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Aston Martin V12 Vantage Roadster review
After three long years of waiting, the Roadster version of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage has finally arrived. To find out whether the lack of a fixed roof hinders its performance, Jethro Bovingdon makes a beeline for North Wales and the evo Triangle
Aim the oblong chunk of glass at the round ‘Engine Start’ target on the centre console, push it into the small slot at its centre and through the spring-loading that tries to fire it back out like a missile. Now keep it there and wait.
The little delay gives all your cynicism the chance to bubble to the surface. ‘Pah, it’s just another Aston that looks the same and feels the same. Come on guys, when are we going to see something really new?’ Then a high-pitched starter whirs and the 5.9-litre V12 catches with a sharp, multi-layered scowl and settles down into a busy, impatient, expensive-sounding blare. The bubbles pop. And despite your rational mind screaming ‘don’t do it!’ an irresistible force flexes your right ankle. What a noise. Old, recycled, stolen… who cares when the final result is a 510bhp V12 stuffed into a tiny V8 Vantage shell that’s been decapitated? Cynicism melts away pretty quickly when the V12 Vantage Roadster is tingling with that mighty engine.
Yes, this is the new Vantage V12 Roadster. And the question it begs isn’t so much ‘why would you?’ – more like ‘what’s taken you so long?’ The tin-top V12 Vantage has been around since 2009 and it’s Aston’s wildest, most extrovert machine. It’s a little ball of noise and fury leaking hot gases through carbonfibre vents. Take off its roof and what you lose in structural integrity you get back with interest in noise and drama, right? Well, that’s the theory, but the V12 already asks some pretty big questions of the Vantage’s chassis. There is a danger that without a roof to keep a lid on all the chaos, the V12 Vantage could descend into a noisy reminder that Aston really does need a new trick…
Peel away the familiar body panels and you’ll find an equally familiar chassis. Aston’s VH (vertical/horizontal) chassis has been around since the Vanquish arrived in 2001, but it’s evolved significantly over those 11 years. And it isn’t as if the bonded and riveted aluminium chassis is outmoded technology: Porsche has only just introduced a largely aluminium chassis for the 911 and Ferrari has committed to the material for the foreseeable future, too. The V12 Vantage Roadster gets the same basic structure as a V8 Vantage Roadster, which features a stronger crossbeam behind the dash and thicker, more rigidly fixed aluminium undertrays to further boost structural strength. Unique to the V12 Roadster are a new rear damper and spring design and, of course, the damper and spring rates are revised to compensate for the loss in rigidity.
It’s what the aluminium chassis cradles that’s really important, though. Almost 6-litres, 48-valves, 510bhp at 6500rpm and 420lb ft at 5750rpm, hooked up to a six-speed manual gearbox (hallelujah!) driving the rear wheels. That’s one heck of a set-up for a car considerably shorter and lower than a 991-generation Porsche 911. And although the peak torque figures might suggest that the big motor needs some revs to get going, the truth is that it always feels beautifully and effortlessly muscular, despite the fact it’s pushing a substantial 1760kg, some 80kg more than the coupe version. Aston claims a top speed of 190mph (same as the coupe) and 0-62mph in 4.5sec (0.1sec slower), so a Nissan GT-R or 911 Turbo would swat it away with ease. But as cars become so quick that they can make your eyes bleed, 0-62mph stats become less and less relevant. This little car does 190mph, so it’s very rare that it feels a bit flat, I can assure you.
So you’ve waited that tantalising wait, heard the V12, done that bloody childish blip, grabbed the huge metal gearshifter with the well-oiled action that doesn’t quite fit with its awkward, lumpen shape. Bring up the clutch, tickle the throttle but get a load more revs than you expected and you’re away with the smell of lightly toasted clutch hanging in the air and that fizzy feeling in your stomach. The Roadster has already marked your card: ‘Up your game, son, this car needs driving.’
The easily delivered torque smoothes the first few miles, though. There’s just so much of it, sweet and linear and with none of the hurried, boosted delivery that has increasingly become the norm with the near-ubiquity of turbocharging. The Vantage celebrates exactly what it is: a small car with a thumping great engine, and it feels special even at 15mph. But you don’t need to go much quicker than that to notice that this isn’t a coupe, the odd wobble through the steering column and the occasional shimmy around the windscreen header rail soon giving the game away. It’s not terrible by any means and I’ll admit to an almost pathological hatred of convertible shakes, so perhaps a ‘normal’ person (i.e. someone not suffering from OCD) wouldn’t even notice. Not enough to care anyway.
Subtle or not, if you’re going to feel those tugs and shudders, you might as well enjoy the benefits. Today, thankfully, we can. The air is cool; look right and vast, inky clouds are hovering menacingly, look left and it’s all blue skies and sunshine. But with a hood that opens this swiftly, any opportunity, however fleeting, is worth taking. Besides, the Vantage is one of the few cars that looks even better in Roadster form, so why not let everyone enjoy it while you get up close and personal with that V12?
People really do love the V12 Vantage Roadster, too. The Vantage’s stance has always been absolutely right but the carbonfibre jewellery adds an edge. The front splitter and rear diffusers are beautifully executed, the extended rear spoiler looks just-so and the carbon bonnet vents will never look old. I’m sure this particular spec isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the impact it creates and the feeling that this is a meticulous, bespoke car is fantastic. Aston has made leaps and bounds in quality terms over the last few years, too. Early DB9s felt handmade in the worst sense of the word and the first V8 Vantages weren’t much better, but this car immediately feels solid and honed. Even the stitching of the leather, the actions of all the switches and buttons seem more precise and permanent. And you don’t have to go for the pink formica centre console.
Those warm, fuzzy feelings aren’t enough, of course. This is a £150,000 car. That’s £15,000 more than the coupe and over £30,000 more than an Audi R8 V10 Spyder or a 911 Turbo Cabriolet. It’s also only £23K less than a Ferrari 458 Italia. You might buy in to the whole James Bond cool of Aston Martin, but if it were you writing the cheque, you’d want to know that it can compete. Well, this is where we find out, on the roads the evo crew knows as well as its own driveways.
You might be tempted to press the Sport button to crank up the noise and quicken throttle response. In the dry it’s a pretty good set-up that gives you instant, sharp access to the engine, but the standard throttle map is actually easier to modulate, even if it initially feels a tad lazy. A setting between the two would work better as the more aggressive Sport mode feels too jumpy, particularly in wet conditions. But do press the glass button with the picture of a skidding car for a few seconds to select DSC Sport. It’s beautifully configured and gives you freedom to express yourself, safe in the knowledge that the system will wake up quickly and decisively should your ambition outweigh your talent. Now the V12 Vantage Roadster is ready.
I love this road, but it’s a car-killer. There are sump scars everywhere, fast corners with nasty compressions, slow corners that kick you wide over a sudden crest on the exit, and braking zones that plunge downhill so you panic and trigger the ABS.Basically it’s the road to pick apart a car that’s had its roof lopped off with clinical efficiency.
The Roadster gets to the end of it in one piece, lightly frazzled but with its triumphant V12 hollering. It does squirm when you really get into the carbon-ceramic brakes, the steering sometimes goes sticky if you’re asking the car to turn, brake and soak up ragged tarmac, and the body can heave over those compressions and you suddenly feel all 1760kg. So it’s not perfect. But there is real quality here amongst those instances when it threatens to unravel and, more than that, you’re with it every inch of the way. You feel what it feels, and as it communicates so clearly, you try to make its life a bit easier by being more considered, picking lines more carefully, looking well ahead so you can precisely time braking input, downchange and turn-in. It’s not a car you beat up like the GT-R – you tease and cajole it.
The star attraction remains the 5.9-litre engine. It is just fabulous. I know it doesn’t have the sheer bite of a Ferrari V12 or the runaway force-of-nature fury of a Lamborghini V12, but it has a character all of its own and it still flings the Vantage along at a mighty lick. Unlike an F12 or an Aventador, you can actually use all of the performance it offers; you sometimes clatter into the limiter but I love the feeling that you can hustle this car along as fast as it’ll go.
There isn’t the mechanical grip of something like a 991 or GT-R either, but that again just makes the Roadster more accessible, and the P Zero Corsas still provide loads of traction. You have to manage just a bit of turn-in understeer (although much less than you’d ever expect with that big engine out front), maybe rolling in a little oversteer correction on corner exit. In fact, the balance is very impressive, and in the dry you quickly feel happy to disable DSC altogether, although in the wet the Vantage does start to feel a bit more spiky. You’d keep learning more about this car every day for a very long time.
That great moorland road leads back onto the A5 towards Betws-y-Coed, but if you take a left before you get there you’ll find other great roads that are smoother and tighter. Here the Roadster’s structural compromises are less marked but its weight is felt more forcefully. I’m having a great time, enjoying the gently murmuring steering, that elastic power delivery and using the weight to dictate the balance through some of the better-sighted corners. You might feel the mass moving around but the Roadster still changes direction beautifully. And when you get the rear loose, the linear torque is a real boon. You don’t get that great AMG-style whumpf that sends the car out onto the lock-stops, instead the Vantage likes to work smaller angles but hold them from entry to exit with one steering input. It’s a fantastic sensation. In isolation you can only conclude that this is an intoxicating way to blow £150,000.
However, you have to put this car, like any other, into the context of its perceived rivals. Quite simply, the new 991 Cabriolet has more grip, more control and less scuttle shake. The 997 Turbo is on another planet in terms of outright pace. The R8 has an even finer balance, less corrupted steering on bumpy surfaces and feels very nearly as special. The 458 is a little more expensive and is so much sharper and more agile. If this were a group test, the Aston would be fighting for its life and gasping for air.
Fortunately for Aston Martin, the world isn’t that black-and-white. This car does have real dynamic polish but its appeal is vastly magnified by the way it makes you feel. The noise is endlessly entertaining, the sense that a huge engine has been shoehorned into this compact shell is faintly ludicrous and deeply wonderful, and the unique interior is sometimes frustrating but always uplifting. I can’t pretend it’s perfect, but this car makes you happy, and surely that’s got to count for something?