Aston Martins are golly gosh cars. They are reasonably rare, loud and exciting. They race and win at Le Mans and other epic tracks. Rio Ferdinand is an enthusiastic “ambassador” and owner. They sponsor the One Pro cycling team, sell the Storck bikes, do fashion goods. Its heritage factory makes million-pound replicas of classic models.
Last week Aston was in northern England, using roads between County Durham and the Scottish border for a media launch of the new Vantage two-seater coupe and the Volante convertible version of the DB11 2+2 coupe. With top speeds nearing 200mph, it was always going to be just a taster, a glimpse, a thrill, a pleasure.
The base was the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland, one of those historic and comfortable “weekend away” places. A cheery hill farmer (beef and sheep) in wellies and other sensible clothes came down, saying she’d bring her 17-year-old daughter to see the cars. It is the sort of recognition the Warwickshire carmaker wants, as it moves into its second century. This will be an age of electrification replacing or aiding the brute power of V8 petrol engines. The first electric model, a Rapide saloon, will come from its new South Wales “electric” factory late next year, followed by an SUV. Yes, they’re all doing SUVs these days. The factory at St Athan will also make the reborn Lagonda luxury car in the electric 2020s. It has created 1,000 new jobs.
Vantage is an all-new version of its smallest and cheapest car – from around £121,000. It shares some kit with the DB11, including the V8 engine and electronics from its 5 per cent shareholder, Mercedes-Benz. This German technology and reliability gave Aston Martin time to concentrate on its core skills – beauty and driving. A “ breath of fresh air” said one Aston insider. Reliability hadn’t been its ace card. The company made £87 million profit last year on sales of 5,117 cars. The previous year it had lost twice that amount. This month it floated on the London stock exchange as a public company. Vroom vroom.
For the moment, all its cars are petrol-powered, either the V12 made by Aston Martin or the imported Mercedes-Benz AMG twin turbo four-litre V8 in the Volante and DB11. They drive the rear wheels through a rear-mounted eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. All-wheel-drive? Not offered.
With my driving CV the Vantage should be my pick. It is lighter and tighter packed than the DB11, has plenty of luggage space, all expertly furnished in leather, with luxury carpet on the floor and sides of the luggage area. The liftback is practical. I am told it will carry two sets of golf clubs and trolleys and luggage, as well as the players and no doubt some balls.
Its personality has been sharpened, I think to reach the more sporting drivers who may have found the brand not quite focused enough. I wonder whether Aston Martin has also been chasing the handling ratings in influential car mags. We haven’t grown out of that Top Gear mood. It is an aggressive car, with edgy and pushy styling and a hair-trigger throttle, almost saying let’s go baby. At 60mph or 70mph it feels impatient, needing concentration to keep it to heel. The mildest driving and suspension modes are fiery Sport, selected by buttons. They make the car almost nervous, never relaxed, often hard-riding, sometimes very loud, tiring. Its tyres are bespoke Pirelli.
In theory the larger and heavier DB11 Volante on bespoke Bridgestones should be off the pace. I’d disagree. Its gentler GT driving mode moderates the eager throttle response of the Vantage. The ride is softer on a longer chassis but never vague. It is just about perfect on our normal roads. While it drops half a second in acceleration runs to 70mph you’d only notice that in a track race. Its quieter exhaust system allows you to hear more of the throaty V8 engine. The result is that I, maybe you, can move it just as quickly without losing the thrill. It was more economical on the test route – probably because its engine was not on Sport duty. If you want to retune the experience, the Volante has a Sport and Sport+ setting. (The Vantage also has a hairy Track setting.)
Verdict: Two fabulous cars. Vantage is Aston’s entry price offering to joust with a 911 or Audi R8. For me it would be improved with the DB11’s softer settings.