Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day. On those occasions you need xenons. It’s nearing midnight, there is a small angry gale blowing across Snowdonia and the interior of the V12 Vantage is awash with what appears to be starlight seeping through from behind buttons and dials. The high, leather-covered dashboard and rakishly low roofline create a windscreen aperture akin to a pillar box slot, but I feel snug inside, sheltered from the battering being dealt to the dark landscape we’re hammering through.
Seven hours ago I was being walked around the car in the sunshine outside Aston Martin’s HQ at Gaydon. When you first lift up the bonnet it makes you laugh as you wonder how many of the engineers at Aston spend their spare time putting ships into bottles. It is hard to work out exactly how the DBS’s 510bhp engine has been shoehorned in there as there is literally no free space – the Vantage is shorter than a 911 remember. The sump has had to be reworked and the oil filter is awkwardly tucked away down the right-hand side, while pipes have been shaved and scallops taken out so that you can get the bonnet shut, like closing the lid on an overfilled holiday suitcase.
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On top of the bonnet are what are unofficially known as the Marmite vents. Whatever you think of these four carbonfibre stripes, they certainly make the V12 Vantage distinct from the V8 when it’s coming towards you. The low front splitter (also carbon), the flick-up on the boot and the side skirts all come from the N24 race programme and make the V12 look chunkier and more purposeful than the almost delicate V8.
Insert the ‘ECU’ (key), spin the starter motor and 5.9 litres gargles into life. As photographer Dave Shepherd and I drive away down Aston’s gravel driveway we have little over 24 hours ahead of us with the V12 Vantage and we intend to make the most of them. Up the M40, M42, M5 and M54 and we’re onto the A5 heading for North Wales. Soon, though, we leave the main artery and cut across country. Here, between the neat hedges, the acceleration that had already seemed quick on a three-lane motorway feels almost uncomfortably rapid. The reason for this is not just the proximity of the scenery flashing past the wing mirrors but the way the V12 makes its speed.
Sustained acceleration out of, say, a roundabout is incredibly linear – there are no peaks or troughs in the delivery, just an unwavering line climbing up the speed versus time graph. There’s a small spike as power peaks just after 6000rpm (more noticeable in the wet!) but there’s no obvious aural crescendo to the engine’s revs so it’s quite easy to run unwittingly into the limiter. So it feels fast but somehow not mind-blowing. However, on a give-and-take road where you’re constantly slowing and accelerating, the V12 is brutal. Whatever the gear, whatever the revs, the shrink-wrapped engine leaps forward as soon as your right foot flexes. There’s no lag, no wind- up, no time for contemplation, it’s as though you’ve instantly hit the supercar sweet-spot every time you accelerate.
Through Bala, on towards Ffestiniog, and we’re onto the roads we came here for. The mountains turn rapidly from golden to inky blue and then disappear as the sun first rests on the horizon and then drops into it. There is no traffic whatsoever up here now, although the buzz as we cross a cattle grid reminds us that sheep will still be bumbling around in the dark like ghostly clouds. Fortunately the V12 Vantage is equipped with the huge carbon brakes from the DBS. The 398mm front discs lurk massively behind the shockingly spindly wheels and they are some of the best brakes I have ever tried, progressive and powerful right from the top of the pedal’s travel. This allows you to wipe off a reassuring bite of speed with a considered brush of the pedal, but push harder and you can feel the rough carbon surface on the disc as you haul off lumps of speed with amazing stability.
Part of the braking performance is, naturally, down to the tyres. Indeed, the Pirelli P Zero Corsas are the other defining factor around which the car was engineered. They are an extreme tyre like Michelin’s Pilot Sport Cup and the fact that they are fitted shows just what the philosophy is for the V12 Vantage. You’re sitting in a fixed-back carbon bucket seat and holding an Alcantara-covered steering wheel for a reason: the V12 Vantage is no freakish over-engined dragster, no soft straight-line train, it is a gentleman’s road-racer. Grip in the corners is phenomenal, the suspension feeling short in travel, the whole car much more connected to the surface of the road than either a V8 or DBS. The alacrity of the direction changes is just what you’d expect from such a short wheelbase, and for the most part belies the fact that the engine in front of you weighs 100kg more than the one in the V8.
Traction through the huge 295-section rears is supreme in the dry, which is reassuring when you’re getting to know the Vantage in the dark. Gradually I begin to push harder, trusting the grip, leaning into the buckets, using the brakes so I can use more of the power. In the dark the way the V12 eats up the distance between corners is even more disconcerting, but speed isn’t the only intoxicating product of pressing the throttle; the melodious yet steely edged howl from the exhausts is Aston at its finest – and we have plans for it.
We head away from the heather-strewn moors and into the rather grim terraced streets of Ffestiniog – the last place you’d expect to find a pristine white Audi R8! We pull over at the side of the road and have a surreal chat under the sodium streetlights with its young owner, Sean, who instantly falls for the V12. After five minutes we head our separate ways. A petrol stop beckons for us so it’s into Betws-y-Coed before dashing to check in at the Groes Inn before 11pm. The inn has stopped serving food but the lady behind the bar kindly gets us a couple of thirst-quenchers in exchange for a look at the Aston. Then it’s back out into the starlit night and northwards for Conwy’s castle and, more importantly, its tunnel…
The wind is bending the branches on the trees now and rain is starting to spot the windscreen. At tickover, while we set the cameras up, the Aston has a wonderfully deep oscillating warble that sounds a bit like the exhaust is underwater. Before we head underground it’s important to press the Sport button as this not only sharpens the throttle but also opens the exhaust butterflies earlier. Through the tunnel it turns out that the Aston actually sounds better with the windows up as otherwise you get too much turbulence buffeting through the shallow opening and billowing into your lughole.
Part of the V12’s acceleration flexibility comes from its relatively short gearing (third is only just good for 100mph), which also means I can legally enjoy the engine’s full vocal range through all of first and second. And if you buy a V12 then be sure to get someone to drive it past you occasionally while you stand at the side of the road, as the sound from the outside really is the stuff of dreams.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Shepherd packs all his tripods and lenses into the Vantage’s remarkably accommodating boot and we head towards the Llanberis Pass and the evo Triangle for a couple of runs. It dawned bright but a strong westerly soon sweeps the clouds back in again and the road is quickly drenched – not the dry, seven-degree conditions that the Pirellis really want. Fortunately there’s a good traction-control system with an intermediate stage between on and off, and the fundamental balance of the Vantage makes its tail easy to catch, although the short wheelbase obviously means that when it goes it will go a long way quickly.
In the cold light of day there are two niggles, both of which Aston could easily fix, I’m sure. One is a tendency for the revs to flare as you dip the clutch and change gear (something we’ve noticed on other Astons). The other is the gearknob, which is a big, clumsy angular paperweight. If they could put a nice semi-spherical Alcantara knob on the lever then it would complement what is actually a very sweet gearchange instead of making it feel a touch cumbersome.
They’re minor grumbles though, and as the roads dry and we begin heading east for the Bedford Autodrome I feel like I’m really getting to know the Vantage. The ride on the passive dampers is firm – firmer than some Aston customers might expect – but perfectly judged for the character of the car and in no way uncomfortable. It’s the front end that’s been puzzling me up to this point. The steering has great weighting and there’s undoubtedly feedback once into a corner, but the front tyres don’t give you a sense of being entirely locked onto the road. You need to guide rather than hurl the nose onto a trajectory and if it’s a long curve then you’ll find your hands making micro movements of the wheel, almost as if the big nose of the car is bobbing. It actually helps to trail-brake slightly, weighting the nose onto line. As soon as you’re into the corner you then steer using the throttle too, adjusting the balance so that the rear pushes round and through the corner, using that fantastic traction and instant hit of torque to slam you up the road with a grin on your face. Does any of that sound familiar? I’m sure it’s raised a wry smile at Gaydon that the V12 Vantage is, bizarrely, not without its similarities to a 911.
All the torque and grip in the world aren’t enough to beat Friday-night traffic, though, and we arrive at the Bedford Autodrome too late to go round the West Circuit, where there’s now an event taking place. Another time. We settle for a quick slide around the East Circuit (for the benefit of the camera, you understand) before I head off to Millbrook to get some straight-line figures as the sun starts to sink. Getting the car off the line is tricky, as dumping the clutch anywhere above tickover seems to result in a black number 11 being drawn on the mile straight. Fun but slow. Our 4.4sec to 60mph is four tenths shy of Aston’s claim, but fresh rubber would probably sort that.
Driving back to Gaydon, glorious interior softly glowing in the darkness once more, there is no doubt that the V12 Vantage is the best car that Aston makes. The best it’s made for a while. Crowbarring 50 per cent more cylinders into a small car is childishly appealing to any enthusiast, but there was always the danger that Aston’s engineers could have created a caricaturish monster. They haven’t. It’s got character yet it’s refined; it’s got instant pace yet a depth that makes you want to live with it. Debonair and unafraid, it feels like a truly British Aston Martin and I love it.
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, four valves per cylinder|
|Max power||510bhp @ 6500rpm|
|Max torque||420lb ft @ 5750rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip diff, DSC|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated and cross-drilled carbon-ceramic discs, 398mm front, 360mm rear, ABS, EBD, EBA|
|Wheels||9 x 19in front, 11 x 19in rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||255/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR19 rear, Pirelli P Zero Corsa|
|Top speed||190mph (claimed)|