Vantage. Soon it will all be over.
Don’t worry, I don’t mean this magazine; print isn’t dead yet. I mean the sub-db9, sub-db11 two-seater coupé (or convertible) that arrived in 2005 and will soon be replaced by a new car based on shortened DB11 underpinnings. It, too, will be called Vantage – you can read all about it, if you haven’t already, on page 30 of this issue. For now, though, there’s but a short time to enjoy the current one in factory-fresh guise.
Not that V12 VTE was exactly factory-fresh by the time we had converted 125.7 gallons of petrol into water vapour and carbon dioxide on the way to, from and around the middle of Europe. I like to think we contributed, in a small way, to the production of some of the snowflakes we encountered and that we helped the photosynthesis of plant cellulose in the forests. It was to be our final Vantage (the car) drive, and we needed to make it a good one.
That the Vantage in question would be a V12 S with a manual gearbox would make the task all the more pleasurable, although I haven’t always been of that mind. Back in 2009, I drove the first of the V12-engined Vantages with a sixspeed manual transmission and, although the idea seemed irresistible, the reality for me was spoilt by a throttle response infuriatingly difficult to gauge accurately. Four-and-a-half years later, I drove the V12 Vantage S on the launch in California and discovered a car utterly transformed. ‘You want to drive it forever,’ I wrote in The Independent. ‘The best Aston Martin there has ever been? I do believe it is.’
The extra 53bhp, making 563, might have been one reason. A particularly co-operative paddle-shift gearbox, in manual mode at least, was another, a fabulous chassis and the brilliant throttle response that came with a new, cleverer engine-management system were a third and a fourth. I, by default a favourer of manuals, was completely smitten.
But our final-drive V12S is a manual, yes? It is, with a seven-speed gearbox just as recent Porsche 911s have had – and the promise of similar complications of accurate lever aim, albeit with a different gate pattern. Otherwise it’s like that California-launch car, apart from being right-hand drive and menacingly metallic black except for the discreet grey lipstick around its mesh-filled mouth.
A majorly long drive into mainland Europe is always best when there’s a purpose beyond the driving itself, and in this case it’s to sample the cars of Aston specialists Beat Roos, based in Switzerland (we’ve already reported on some of them) and then to head into the Bavarian Alps to meet Peter Hornik’s supercharged, Gulfcoloured Cygnet (also featured in this issue). And if we can take in some racetrack landmarks as we go, then so much the better.
So we leave my house in Hertfordshire, snapper Howell and I, when the sky is as black as the Aston. We think we’ll get to our hotel in Rothrist, in the Roos heartland between Basel and Zürich, by early evening. A speedy crossing under, rather than on, the sea will help, and the old Reims circuit is right on the route.
Straight away the Aston demonstrates how well suited it is to such a journey in some ways, how less well in others. Of course there’s the frustration of knowing how little of its ability we’re using at the speed limit, a frustration that – as with any modern, very rapid car – could easily overwhelm the pleasure we’re supposed to feel. But the Aston fares better here than some supercars, especially those of the mid-engined, extra-wide and claustrophobic variety. That’s because there’s a comforting feeling of what I can best describe as normality in the Vantage, a result of its front engine, its rearward-set cabin, a sense of useful compactness and the way it sits firmly, squarely, commandingly on the road.
You feel you can relax with the Aston, that you’re not constantly on show. However, a grand tourer on a grand tour such as this really ought to have a bit more in the way of chattels accommodation. Some stuff is stuffed behind the seats; our cross-channel coffee cups sit in the flat space in front of the sat-nav screen. The shallow, thin but wide glovebox is filled entirely by the shallow, thin but wide handbook. A paean to packinging it is not.
In France, we naturally head straight onto the A26 towards Reims. There’s not much future in cruising beyond 80-85mph because the police will have you, and in seventh gear that represents barely 3000rpm. Furthering the relaxed nature of what, in a different mood, is a crackling, snarling, searing supercar, is the
‘YOU FEEL YOU CAN RELAX WITH THE ASTON, THAT YOU’RE NOT CONSTANTLY ON SHOW’
5.9-litre V12 engine’s stupendous torque. It’s entirely feasible to miss out every other upshift, treating the gearbox as a wide-ratio four-speeder with every ratio selected with a rearward pull from the neutral position, and still accelerate with more vigour than nearly anything else on the road.
This gearbox, with its old-school, Zf-like dogleg first to the left and back, is actually the same Graziano unit as is used by the two-pedal, sequential-shift Vantage S. Its selector rails and forks must be objects of some intricacy in the way they now connect to a single gearlever rather than a battery of hydraulic actuators. Spring biasing keeps the lever naturally in the 4/5 plane, and it’s clear that there’s going to be quite a lot of reprogamming in my head before I naturally sense where I am in the gearchange gate. Still, there’ll be plenty of time for that.
REIMS, ITS PITS and adjacent buildings are now smartened as befits their monument status. Yes, it’s a cliché to do the Reims pilgrimage, but it’s the first time I’ve been back since the sympathetic repaint. You can’t string the whole public-roads circuit together in one continuous lap, give-ways with every intersecting road deliberately thwarting the chance to get carried away on a 12 Hours reverie, but it’s still a thrill to hear our exhaust note reflected from the pit wall as we travel the long main straight, also known as the D27. The race was never won by an Aston Martin, incidentally.
Now, seeking respite from the autoroute, we aim along a slower but more direct N-road towards, ultimately, the Vosges mountains and Alsace-lorraine. Too soon, roadworks are closing the main road’s tunnel and we’re diverted into the town that the tunnel is meant to bypass. After nearly an hour of baffling Déviation signs, repeated laps of the town and sat-nav instructions that make no sense, we eventually see the main road on the town’s far side running tantalisingly close to the farm access road onto which we have blundered.
Just a shallow grass bank lies between, and no fences. Fresh tyre tracks show we have not been alone in our limbo. Shall we? With a roar, a slither and no scrape, the Aston is diagonally over the bank and on the road. Free at last… but how many others are doomed to eternal navigation to nowhere?
By early evening we’ve passed Mulhouse in this Germanic part of France, where my old Peugeot 205 GTI was made and where France’s Musée Nationale des Automobiles has grown out of the former Schlumpf Bugatti collection. Now we’re at the border crossing between Mulhouse and Basel, which forces a stop to buy the vital Swiss motorway vignette. You can’t buy it for just a week, as we would like, nor even
a month. It’s a whole calendar year’s worth for CHF40 (about £32), but at least there are no more tolls to pay.
The Swiss are super-strict on speed limits so our Aston feels more over-specified than ever. We’re extra-vigilant as we head east on the A3 autobahn – this is German-speaking Switzerland – passing signs to Lörrach just over another border in Germany, where once a photographer and I based ourselves when attempting to drive through six countries in one day in a Citroën 2CV. Why? To send up an Audi TV ad of the time, in which the Fischer family cruised around five countries in one day in their Audi Coupé. They weren’t half as wrecked as we were by the end. It would be easy in the Aston, though, speed cameras permitting.
Rothrist is our base for the next two days, while we try Beat Roos’s two Virage-based shooting brakes (issue 18), his Aston-engined Volvo P1800 (issue 19) and another machine that you’ll read about soon. In pursuing these stories, the V12 Vantage S does things it was never designed to do, acting as a camera car (its suspension is surprisingly supple for a semisupercar), slithering in the snow, getting thrillingly dirty. Then, our Swiss assignment at an end, we’re heading around Lake Constance and into Austria, where we can buy a onemonth vignette for our half-hour on the autobahn…
We’re due to meet the souped-up Cygnet mid-morning near the Disney-prototype Neuschwanstein Castle at the base of an Alp, but this is looking increasingly unlikely even as we cross into Germany and, for the first time, properly open up the Vantage’s pair of plenum chambers. This is where, space and bravery permitting, I could confirm that it will accelerate all the way from 28mph to 205mph in seventh gear, engine note hardening deliciously at 3500rpm, a whooshing bellow our soundtrack thereafter, but traffic keeps getting in the way. I have to confess that I will get no further than 142mph on this trip. Sorry.
STUTTGART IS OUR night stop, in another splendid Ibis. There’s a relevance here; the DB11 already has an engine based on one from this city, and the Vantage’s replacement will also have Mercedes-derived power.
The next morning, a reasonably direct route home can take us past the Nürburgring. It also means, with the pressure of time now eased a little, that having fortuitously bypassed Hockenheim on the autobahn we can take some quiet German backroads and discover, finally, how the V12S takes to the frequent application of lateral g.
I have come close to mastering the sevenspeeder, trusting it not to find first when I want third (just the right amount of pressure against the biasing-spring required), and sometimes
‘I HAVE TO CONFESS THAT I WILL GET NO FURTHER THAN 142MPH ON THIS TRIP. SORRY’
getting a perfect heel-and-toe downshift without over-dabbing the massively powerful, but sometimes snatchy, carbon-ceramic brakes. There’s the ‘AM Shift’ setting to auto-blip the throttle – it also allows full-throttle upshifts – but I consider this to be cheating so it remains unused. I’m meant to be the driver here.
On real roads with real bends and real topography, the V12S really is rather wonderful and it’s easy to get carried away. Its sinews are taut, its nose nailed to the road, its heading precisely and minutely adjustable. The breadth and abundance of torque make overtaking ludicrously effortless, yet its rear suspension and tyres marshal the forces to make this an easy, benign machine, progressive and talkative in its actions. You always know what the Aston is up to; you interact with it, share the pleasure and come to a joint decision, neither party forcing an outcome.
That’s what makes it such a great longdistance companion, especially on roads where you’re engrossed in the dynamics and can forget about the Vantage’s single biggest motion failing: its tremendous road roar on a coarse surface. It’s more of a problem in the UK than across the Channel, it must be said.
This dynamic bonding is such that I don’t feel cheated at not doing a Nürburgring lap, time having caught up with us again. We watch a road car or two squealing its tyres on the circuit as the first weekend camps are set up for a forthcoming race meeting, then we head onwards, the Eifel mountains becoming the Ardennes, to Spa-francorchamps where lunch is taken in a café full of racing car pieces as a group of teenagers take selfies with the Aston outside. Then we find a piece of corner-cutting public backroad at Stavelot whose banked bend reveals it as a part of the original circuit, and there’s the fearsome Masta Kink to drive through, sadly not at racing speeds. What it must have been to race there, in those days…
THE DRIVE HOMEWARDS across northern France is not thrilling. Busy autoroutes, cameras… all the great levellers that cause those who don’t understand great cars to tell us they don’t see the point. But arriving back home in the dark in the travel-stained Aston after 2715 miles, the streaks looking like an experiment in wind-tunnel aerodynamics, I get the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S completely. Really, really quick cars come no friendlier or more familiar than this. It will scorch to 60mph in 3.7sec yet it has just averaged 21.6mpg. And right through our trip it has attracted not a hint of aggression. Everyone loves it.
Two things I might miss in the new one, when it arrives: the compactness (I bet it will be wider, to the point of country-road inhibition, as is the case with the DB11) and the unbelievable, naturally aspirated throttle response (it will be merely excellent). I hope I’m wrong. Meanwhile, handsome Aston Martin Vantage in all your forms, from original 4.3-litre V8 to this, thank you. It’s been a blast.
‘IT’S AN EASY, BENIGN MACHINE, PROGRESSIVE AND TALKATIVE IN ITS ACTIONS’
Clockwise from left Extra bonnet vents have always distinguished V12-engined Vantages; Simister contemplates chances of Kim Jong-un being an Aston man; improvised cup-holder, and that seven-speed shift pattern in full
Right Heading into Switzerland, Aston elicited a positive reaction from everyone whose path it crossed, but strict speed limits were a frustration; crossing into Germany finally provided the opportunity to stretch its (very long) legs, though heavy traffic on the autobahns meant the 205mph maximum would remain theoretical
Clockwise from left Into Bavaria, and Neuschwanstein Castle provides a suitably dramatic backdrop; even after long hours on the road, the Vantage’s long-legged gearing and decent ride make it an amiable companion; Simister’s even getting the hang of the gearshift; arriving in Stuttgart for the final overnight stop
Above and right A quick detour to the Nürburgring Nordschleife, where much of the Vantage’s development programme was carried out – and where lightly modified examples have enjoyed considerable success in the notoriously gruelling 24-hour race over the years. Aston averaged well over 20mpg for the whole trip, including quite a bit of high-speed running