The Clarkson review: Aston Martin Vanquish Volante (2013)

Drives on water and raises Lazarus in 4.1 seconds

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IT WAS the week before Christmas. Rush hour. Central London. And the weather was every American’s idea of what it’s always like in Britain. Awful. The wind was coming in great shuddering lumps and the rain was a collection of stair rods. It was a night for being in.

But I wasn’t in. I was out in the new Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, trying to find a parking space in St James’s. Nobody’s temper was even on that frightful night. The bus drivers had given up trying to run down lone cyclists and had just decided to kill everyone. The taxi drivers were hampered by steamed-up windows. Pedestrians were blind behind their inside-out umbrellas, and, even with my wipers whizzing back and forth like a drowning man’s arms, the whole scene was streaked with neon, headlamps and Christmas decorations. It was like driving on an acid trip, into a kaleidoscope. It was like having all of the headaches I’d ever had, at once.

At a time such as this you want to be in a car only because it’s dry. You certainly don’t want to be in a £199,995 Aston Martin with bone-hard suspension and a roof that has seemingly been designed specifically to make everything abaft your head invisible. At an oblique junction the only way you can pull out safely is by having a deep and fervent belief in God.

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The next morning I was down at the Top Gear test track and it was the sort of day we dream about. Crisp and cold and bleached. The sun was pale. And the air was as clear as a lake of gin. What’s more, the track was quiet, empty and beckoning. But even though the Aston has a 565 brake horsepower V12 engine, I didn’t bother taking it out there and opening the taps of that mountain of muscle. Because I’ve done some track work in its hard-top sister, so I know what it’s like.

Although it’s largely made from carbon fibre, it’s a heavy car, and it gets all bolshie and uninterested when you push it hard. The tyres don’t last very well either. After three laps they lose their bite and you end up with 300 yards of dreary understeer. And the gearbox, a smooth-changing automatic, doesn’t much like to be hurried. Taking this car on a track? It’s as wrong as playing rugby in a dinner jacket.

Later that night I had to go to Oxfordshire on the M40, something I did at exactly 65mph. The Vanquish will go a lot faster than this — 118mph faster, to be exact — but, well, er, the last time I drove a Vanquish on a motorway, I ended up having a little chat with some policemen and women policemen. And afterwards they took away my driving licence for two months.

So here we have a car that is deeply unhappy on a wet night in town, that doesn’t much care for track work and that fills me with a teeth-itchingly morbid fear of being stopped by the police. Oh, and it had been decorated by someone who had a mental age of four.

They’d gone, as pre-school kids often do, for a very garish teal colour and then for no reason at all had decided to paint the brake callipers yellow. Somehow pleased with the effect, they had decided it should be mirrored on the inside, so, yep, that meant teal seats with yellow flashings and, yes, wow, yellow tips on the paddle-shift levers. I’ve seen less gaudy birds of paradise.

I think I know what Aston is playing at. It is hoping that by going for extreme colours, it would stop me noticing that the interior of this supposedly brand-new car is a bit old-fashioned.

Which, of course, it is. As I said when I reviewed the hard-top version, Aston is a small company with limited resources. It simply doesn’t have the £500m you need to design a new air-conditioning system, or £200m for a new instrument binnacle. So it keeps having to fit the same stuff it used in the previous car. The sat nav is new(ish), and while it’s better than the original setup, the screen does look a bit like the sort of drawing that proud parents put on a fridge door.

And I think that’s enough now. I could give you a thousand reasons for not buying this car even before we got to the whopping price tag. I could tell you that a Ferrari 458 Italia is better, and that this isn’t even the best Aston. The Vantage S holds that crown. But I’m afraid there’s no getting round the fact that I loved it. And the main reason I loved it is: you loved it even more.

Normally when I drive an obviously expensive car, people hate it and me. It turns their mouths to meal, and at petrol stations they sneer. “Bet you don’t get many miles to the gallon out of that,” they say. At road junctions they will not let me out. And at night they like to run coins down the side. Expensive cars make people cross. Porsches especially.

But the Aston has exactly the opposite effect. It makes everyone happy. One distinguished-looking man walked up to me in a traffic jam, clutched my forearm and said, “That really does make the most glorious noise, old chap.” Later I came out of a shop in Notting Hill to find a young man staring at it. “That’s just . . .” — he paused for a long time, searching for the right word — “beautiful.”

I got some idea of what it might have been like to be Jesus. One young woman — and I sincerely hope she’s reading this — was so busy looking at the car that she tripped over the kerb and went flying. Hand on heart, I have never, in 30 years of writing about cars, driven anything that engenders such affection.

So who cares if it’s expensive, or not as fast as it should be? Who cares that the instruments are now a bit old- fashioned and that you can’t see out of the back? Why worry about fuel consumption or how the gearbox works or why there’s understeer? This is a car that makes people like you. And that raises an interesting question.

At present, Daily Maily bits of Britain insist that MPs must spend no money at all. If there’s even a whiff of a salary or an expenses claim or a new pair of shoes, they are hounded into a stammering, stuttering apology that makes them look weak and hopeless.

Naturally they feel they have to campaign on foot or on a bicycle, and that if they have to use a car it must be some form of hybrid. They think this makes them look “real”. But actually it makes them look daft. Because we can see it’s all phoney.

So I wonder what would happen if one of them decided that for the next election he should campaign from behind the wheel of a Vanquish Volante. Could a Tory take Rochdale this way? Could a socialist win the hearts and minds of the people in Stow-on-the Wold? You know what? The car’s allure is so powerful, I reckon he probably could.


Verdict ★★★★☆

The people’s supercar


£199,995 (Correct at time of publication)
5935cc, V12
565bhp @ 6750rpm
457 lb ft @ 5500rpm
6-speed auto
0-62mph in 4.1sec
Top speed:
19.6mpg (combined)
Road tax band: