Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

As­ton’s new hero in the land of the long flat vowel

5 AM, Queen­stown, in July. It’s too ob­vi­ous to say it’s cold. Frigid is bet­ter. Arc­tic even closer. Sit­ting alone in the pre-dawn gloom, thin trails of vapour ris­ing and twist­ing from its ex­haust pipes, the Van­tage seems to drink in the dark­ness. Black, with black and sil­ver wheels and a black leather in­te­rior, it oozes an un­ex­pected menace, the lazy, wet bari­tone of its Amg-sourced V8 a lumpy and un­bro­ken bassline that cuts through the icy, still air. Strictly speak­ing, Queen­stown at this time of year isn’t su­per­car ter­ri­tory. As­ton has flown the Van­tage to the Land of the Hob­bit so that its cus­tomers, and the me­dia, can drive it on ice and snow at a win­ter prov­ing ground, but we’ve con­cocted a tougher chal­lenge. One with less sideways buf­foon­ery but greater real-world rel­e­vance: a day-long run on some of the best roads in the South­ern Hemi­sphere, to the frozen tip of New Zealand’s tallest Peak, Mount Cook; a des­ti­na­tion some 300km away in the Ao­raki Na­tional Park. There’s a real risk we won’t make it that far. Rear-wheel drive, 375kw and 295-sec­tion Pirellis don’t mix too well with sub-zero tem­per­a­tures and black ice, though strangely, that didn’t seem so in­sur­mount­able when we were plan­ning the route back in balmy Aus­tralia. It’s a proper con­cern now, though, and one ham­mered home by our Kiwi pho­tog­ra­pher who looms out of the inky dark­ness, his brow fur­rowed.

“It’s go­ing to rain for most of the day,” is how he greets us. “And there’ll be snow on the pass I want to go to. Hope­fully it’s just a light dust­ing. It could be a lit­tle sketchy…”

Treach­er­ous con­di­tions aside, our route isn’t go­ing to be short of nat­u­ral beauty, or, more cru­cially, of va­ri­ety. Tow­er­ing, post­card-worthy moun­tains are great, but the real magic of New Zealand’s south is­land lies in how quickly the scenery changes. Lush, open fields quickly give way to bar­ren, rocky val­leys as the main ar­te­rial rises and falls to leave Queen­stown’s pre­car­i­ous bungyjump bridges and jet-boat canyons be­hind, grit ping­ing in the wheel wells on our way to­wards Cromwell.

There’s more than a whiff of new be­gin­ning about this Van­tage. It’s writ large in that gulp­ing (and po­lar­is­ing) front grille, those pinched and sculpted hips, that raked rear dif­fuser. As­ton wants to shift the badge; to trans­form its en­try-level model from a sporty GT car into a gen­uine, hard­nosed al­ter­na­tive to the likes of Porsche, AMG, and, now that its price tag reads $300K, even Mclaren.

The re­sult is a new­found sense of in­tent from the

get-go. The de­fault mode is Sport (there’s no Com­fort set­ting to choose) and even in heavy traf­fic, eas­ing the sur­pris­ingly long throt­tle to a third of its travel sees the big V8 hold gears to 4000rpm be­fore the eight-speed auto slots home a higher cog. Adding to the sense of ur­gency are its di­men­sions. To­tal length and width have grown com­pared with the old car, but the Van­tage is still 34mm shorter than a 911, de­spite rid­ing on a sig­nif­i­cantly longer wheel­base (2704mm vs 2450). It feels com­pact, alert and right-sized, and be­cause you sit smack bang in be­tween the axles (not way out back like in an AMG GT), it’s a car that seems to be in­stantly on your side.

Next to me, videog­ra­pher Dwight be­gins to make strange coo­ing sounds into his cam­era as the land­scape con­tin­ues to shift. From open flat­lands pep­pered with winer­ies near Gibb­ston, the high­way tran­si­tions into a roller­coaster of dark, dank tar­mac that sweeps and turns as we plunge to­wards Roar­ing Meg near Kawa­rau Gorge. It’s an en­ter­tain­ing stretch of tar­mac, heav­ily treed in on the left with stac­cato glimpses of an im­pos­si­bly blue river to our right, but a stricken and aban­doned Toy­ota Camry, its en­tire left side crum­pled like a dis­carded beer can, is a sober­ing re­minder of how treach­er­ous th­ese roads can be. With the Van­tage’s dash sug­gest­ing the am­bi­ent temp is hov­er­ing around 1.0 de­gree and big, hard-to-spot wet patches lurk­ing in the shad­ows, I wind back the ag­gres­sion.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing one to drive at five-tenths. The en­gine is sur­pris­ingly quiet, the steer­ing on the weighty side, and there’s a lot to like about the cabin. The seat­ing po­si­tion is low, the seats them­selves a tri­umph of com­fort and sup­port, and there’s de­cent ad­just­ment from the square steer­ing wheel, which looks odd, but is pleas­ingly nat­u­ral to hold. The am­bi­ence is great too, with vast ex­panses of ex­pen­sive-smelling leather, and there’s a beau­ti­ful tac­til­ity to the long, blade-like shift pad­dles. There are some let­downs, how­ever. The sheer num­ber of but­tons on the cluttered cen­tre con­sole is con­fronting at first (do we re­ally need sep­a­rate but­tons to lock and un­lock the cen­tral lock­ing?), there’s no glove­box, and the graph­ics on the dig­i­tal dash aren’t quite as crisp as you’d ex­pect in a car of this cal­i­bre. Some of the cabin plas­tics aren’t up to scratch ei­ther, most notably the cheap-look­ing cen­tral air vents, and the switches on the steer­ing wheel, which feel more Kia Rio than op­u­lent Bri­tish su­per­car.

There’s also the con­stant bug­bear of tyre roar on th­ese coarse-chip roads, though the Van­tage does cruise more qui­etly than a 911. Still, it’s hard to shake the feel­ing that the longer you spend in the cabin, the more the ini­tial wow fac­tor be­gins to fade.

At Cromwell we turn left onto Tar­ras-cromwell road and in­stantly the traf­fic melts away. We’re the only car on the road as we sweep gently along­side Lake Dun­stan, the main high­way snaking along the wa­ter’s op­po­site shore, tak­ing its chok­ing mix of pick­ups and trucks with it. Alone at last, the scenery is

breath­tak­ing. Fog rises off clear, glassy wa­ter that re­flects the snow-cov­ered peaks that line the hori­zon and fi­nally, Dwight can’t take it any­more. He wants to put the drone up to grab some footage in the soft morn­ing light, giv­ing me my first real op­por­tu­nity to delve deep into the throt­tle as I drive back and forth. I dial up Sport+ and flat­ten it.

Lift­ing AMG’S M177 4.0-litre V8 rather than As­ton build­ing its own may have been a controversial de­ci­sion, but there’s no ar­gu­ing with the re­sults. It’s a bom­bas­tic en­gine, all ef­fort­less torque, deep ex­haust boom and po­tent V8 brawn, though As­ton’s en­gi­neers have given it a per­son­al­ity all of its own in the Van­tage. The ECU has been tweaked, the sump made slim­mer and the oil pick-up moved far­ther back to al­low the big unit to be housed well be­hind the front axle line. It’s not quite as gut­tural or as throaty low in the rev range as a C63 or AMG GT, but spin it beyond 4000rpm and the tim­bre changes, the cabin fill­ing with a rich, lux­u­ri­ous howl as the nee­dle rushes to the soft 7000rpm lim­iter. It’s ad­dic­tive to wring out, the surge of mus­cle pro­pel­ling you ef­fort­lessly, though the experience never feels as en­dor­phin pop­pingly rapid as a GT3, or as sav­age as the hard-hit­ting Mclaren 540. There’s a sense of bal­ance to the Van­tage, the re­al­i­sa­tion that it’s a pack­age you can ac­tu­ally press into for more than a few adrenalin-soaked sec­onds as the rear skips and hunts for grip and your li­cence quiv­ers.

With Dwight sat­is­fied (he re­turns slowly shaking his head at the beauty of it all), we leave the turquoise wa­ter be­hind and bolt for Lindis Pass. Al­most at once the moun­tains are on us again, small at first, though grad­u­ally build­ing un­til we sit atop a dirty brown gorge, sweep­ing hair­pins of black­top just vis­i­ble as it snakes its way to the bot­tom.

Vaughan, our pho­tog­ra­pher, pulls over and un­ex­cit­edly in­di­cates he wants to get some shots. “Just to have some in the bag, you know,” he drawls. “You wait un­til we get to Lindis. This is all a bit shit.”

I be­gin to ques­tion his judg­ment. Even this road gazumps what is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble in Oz, not just for its oth­er­worldly jux­ta­po­si­tion of burnt brown earth and pris­tine snow, but for driv­ing. This is big-con­se­quence mo­tor­ing. The cor­ners have no guard rails and the temp has only crept to 2.0°C, but the As­ton feels wieldy. I run from top to bot­tom sev­eral times, each time faster than the last as I lean fur­ther and fur­ther on the chas­sis. There’s more grip than I ex­pect, the front Pirellis bit­ing hard, not with alarm­ing darti­ness, but with a nat­u­ral agility. The steer­ing is sen­si­bly geared at 2.4 turns lock-to-lock and it feels re­fresh­ingly in­tu­itive, neatly sidestep­ping any front-end ner­vous­ness.

It’s a car that comes to you, the Van­tage. One that seems to rel­ish be­ing driven hard, like a race­horse re­spond­ing to the whip. It feels on its toes, but never rushed, grip lev­els com­mu­ni­cated more through the seat of your pants than the steer­ing wheel. There’s an in­her­ent sense of bal­ance to it, a soft win­dow in the mid­dle of the cor­ner that you sink into as you pick up the throt­tle ear­lier and ear­lier, the e-diff tight­en­ing to pro­vide small hints of yaw as I un­wind lock and power out.

The road straight­ens as we rush past the sign that reads ‘Lindis Pass sum­mit 9km’. It’s a grad­ual climb at first but as the noise of grit in­creases in the wheel arches so does the el­e­va­tion and the tight­ness of the cor­ners. Then sud­denly the val­ley ex­plodes, bril­liant, blind­ing morn­ing light stream­ing into a scoop in the earth’s sur­face that, if it weren’t for the sea of brown tus­socks, you’d swear was Euro­pean. We’re early enough to be alone, Vaughan’s cam­era the only sound, but



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