Blue flames. That’s what I will always remember about our first afternoon with these three cars.
Sitting in the quilted leather driver’s seat of the Aston, I can’t help but be mesmerised by the huge exhaust pipe of the charging Aventador in front behaving like a Bunsen burner with its air hole open. On downshifts, upshifts and at one point along the entire length of a straight, it spits cerulean fire.
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To be fair, even when it isn’t carrying around its own large pilot light, the Lamborghini seems to be stealing the limelight from everything, including the stunning view of the snow-capped mountains above Sestola. It’s typified when two elderly men turn up in a Punto, get out and start walking stiffly towards the Aston and Ferrari. Then they simultaneously clock the matt-black wedge parked on the other side of the road and practically run across to it with cries of ‘bella macchina!’ As Jethro Bovingdon says: ‘When there’s an Aventador around it seems nothing else exists.’
Most of the first afternoon is spent driving for the cameras and formation flying for the all-important cover shot (not the work of a moment), but there’s just enough charging up and down getting dizzy through hairpins to form a few initial impressions. These include the fact that the Aston’s steering square, although odd to look at, is actually a really lovely thing to hold and use. Curiously, though, this Vanquish doesn’t feel as stiff as the last DB9 we drove and you need to keep the dampers in their Sport setting permanently to ensure acceptable levels of body control. And what editor Nick Trott perceptively describes as ‘school uniform red’ isn’t the best colour for the otherwise-gorgeous carbonfibre-wrought curves, either.
The overwhelming comments from people clambering out of the Ferrari centre around the fact that, without question, it has the best drivetrain of any road car on sale today. The way its dozen cylinders rev with apparently no inertia is insane and the twin-clutch gearbox not only keeps up, but actually enhances the experience. It’s so sensational that Nick even dares to mention the engine in the same breath as the Rosche V12 in the McLaren F1.
Meanwhile, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s the Lambo with its heavier steering that is actually the easiest car to get comfortable with. Its brakes are also the most reassuring to lean on right up to the ABS trigger point, although admittedly the initially damp roads do favour its four-wheel drive and winter tyres. The Aventador’s single-clutch gearbox has also improved since we last drove one, but its drivetrain, although organic and characterful, feels merely ‘current’ when compared to the Ferrari’s ‘next generation’. Perhaps a Veneno-spec upgrade to the engine would help…
Stunning it may be, but leading the way home in the Aventador in the dark at the end of the day proves that it’s definitely not going to rival the Aston in the GT stakes. It’s more useable than a Diablo or a Countach, but as I feel my way gingerly along the unfamiliar roads, struggling to see past the A-pillars and getting blinded by oncoming lights, it feels about as practical as keeping a blind bull in a Royal Doulton warehouse.That evening we agree that the cars need a bigger road, so we can really get under their respective skins. We schedule an early start for tomorrow.
Starting a supercar in the light of a sparklingly cold dawn is one of those pleasures that can be enjoyed by anyone within earshot, not just those lucky enough to be sitting behind the wheel. In this case that means all the snoozing and snoring residents of the Hotel Corte degli Estensi. I hope they appreciate it because the F12 Berlinetta is quite a special way to be woken. Hold down the big red starter button on the steering hexagon and you trigger a high-pitched whirr of starter motor for just over a second before the 12 cylinders bark into life, startled from their slumbers like rooms 115 to 220. The engine remains at a high, angry idle for approximately a minute before settling to a more subdued number of revs. It’s very F1, very theatrical and I can’t help but smile.
We’re heading down towards one of evo’s favourite Italian stomping grounds today, the wonderful roads around the Futa and Raticosa passes. This means we’ve got a quick run down the motorway for an hour or so first and I decide to stay in the expensive red alarm clock. The tarmac in Italy seems to have deteriorated in sympathy with the nation’s economy and there are cracks and potholes everywhere, yet if you set the magnetorheological dampers to their ‘bumpy road’ setting then the Ferrari irons out the imperfections incredibly well. The auto setting for the gearbox also works seamlessly, slickly shifting ratios and keeping the engine at a purring level so that you can make relaxed and almost unobtrusive progress amongst the traffic. The steering still seems laser-guided at lower speeds but falls just the right side of twitchy, allowing you to slice through roundabouts with a startling economy of movement in your hands.
So it ticks the GT box then? Well, yes and no. You could and would happily drive a long way in an F12 to reach a good road, but if you were just driving a long way then I think it might be a bit frustrating. Unlike the Aston, which soothes away the mundane miles when you’re tired or simply not in the mood, there’s always a simmering tension just below the surface of the Ferrari. It’s like a rapid-response unit permanently on call, or a sprinter in the blocks waiting for the gun. The throttle remains eager at the top of its travel even with the manettino set to Sport or Wet, and although the ride is good, expansion joints still thump noisily and little ripples still reach you. As Jethro says: ‘It’s always a bit brittle. It never quite relaxes and chills out like the Vanquish’.
It certainly seems a happier car when we reach the first tunnel of the day. Windows down, flack, flack, flack (this is the trouble with seven-speed ’boxes), flack on the left-hand paddle, pin the throttle and instantly you could be in Monaco in Grand Prix week. From the screaming exhausts as you’re hurled through the darkness, to the loud crack as a gearchange fires through and extinguishes the red LEDs on the top of the steering wheel, the F12 is pure race car. For a few brief seconds of acceleration it completely fills the tunnel, howl reverberating off the ceiling, the noise gaining that distinctive cavernous echoing depth before shrinking in an instant as you burst back out into the daylight.
I say daylight, but as we climb higher the weather rapidly deteriorates and soon we’re travelling through a cold, damp fog, which is worrying. There’s a service area at our junction so we stop for petrol and coffee, hoping the weather might clear if we don’t look at it for a while. Two police cars roll past and slow for a slightly wistful look. The distinctive blue and white liveries are slapped on Skoda Octavia estates, which just seems wrong. Surely they should be driving something Italian so that in a chase there’s a reasonable hope they’ll break down before they catch you.
I stick with the Ferrari and fall into line behind Jethro in the Lambo as we head off up to the passes. The weather hasn’t improved and the road is damp as snow banked up on the verges slowly melts, but I feel more confident in the F12 today and feel happier to let the revs flare and wheels spin a little. I’m hoping I might get some heat into the Michelins, but while the ‘Vehicle Dynamic Assistance’ display colours the engine and brakes in an encouraging green, the tyres remain a resolutely chilly blue. Nonetheless, although the Aventador’s four-wheel drive ensures it gets out of the corners better, the Ferrari is absolutely savage down the straights and, combined with the advantage of following, I just about manage to keep the angular tail in sight.
The roads are now more flowing and suited to supercars (the Ferrari feels much smaller than a 599 but it’s still wide) and I’m pleased we made the decision to get up here. But when we park at Chalet Raticosa, the weather’s still more miserable than Anne Hathaway singing about her dreams. So while the others clean the cars and film details for the video, I go off in the Ferrari to see if things are any better down one of the roads nearby.
It proves a good decision. A couple of miles away it’s like a different country – the Italy basked in sunshine that you dream of. I keep going until the squiggles run out, do a three-point turn, switch the ESC off and retrace my tracks back up the hill. There is an amazing set of bends that you can see all the way through, and here on warm tarmac the F12 is an absolute oversteer king. The front end simply jinks into a turn without question and then you can post the car sideways at will with the throttle. The E-diff is sensational in the control it gives you over the rear axle, and once you’ve got the rear tyres spinning, it feels like you can just keep them overspeeding all the way up the road, even swinging through direction changes, as Jethro proves later. It does feel like a leap of faith the first time it cuts loose, because you fear the back end could be as spiky as the front, but the rear is actually beautiful to control once it’s moving. The only thing is that the super-quick steering means it’s very easy to end up overcorrecting the slide until you get used to it.
Once I’ve reached the others and relayed the jolly news about the sunshine just down the road, I nab the key to the Aventador. Pull down the door, flick up the red cover, press the button and hear the starter spin for approximately twice the length of even the Ferrari’s before the V12 erupts. A riot of bright graphics appears on the previously black dash (with the rev counter dominating everything), then one pull back on the angular right-hand paddle and you’re away. Strangely, it’s easier to get into a relaxed flow with the big, low Lambo than it is with the F12, linking turns with minimal fuss as you short-shift and bring the fluids back up to temperature.
By the end of yesterday we’d all agreed that Sport mode for the gearbox is perfectly judged and the only setting you need (Strada being too slushy, Corsa too harsh). It also has the added bonus of giving the most rear-biased torque distribution of any of the settings, with a 10:90 split. Likewise, the ESP needs to be turned completely off as (possibly because of the winter treads) ESP Sport still snatches power away like an over-cautious parent.
Rather like giving a polar bear a hug, turning the stability control off on a V12 Lambo is not something you do lightly, but very quickly it’s obvious this Aventador is different. Gone is the subtle but persistent initial understeer that used to prevail, replaced by a front end that just grips and turns. It’s a revelation that instantly makes the Aventador feel smaller, more positive and more wieldy.
There is, however, an obvious knock-on effect of this alacrity at the front: the big weight behind your shoulders is also pitched into corners faster. With the road opening out in front of you through the pillarbox windscreen, so the speed increases. You brake later, turn in harder and you feel the car start to sway a little behind you. It’s subtle, but your heartbeat quickens nonetheless and you rein things in. Inevitably the speed picks up again and a couple of turns later you carry a bit more speed into an appealing right-hander and the back definitely moves this time, so that you have to dial in a quarter-turn of opposite lock to catch it. But amazingly, it’s not terrifying and you find that you aren’t even close to rolling down a hillside. This is good. No, this is better than good. This is brilliant.
Before you know it, you’re using the weight behind you to set the car up; turn in hard, feel the rear sidewalls squirm as the inertia of the 6.5-litre V12 pushes them sideways, apply a smidgen of lock to stabilise it, then pick up the throttle and drive it out of the corner with the car squatting and straightening as you go. Easy. Esses are even better as you can get the weight to transfer one way then the other, the Lambo staying flat and controllable throughout. It’s all very subtle despite the masses at work, and almost in slow-motion coming after the ADD Ferrari, but it’s an utterly bewitching experience and one I can categorically say I never thought I’d have in a 1575kg Lambo.
There are only two downsides. One is wondering how much difference the winter tyres are making and whether it would retain the same balance on a set of summers (if not, then all Aventadors should wear Sottozeros year round!). The other is a brake pedal that, although initially great, seems to go unexpectedly long towards the end of a decent gallop down the road. It’s by no means complete brake fade, but it’s unnerving to have to press harder and harder to access the retardation (we all notice a lovely sweet smell, a bit like Castrol R, wafting up from the brakes after a hard run, which none of us have smelt before). Overall, though, if I enjoyed the theatre of the Aventador yesterday, then I think I’ve just fallen in love with the way it drives today.
I come back with a late lunch for the others and while they’re tucking into cold pizza and a large bag of the Italian version of Hula Hoops (which could easily double as polystyrene packing – I know how to spoil them), I hop into the Vanquish. I feel like I’ve been neglecting the Aston since yesterday afternoon as I’ve had my head turned by the more obvious charms of the Italians, ignoring its diamond-quilted interior in favour of the more spectacular shock diamonds (credit to Nick for remembering their name) coming out of the Aventador’s exhaust. But although it’s the least expensive and least powerful car here, to dismiss the Vanquish is to miss out on a wonderful car.
Back up on the ridge where I’ve just been with the mighty Lambo, the Aston is a more assisted, relaxed experience and there’s greater pitch and roll. It all feels quite soft-focus if you get in it after the Ferrari – part of the reason it makes for a better GT. But it also has a brilliant balance to its chassis, and with a bit more load coming through the front tyres on this dry road, the steering has the best feel of the trio, weighting up nicely as you increase the lock. This allows you to really push the front end until it nibbles into slip before picking up the throttle and feeling the loads move rearwards. The DSC Track mode is really well judged too, but the limited-slip diff only seems to lock lightly on the way out of corners so you can be quite aggressive with the throttle, knowing that a certain amount of the energy will dissipate through the spinning inside tyre before any slide gets too big. It’s not quite as dynamically exhilarating, but the balance and well-matched grip levels front-to-rear do give the Vanquish a friendlier and more approachable character.
It’s a good day when 565bhp feels merely adequate, and as we’ve already established, this is a very good day. As the 0-62mph figures suggest, the Aston’s V12 doesn’t quite offer the awe-inspiring acceleration of the other two, but the gargling growl is easily a match for the Ferrari’s wail in terms of tone if not volume. The one area in which you really can’t defend the Aston in this company, however, is the six-speed Touchtronic automatic gearbox. The shifts generate definite pauses in progress, slurring rather than snapping, and as Nick says, ‘It just feels a bit old.’ The rate at which you can rifle back down through the ratios partly dictates your progress through corners, too. You have to plan further ahead, braking a fraction earlier and giving the ’box a bit of time rather than popping in rapid twitches of the left-hand paddle at the last moment.
Admittedly, this enforced slower rate of progress can feel like a blessed relief at times. Unlike the other two, the Aston doesn’t upbraid you if you want to enjoy a glance at the softening renaissance light falling across the Tuscan hills. It won’t goad you relentlessly if you get stuck behind some ancient Panda 4x4 with chickens on the parcel shelf either. It gives out exactly the more restrained vibe you’d expect from a consummate classy GT.
As is the way on group tests, everything seems under control until the light starts disappearing. At this point all hell seems to break loose as Sam and Dean try to get the last bits of video and photography done before the moon appears. Tripods are frantically erected, shutters are released and then an hour later, with xenons flickering on, we pack up the mighty Peugeot 5008 hire car (single-clutch paddle-shift. Dean stalled it. Twice) and start the journey back towards Maranello via Sant’Agata.
I take the F12 just to check it can do smooth like the Aston. It sort of can, but somehow it never seems long before you’ve crept back up to a pace where a Vanquish would be (or in this case, is) receding in the mirrors. Suddenly keeping that barking 730bhp in check has become a real challenge once more and your work rate inside the car has increased as you try to develop the hands of a surgeon and the feet of a ballet dancer. It’s so fast and brutal in response to the smallest input that you are constantly busy.
There’s no pause when you change gear because the paddle reacts on the ‘f’ of the flick, the next ratio going home almost before you’ve pulled through all the travel. The brakes slam you forward so hard that a four-point harness seems like a good idea. The acceleration is so fierce and unrelenting that you struggle to process the rate at which the corners are approaching. And the torsional stiffness of the chassis means the whole car moves as one over cambers and bumps. If driving the Aston is like watching normal television, then driving the Ferrari is like switching on HD, turning up the surround sound, holding down the fast-forward button and trying to keep up with the plot. It’s a wild ride, but if your synapses will fire fast enough then the car gives you all the tools to controls it.
Through supper that night, on the flight home early the next morning and in the office during the following days, we chat about the test over and over again. There had been a worry that the Aston would be overwhelmed, but it wasn’t. Carving its GT niche, it stood tall, but as Jethro says: ‘If they ever do an S version to compete on a supercar level then they can definitely afford to be quite bold with it, going much firmer on the dampers and letting the chassis’ depth of talent shine.’ Nick agrees, adding: ‘It can easily handle another 100bhp.’
Perhaps understandably, though, most of the discussion is about the Prancing Horse and the Raging Bull. The F12 is definitely more supercar than GT and so it’s natural that after two days the Aventador feels like the closer rival. And they’re incredibly hard to split. Yes, the Ferrari has an appealing layer of everyday useability, but then the Lamborghini wins on sheer visual drama. ‘Driving it, listening to it, just being near it reintroduces me to the feelings of awe and wonder I had for exotic cars as a kid,’ says Nick of the Aventador.
He’s not so keen on the Ferrari’s looks, but nevertheless suggests the genius notion of a one-make tarmac rally championship for the F12, summing up in a nutshell how much fun it is to drive. There’s no doubt that the Ferrari is also on another level technologically and the whole industry is playing catch-up in that regard. But then there was the priceless smile on everyone’s face after driving the Lambo and feeling in control of that monstrous V12 moving around behind them…
That both cars are as utterly intoxicating as their looks and spec sheets promise is an astounding achievement. But, with the argument going round in circles, it ultimately comes down to a simple choice of what you’d pick if you could only have one. When our votes are counted, it’s two-one to the Aventador and its blue flames.