COVER STORY: DB11 MEETS VANQUISH S
Two brilliant 600bhp V12 Astons, two absorbingly different characters
In many ways, 2017 represents a pivotal moment in Aston’s history. One perfectly encapsulated by these two magnificent cars. Though unashamedly rooted in the past, the freshly minted £200k Vanquish S is the newest model to join the range, while the recently launched, state-of-the-art £155k DB11 points to a bold new future. That both co-exist in a parallel present leaves us spoilt for choice – and gifts us a tantalising opportunity to explore the contrasting characters and divergent goals of these sublime 600bhp V12-engined GTS.
Such machines deserve a grand stage on which to play out this most civilised of civil wars, and there’s no more spectacular backdrop than the North York Moors. Their sprawling scale gives us the space to stretch their legs, while the three-hour trip north allows us plenty of time to relax into each car, assessing their ability to cosset over long distances before seeing how well they carouse. These are the roads, miles and moments we dream about. So, without further ado, let’s get going.
It’s a mark of this test’s appeal that managing editor Peter Tomalin decides to unshackle himself from his desk and dust off his stringbacked driving gloves. So, while he waits at Tomalin Towers for the DB11, I pack an overnight bag and head north in the Vanquish S. Resplendent in electric blue with sharp flashes of white, this latest, hottest and by all accounts most explicit Vanquish is a real heart-pounder from the moment you clap eyes on it.
For these and a whole host of other reasons we’ll discover over the next few days, the S is a welcome and well-deserved re-boot for the Vanquish. Billed from launch as Aston’s super- GT, the second-generation Vanquish suggested a new beginning. But it didn’t quite deliver. Some blame could be levelled at the early cars’ six-speed Touchtronic transmission, but even the fitment of the livelier eight-speed gearbox didn’t give it the spark it needed as the seriesproduction flagship.
Spark isn’t something the Vanquish S could be accused of lacking. Press the starter and those sharpened looks are immediately backed up by an explosive urgency as four sizeable exhaust pipes herald an altogether spikier and more combative car. So this is what Andy Palmer and Matt Becker meant by Second Century Astons driving like they look.
If the more extrovert looks and exuberant energy are new, the Vanquish S remains familiar ground from behind the wheel. From the broad central ‘waterfall’ that cascades from dashboard to transmission tunnel to the analogue instruments that are fussy to read but beautiful to look at, this essentially is how Astons have been for well over a decade. I’m not a fan of the white stitching, which looks like Spiderman got a sewing machine for Christmas, but there’s something enduringly pleasing about sitting low down in the high-waisted cockpit, nestled in a firmly supportive sports seat.
It sets the tone for what is an immediately immersive driving experience. Unsurprisingly, it’s dominated by the larger-than-life presence of the colossal 5.9-litre V12. Thanks to revised induction and management systems, this naturally aspirated engine is a real force of nature, with far more zip and keener throttle response than any previous Vanquish’s. The steering is lighter than you expect, with greater directness and clarity, which you feel and appreciate almost from the moment you set off.
For a big and apparently angry car, the Vanquish S does a surprisingly convincing job of mooching. Yes, you’re always aware of the car’s intent, but the muscular looks are balanced by supple damping that fuses support and control with genuine pliancy. It’s tempting to ramp up the response and suspension firmness via the Sport and switchable damping modes, but when making steady progress is the priority it’s nice to have the option of keeping the S at a gentle, soothing simmer.
There’s some road noise, as you’d expect from a car with such big boots (255/35 ZR20S at the front, 305/30s at the rear), but you’re well enough isolated for the Vanquish S to fulfil its role as a genuine GT. Albeit one that’s champing at the bit. By the time I arrive at our rendezvous point in Pickering, on the edge of the moors, I’m already a big fan and can’t wait to let loose on some of my favourite roads.
Tomalin isn’t far behind in the DB11. Parked amongst other, more humdrum cars on the filling station forecourt, it looks particularly fine in a simple, understated shade of silver. Stylistically, there’s a lot going on. Certainly more than we’re used to with Astons of the recent past. But those areas that challenged the eye are now the elements I’m coming to love most. It’s an elegant yet dynamic-looking car.
We head for the moors in convoy, climbing out of Pickering, heading towards the coastal town of Whitby on the jaw-dropping A169.
I stick with the Vanquish because I want to complete the picture I’ve been building before I switch to the DB11. Besides, I know there are some incredible stretches of road that lie between us and photographer Matt Howell’s favoured location, close to the slightly surreallooking RAF Fylingdales and it’s huge wedgeshaped radar installation.
Revs. For the first time, the Vanquish thrives on revs. Doesn’t need them to make rapid progress, mind, but given the choice you now hold a lower gear and revel in the response and epic soundtrack, rather than rely on torque. Together with a more responsive gearshift and the finely honed damping that brings greater control without adding unwanted harshness (even in the more aggressive settings), the Vanquish S romps along, tearing big bites out of the scenery at will.
There’s more than enough propulsion to trouble the rear tyres’ purchase on cold tarmac, but the electronic stability control is both vigilant and subtle, so you can trust it enough to lean on without fear of being spat off the road. Of course you can relax the thresholds a little, and even disable it altogether, at which point respect is most definitely due, but there’s fun to be had. Just as there should be in a true, grownup drivers’ car.
The brakes – massive carbon-ceramic discs clamped by equally gargantuan calipers – have immense power, but plenty of feel and progression when you simply need to cover the middle pedal.
It doesn’t bear thinking about just how fast the S could be on some of these endless, arcing straights. Fortunately, because it’s a generous sort with plenty to enjoy at less than lunatic speeds, you don’t feel compelled to find out. In this day and age that’s far more important than winning at Top Trumps, though I’d wager the Vanquish would do rather well at that, too.
Swapping to the DB11 is something of a culture shock. Not least because the interior sets a totally different tone. One where comfort is the priority. There’s more generous space and a sense of plushness that simply wouldn’t be appropriate in the Vanquish. I don’t care for the beige hide, but that could be sorted easily thanks to Aston’s extensive choice of standard, option and bespoke interior trim.
The driving position is spot-on, the view out more panoramic than in the Vanquish, but though you sit a little higher you still have the sense of sitting in, rather than on the car. The electronic instruments don’t have the individuality of the Vanquish’s analogue gauges. They just seem a bit generic, but they work well. The infotainment system is much easier to use, the sat-nav in particular being a big improvement. Thank you, Mercedes-benz.
Press the Engine Start button and the new 5.2-litre twin-turbo V12 pulses into life with a
muted snort before settling into a delicious, turbine-like idle. Where the old, naturally aspirated motor gargles with gravel and broken glass, the DB11 sips on honey. It’s an effortless partner, with gentle squeezes of throttle picking you up and smoothly propelling you towards the horizon. There’s clearly tons of torque ontap much further down the rev-range, and there’s great satisfaction to be had from purring along with imperious ease. That’s what 516lb ft from just 1500rpm does for you.
As with the Vanquish, the DB11 has a multitude of dynamic modes from which to choose. To begin with you toggle through them in quick succession, just to gauge what you have to play with. After the hard-wired immediacy of the Vanquish, it’s also in an effort to feel what the DB11 is doing. This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise as this is a soothing GT designed to take the sting out of big distances, insulating the driver from tiring feedback and the need to make frequent steering inputs.
That’s all very well, and very welcome on the A1, but on the A169 you want to know what’s happening at the tyre/tarmac interface. What’s needed is to take a breath, relax your grip of the steering wheel and let the DB11’S flow come to you. Slowly but surely you read its responses, relying on the more finely filtered information to create a mental image and judge your inputs.
There’s less outright grip, more roll and a general roundedness to the way the DB11 moves from turn-in, through apex to corner exit. You don’t sense immediate bite from the front end, but there’s a smooth, sweet division of labour between both ends of the car. Squeeze the throttle and you feel the tail settle and the front end just working towards its limit, where in the same situation the Vanquish rotates more aggressively and works its tyres – and your neck muscles – more abruptly.
Until you’ve settled into it, the DB11 feels a little aloof, but it has balance and poise to spare. Work into the more sporting dynamic modes and it responds enthusiastically, with hints of that rotational energy so readily tapped in the Vanquish. Each step, from GT through Sport and Sport Plus modes, is like turning up a
dynamic dimmer switch, each working the adaptive damping and Torque Vectoring to deliver brighter responses and increased tactility. Reassuringly, once you’ve explored the gamut of driving modes and become more comfortable with what the DB11 does and how it does it, you’re less inclined to want Sport Plus and better equipped to slot back into Sport or GT, depending on your mood.
What defines the driving experience each car offers? Well, you always tend to drive the Vanquish with more urgency and greater purpose. It can do the softer, more relaxed thing, but its natural demeanour is to roll its sleeves up and get stuck in. DB11 offers the flipside; the soothing emollient to the Vanquish’s heat and intensity. It has tremendous capabilities and huge performance. So huge, in fact, that it’s just 1mph shy of the Vanquish’s 201mph top speed, and only 0.4sec down on its 0-60mph time. That’s way more than DB9 ever had, but at the same time it’s a much more convincing GT, too. More supple, more pliant, more relaxing. The consummate all-rounder.
As you’ve no doubt gathered, the Vanquish S and DB11 are so different, yet both so darned good, it almost seems churlish to try to choose between them. Having spent the last 20 or so years driving fast, focused sports and supercars, I’m more instinctively drawn to the Vanquish S. It’s more immediately likeable and, bluntly, more my kind of car. That said, the more time I spend in the DB11, the more I’ve become attuned to its way of doing things. There’s more to learn and broader attributes to explore. It’s not a thriller in the supercar sense, but its maturity is as impressive as it is seductive. And by gum it’s got some go.
So, in a way that you never could with DB9 and last year’s Vanquish, you could absolutely justify having both of these cars in your garage. That’s great news for us, and for Aston Martin, because it’s a clear indication that the marque is delivering on its promise to build cars with their own distinct personalities. With the new Vantage less than a year away and more all-new models in advanced stages of development, the next few years are set to be truly remarkable.
‘THIS IS ASTON DELIVERING ON ITS PROMISE TO BUILD CARS WITH DISTINCT PERSONALITIES’