-powered Aston. It is clear, when you are driving slowly, that the ride comfort is much improved, sufficiently so for the V12 Vantage S to make sense as an everyday car, while the new gearbox takes either all or almost all of the effort out of cog-swapping, depending on whether you choose to use the paddles. At this stage it’s tempting to conclude that the big burly bear of a car has been tethered to a post by its improvements — that in its desire to make the V12 Vantage easier to live with, Aston has forgotten what made the original great.
Except that when you take it to just the kind of road where such compromises should spoil the driving experience, what you discover is a car that’s better than ever.
For pure driving pleasure, if not out-and-out speed, this Aston deserves to be considered alongside the Ferrari F12berlinetta, Maranello’s finest production car in decades. The Ferrari is faster and has a far sharper transmission, but the Aston has finer steering and is more reassuring and forgiving.
There is no single secret to this success. The engine’s additional punch is welcome in its own right, but its real value is the way you can use that power to bring the chassis to life, feeding its immense torque to the rear wheels at the apex of each corner and feeling the fat, soft Pirelli tyres at the limit of their adhesion. Not only do the lightning-quick changes of the gear paddle ensure this flow of power remains uninterrupted; the new, lighter gearbox also plays its part in a total weight saving of 15kg.
Moreover, now the car’s dampers are controlled by computers, they know to be soft around town but rock hard at speed, so the Vantage is even more rewarding when you give that glorious engine its full head of steam.
Aston Martin has changed the steering ratio too, increasing the response. If you can find a safe environment and turn off all the traction aids, you’ll discover this is a car that drifts so easily, you’ll convince yourself you’re the Stig’s long-lost cousin.
Credit goes to the Aston engineers, who have created not just the fastest production Aston road car but the most entertaining too.
Aston Martin still lacks the vital all-new products on which its future depends — and the fruits of its recently announced technical partnership with Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division are years away from harvest. Despite all this, it has produced the greatest driver’s car in its history. When I think of all I want an Aston Martin to be, I think of the V12 Vantage S. I cannot praise it more highly than that.
Aston Martin’s greatest production car
- Release date:
- On sale now
- £138,000 (Correct at time of publication)
- 5935cc, V12
- 565bhp @ 6750rpm
- 457 lb ft @ 5750rpm
- 7-speed semi-auto
- 0-62mph: 3.9sec
- Top speed:
- Road tax band:
- L 4385mm, W 1865mm, H 1250mm
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S rivals
Porsche 911 Turbo S, £140,852
For Barely believable straight-line performance; everyday usability
Against Blunt handling; droning engine; too expensive
Buy a used Porsche 911 on driving.co.uk
Audi R8 V10 Plus S tronic, £129,710
For Wonderful V10 motor; great ride and refinement; good build quality
Against Dated interior; V8 model is more fun
Buy a used Audi R8 on driving.co.uk