Does a more ex­pen­sive track suit do the job any bet­ter?

BMW M2 COM­PE­TI­TION AS­TON MARTI N VANTAG E vs

Top Gear (UK) - - SPEED WEEK - WORDS: JACK RIX

Two cars sep­a­rated by 99bhp, £70,000, eight-tenths from 0–62mph and 40mph at the top end. Not much com­pe­ti­tion when it comes to im­age, ei­ther: the Van­tage is a tai­lored suit; the BMW, a pair of off-the-peg Le­vis. Yet draw away from the de­tails and they play much the same role. Both are rapid rear-drive coupes, both aren’t cut out for fam­ily life (although the BMW can claim rear seats) and both are just as ca­pa­ble at squash­ing huge dis­tances as they are va­por­is­ing a set of rear tyres. For­tu­nately, our patented Speed Week scor­ing sys­tem (the car which makes us grin inanely the most, wins) takes price, power and any other numer­i­cal com­par­i­son out of the equa­tion, lev­el­ling the play­ing field nicely.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, it’s the As­ton that looks, feels and smells in­fin­itely more ex­otic. So, given this is a track I’ve never driven, and

“The As­ton’s steer­ing is on a level with the 488 Pista for re­ac­tion time – sneeze on the straights at your peril”

the sadis­tic prox­im­ity of the con­crete walls, I head for the BMW first. I ad­mire its per­fect pro­por­tions and bulging whee­larches – like a clenched fist in a white leather glove – and say a silent thank you to BMW for not tin­ker­ing too much with the stan­dard M2’s de­sign, be­sides adding proper M car wing mir­rors. On pa­per, the M2 Com­pe­ti­tion is the car we all wished the M2 had been from the out­set: a true, be­spoke road racer dry-rubbed with M’s magic dust, rather than an M240i with some ex­tra sauce on the side.

As you’ll have learned ear­lier, it’s largely down to the engine. Out comes the M2’s sin­gle-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six, in goes a twin­turbo ver­sion bor­rowed from the M4, but turned down to 404bhp and 406lb ft of torque. With 10 per cent more power, but an­other 55kg to carry around, it’s a sub­tle en­hance­ment, but makes a world of dif­fer­ence. Prod the throt­tle, and it prods you back – the way it re­sponds is an­grier, zingier and a bit more im­me­di­ate, with a deeper hunger for revs. Keep it pinned and there’s that metal­lic rasp from the M4 and a lovely lin­ear­ity to the de­liv­ery that makes you for­get this is tur­bocharged at all. A Stan­ley knife of an engine, then, pre­cise but not par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing...

Un­like the Van­tage, which is dom­i­nated by a boom­ing, spit­ting 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 brute from the house of AMG. It ac­tu­ally feels faster than its 503bhp and 505lb ft, al­ways pump­ing out en­ergy, con­stantly poised to smack you back into your seat and light up the rears with a hit of boost. Although tricky to lay down the Van­tage’s grunt off the line, in-gear it mus­cles for­ward with an alarm­ing snap. Not too long ago, this would be su­per­car lev­els of shove… a world away from the tune­ful old 4.7-litre V8, which much pre­ferred to con­vert its 400-odd bhp into noise, not for­ward mo­tion.

“What’s not to like?” you’ll say, but there are two prob­lems. The first is the eight-speed ZF auto: it’s slick enough but can’t match the ur­gency of the V8, par­tic­u­larly on down­shifts. Se­condly, as a re­sult of the Van­tage’s over­all keen­ness to re­spond to the slight­est in­put in­stan­ta­neously, it doesn’t feel par­tic­u­larly… like an As­ton. It’s fight­ier, torquier, more in your face that we’re used to, so re­quires some light cra­nial re­cal­i­bra­tion.

You can tell As­ton was tasked with cre­at­ing as much light between the DB11 and Van­tage as pos­si­ble. A process that’s suc­cess­ful in some ar­eas, less so in oth­ers. The steer­ing, for ex­am­ple, isn’t brim­ming with nat­u­ral feel, but on a level with the 488 Pista for re­ac­tion time – sneeze on the straights at your peril. I rather like it, as it forces you to em­ploy an econ­omy of wrist move­ment for max­i­mum ef­fect, but oth­ers were less sure. The in­te­rior too, has been dis­tanced from the DB11, but with­out mas­sive suc­cess. Qual­ity is higher than in the past, but the spray of but­tons man­ages to be both con­fus­ing to use and a lit­tle low-rent to look at.

By con­trast, the BMW is un­apolo­get­i­cally straight­for­ward and doesn’t feel re­motely spe­cial once you’re strapped in and those whee­larches are out of sight. That changes the first time you point it at a cor­ner. It’s on your side from the get-go, more keyed into the road than the stan­dard M2, im­me­di­ately mas­sag­ing your con­fi­dence. I judge this phe­nom­e­non by how quickly I kill the trac­tion con­trol com­pletely, and af­ter half a lap it’s off and I’m slid­ing it around ev­ery­where like a loon.

In the Van­tage, that trust and bond takes longer be­cause the lim­its are so much higher. You’ve got the grunt to un­stick the rears

when­ever you want, but it snaps a bit more abruptly, the trac­tion con­trol cuts in harder, it all hap­pens at higher speeds. With ev­ery­thing off, I’m more aware of my mor­tal­ity than in the BMW; with the elec­tron­ics on, the As­ton feels muz­zled.

And then it starts to rain. Ini­tially, I con­sider throw­ing both key fobs into the near­est bush and re­tir­ing for an early baguette, but, af­ter a mild word with my­self, I re­alise it’s a bless­ing in dis­guise. It low­ers the stakes, lets me ac­cess the car’s break­away char­ac­ter­is­tics and re­ally ex­plore a world over the limit. The M2 fizzes with en­ergy, hop­ping off kerbs, jink­ing through the chi­cane, light­ing up its tyres play­fully at ev­ery exit. I’d like to say I’d have the man­ual, the purists’ choice, but I wouldn’t – the twin-clutch is just so good I don’t miss it, and I’m glad to keep both hands on the wheel. It’s good news for the Van­tage, too; it might be a heavy car, but in the wet its bal­ance is bob-on, and I start to ap­pre­ci­ate the sub­tleties of its han­dling, the way it works all four tyres, the pre­ci­sion of the front end and the re­li­a­bil­ity of the brakes. The key, I find, is to keep ev­ery­thing as smooth as pos­si­ble, trust the chas­sis, don’t poke the beast, re­lax and let it do its thing.

So why is it that I keep go­ing back to the BMW? Be­cause while the thought of one more lap in the M2 feels like a treat, in the As­ton it’s tinged with risk. The M2 might be an­grier, sharper and more di­alled in than be­fore, but it’s still got softer edges and a more ap­proach­able de­meanour. Ig­nore the As­ton’s all-en­com­pass­ing pow­er­train for a mo­ment, con­cen­trate hard and you can spot flashes of ge­nius in its DNA – a depth of thought and un­der­stand­ing of how to make a car go fast and make the most of ev­ery com­po­nent. But un­like greats of the past, its bril­liance isn’t im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent; you have to rum­mage around for it. Not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, of course, but note­wor­thy in this com­pany. I like the Van­tage, I love the idea of own­ing one, but re­ally it’s the M2 that fills me with more joy, more of the time. Al­ways have been a jeans and a T-shirt kind of a guy...

“The M2 fizzes with en­ergy, hop­ping off kerbs, jink­ing through the chi­cane, light­ing up its tyres”

The crowds were out in force for TG’s dis­play of rea­son­ably ac­cu­rate par­al­lel park­ing

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