An hour ago, the new Aston Martin Vanquish was humming quietly up the M6, lighting up motorway signs to Scotland in a cool blue, seats gently toasting jeans, 5.9-litre V12 hushed almost to silence and suspension imperceptibly smoothing out the coarse, lorry-rutted tarmac. Now the sun is burning white, the sky is lightly streaked with wisps of cloud and the B6357 out of Newcastleton is turning, falling and punching, biting at P Zeros and, when it gets the chance, the Vanquish’s aluminium underbelly. It is a quite sensational road and an extraordinary test of a car that must take the fight to a new generation of supercars. It is also unquestionably the place to find out whether Aston’s new flagship and DBS replacement is a sticking plaster or a genuinely new lease of life.
Do you remember the first time you saw the original Aston Martin Vanquish? Probably when it was glinting on a show stand at Geneva, dropping jaws and opening wallets. It just looked so glamorous, so effortlessly cool, a world away from the Virage line that went before and a brave new chapter for a company finally on its way to stability. Well, that was 11 years ago, and Aston hasn’t made a radical styling move since, despite breaking out into new sectors and taking on everything from 911s to Ferrari 599s to Bentley Flying Spurs. Nobody would surely suggest the DB9, Vantage, Rapide and DBS are anything but handsome machines, but the current range’s ‘Russian doll’ mentality is, for many, too much of a good thing. There’s a real sense that it’s time for Aston to make another giant leap forward to secure its future and to capture the imagination of the buying public again. Aston knows it too, and dusting off the Vanquish name for its new range-topper is a bold statement. Can that fabulous badge rejuvenate the company once more? Like many of you, I really hope so.
So I’ve digested the press release and the tech spec, and if I close my eyes and repeat the key details – full carbonfibre bodywork, a 25 per cent stiffer chassis with 75 per cent new parts, a reworked V12 mounted 13mm lower, a storming 565bhp and 457lb ft, a price of £189,995, a car that ‘points to an exciting and confident future’ – it all sounds too good to be true. And then I open my eyes again and can’t help thinking that the Vanquish looks like the DBS with a boot spoiler and some slightly better-defined rear haunches. It’s another handsome Aston, but radical it ain’t. Let’s hope the driving experience does manage to reflect the sheer depth of change that Aston Martin claims the Vanquish represents…
So the road climbs and winds out of sight, the six-speed Touchtronic 2 gearshift is in manual mode, and a little red light on the Sport button on the gorgeous steering wheel (flat-sided and lifted from the exquisite One-77) signals that the exhaust is in naughty mode, the steering weight is beefed-up and throttle response is at its sharpest. The Adaptive Damping System (ADS) is in Sport mode, too. The dampers, suspended by double wishbones all-round, are continuously variable but the Normal, Sport and Track modes dictate the parameters within which they work. On a road that seems to be struggling to stop the earth below from bursting through, I suspect we’ll leave the Track setting for another day. So the car is optimised for the here and now. And you know what? It feels different. In a good way.
It’s thanks to that new lighter, stiffer chassis, which permeates every control. The steering is smoother and rarely gets that nasty corrugated judder that has always affected VH-platform Astons. You just know it’s located better and that it’s turning wheels that are in tune with the surface. The ride is quite hard in Sport but the damping only ever needs one bite to deal with bumps, and the turn-in response and mid-corner feel is so much more secure thanks to that efficiency.
Like the now-defunct Aston Martin Virage (the super-DB9, not the horrid old shed), the Vanquish also has superb traction in the dry and feels less edgy than the sometimes unpredictable DBS. Skimming over crests, plunging into left-right compressions and thumping out of tight hairpins, the Vanquish is hooked-up and agile. Much earlier, on the monotonous M6, save for quite a lot of road noise the Vanquish did the bewitching big-lunged GT thing perfectly. Skimming the Scottish borders it seems to make a pretty good fist of being a sports car, too.
Rolling into Hawick with the V12’s sophisticated gurgle bouncing off granite buildings, the carbon-ceramic brakes nicely baked and a heat haze putting the world into soft focus as hot gases escape from those lovely bonnet vents, I’m rather taken with the Vanquish. But when you slow down, there are things that grate in such an expensive car. Sure, I love that strange flat-sided steering wheel, which is delicious to hold, but the rest of the interior seems overly fussy. The instruments themselves are still a real treat but the new touch-sensitive controls that vibrate a little to acknowledge your prod (called haptic feedback) seem a bit like a 1970s version of the future rather than a useful innovation. And the seats are truly awful. On the motorway they were acceptable but hardly cocooning, and on the B6357 they offer precisely zero support. Perhaps the chassis would feel even better if you weren’t clinging on to the steering wheel for dear life through the corners.
A surprisingly good sausage bap at the local Sainsbury’s, a strong coffee for both photographer Dean Smith and me, and another £100 of super-unleaded for the Aston is all it takes for the Vanquish to seem a very nice place to be again. Even the cheap-looking satnav graphics, those touchscreen controls and the God-awful seats seem just a little less important. In Volcano Red the Vanquish looks sensational out in the real world, parked amongst grey hatchbacks and rows of shopping trolleys. And when the V12 bellows into life the big Aston feels truly special.
There’s a frost warning on the dashboard to temper enthusiasm but the sky is blue and the surface on the road out of Hawick is bone-dry. Better still, the B6399 that leads back to Newcastleton is another inspirational snake of tarmac – single-lane for a time but then opening out into fast sweeping corners that hug thickly wooded forests and scrubby heather moorland. It’s the Vanquish’s first chance to make its revised V12 really tell and the sustained, intensifying run to the limiter is a clear step on from the DBS. This isn’t a great hammer of an engine that overwhelms the rear tyres with torque. It likes revs and now it really has an appetite above 5500rpm, the point where the DBS started to feel a bit strangled. Of course it’s not even close to the sheer lunacy of the F12, nor as thrilling as a scalpel-sharp 458 or as stupefying as an MP4-12C, but 565bhp in 1739kg is just about enough to pass for supercar status in these mind-bending times. Certainly it’s rare that you feel short-changed by the 5.9-litre V12.
However, you always feel mildly disappointed with the Touchtronic 2 transmission – a six-speed ZF torque-converter automatic with paddle-shift. Around town it’s refined and slips into the background, but it lacks the creamy seamlessness of the new-generation ZF eight-speed automatic. And when that mighty V12 is spinning hard and you expect a percussive ignition-cut upshift, the reality is a slow drawl. When the rest of the car is so on the money and sharp, it’s an ironically jarring experience. The gearbox is probably the only dynamic area where the Vanquish already feels old, and even in isolation, it’s a problem in a £190K machine. I’d rather have a manual, but it seems the Vanquish won’t be offered thus. What it needs is the new ZF eight-speeder or, better yet, a dual-clutch ’box like the SLS or F12. And soon.
So to The uncomfortable discussion about the rivals. Uncomfortable because the Ferrari F12 has just redefined the front-engined supercar and simply blows the Vanquish away in every measurable sense. The F12 has 730bhp at 8250rpm and weighs 1630kg, it’s a full second quicker to 62mph at 3.1sec and does 211mph to the Aston’s 183. OK, so it’s more expensive at a whopping £239,736, but Ferrari – fighting fit and on a roll – looks confident and innovative, and the F12 is the car against which the Vanquish will be measured. How can it hope to compete?
Skimming across this beautiful landscape, I’m struggling to find a convincing answer. Other than to say that maybe the Vanquish just doesn’t have to. It is a very different character to the F12 – more laid back, less flashy and without the F1 baggage. Although it might be a little old-fashioned in comparison to the new Ferrari, it’s still highly capable and genuinely exciting. It’s also brilliantly accessible. It takes almost no time to build confidence in the Vanquish thanks to the smooth, linear steering response, strong front-end grip and similarly resolute traction. In that respect it’s a more reassuring and predictable car to hustle than the more naturally oversteery SLS or the pointy, demanding F12. In fact, for a heavy and powerful rear-driver, the balance is superb. Eventually you’ll sense some understeer, especially when you ask the Vanquish to flick between direction changes without a recovery phase, but it’s mild and the front tyres soon really dig in. What’s even better is that you can really commit to the throttle to neutralise any push without fear of a sudden breakaway at the rear. Oversteer is something you have to actively provoke.
If you obsess about hustling a great slice of V12 supercar on the lockstops (don’t worry, it’s an illness we know well and nurture with the help of free tyres and understanding PR departments), that stability might sound a little dull. But the reality is that it makes the Vanquish wonderfully exploitable and allows you to drive it very close to its limits, scratching out every last bit of grip, using the carbon-ceramics to their full potential and leaning on the front end with the freedom you might enjoy in a really well-sorted front-wheel-drive car. Choose to go beyond the limit of the front tyres and the Vanquish’s DSC is a great aid. Select DSC Track Mode by holding down the glass button for five seconds and you’re pretty much unhindered until you get the optimum angle of attack, the electronics balancing the Vanquish just beyond the edge and then gradually reining the rear back into line on corner exit. It’s really quite superb in these dry conditions.
Of course, you can still turn off the DSC altogether and there’s little to fear from doing so. The electronics have clearly been optimised to work with an already well-sorted chassis rather than to tame any nasty handling characteristics, so the Vanquish’s neutral and progressive balance remains intact. You can still punch it hard into corners and quickly load the rear tyres with all the power the V12 can serve up, and you can still sense the front gently slipping wide and then tightening again as the rear starts to steer the car, too. And if you drive through those signals you can indulge in lurid, tyre-smoking oversteer. It’s a big car, the Vanquish, and it demands plenty of room and plenty of respect if you want to play the hooligan, but it’s nice to know it’s got a sense of humour and remains composed even under extreme duress.
And it is extreme. The roads that skirt the Anglo-Scottish border and cling precariously to the landscape are a big test. The Vanquish has yumped and slithered, but mainly it’s just gripped and glided, showing real resolve, depth of ability and that wonderfully fast-flowing momentum that only cars with a huge, normally aspirated engine can summon. More than that, it’s proven that evolution can be a wonderful thing. The VH chassis architecture has moved on markedly and you can sense the added rigidity of the platform and the clean responses that it allows. In terms of damping, balance, agility and progressiveness, the Vanquish is ostensibly a new car and a much better one than the DBS. It’s a good news story in an uncertain time for Aston Martin. Frustratingly, I suspect it’s a story that will pass most casual observers by. I really wish they’d have gone further with the styling.
The sun is fading fast by the time we point the Vanquish south and a bit of haptic feedback confirms that the heated seats are back on duty. The Vanquish roars like a GT3 on concrete surfaces but for the most part it’s a model of quiet, effortless refinement. Every time we stop, it’s a magnet for phone-wielding well-wishers, and on the motorway it’s circled by people straining for a closer look. The Vanquish, it seems, has star quality. The big question remains whether that star is in the ascendancy or about to go supernova. Let’s hope it’s the former, because the Vanquish is proof positive that Aston Martin has talented engineers and understands how to make a GT that doesn’t mind getting down and dirty, which is just the way we like them.
But for all its talents, the Vanquish feels like another interim solution, a baby step before the next leap forward. The problem is that with every baby step, Aston’s immediate rivals pull inexorably ahead. It’s going to take a giant leap to catch them.