Bri­tish Bull­dog

Automobile - - Contents - By Basem Wasef

As­ton Martin has had far more downs than ups in its 105-year his­tory, but things look pos­i­tively bullish right now, thanks in large part to cars like the 2019 V8 Van­tage, As­ton’s en­try-level sub­lime sports coupe that is set to take the fight to the Porsche 911.

AU­TO­MO­BILE (ISSN 0894-3583) July 2018, Vol. 33, No. 2.

As­ton Martin’s sharp-edged new sports car aims for the younger, more ag­gres­sive set

THE SHADE OF lime green splashed across the Al­garve In­ter­na­tional Circuit’s pad­dock is not what As­ton Martin apol­o­gists, or av­er­age blokes for that mat­ter, would call beau­ti­ful. The hue is a pe­cu­liar mix of high­lighter yel­low and acid green, a vis­ual shock clearly in­tended to pro­voke—not un­like the sharply creased sil­hou­ette of the new V8 Van­tage that rep­re­sents As­ton’s sec­ond salvo at mod­ern rein­ven­tion.

For a com­pany that’s only seen two years of prof­itabil­ity in its 105-year his­tory, the time is nigh for the sea­soned mar­que to find a new voice. Although the DB11, in­tro­duced in 2016, was kissed with a touch of con­tem­po­rary de­sign lan­guage in the form of aero­dy­namic curlicues and a sub­tly pointed tail, it also kept a foot planted in the grand tour­ing ver­nac­u­lar in­tended to sat­isfy the tweedy Old World set. So far the ef­forts have paid off for As­ton, with the DB11 fuel­ing a me­te­oric turn­around in rev­enue last year. But now is a crit­i­cal time to ex­pand the reper­toire and en­gage a younger, more dar­ing de­mo­graphic. Now is the time for the V8 Van­tage.

Play­ing the role of the DB11’s mis­chievous lit­tle brother who just might have been sired by the randy milk­man, the V8 Van­tage is out to crash the Porsche/ Bent­ley/Mercedes-AMG rager and hope­fully not end up in the cor­ner wear­ing a lamp­shade hat. It’s a car As­ton aims squarely at the mighty Porsche 911—one of the most en­dur­ing, in­cal­cu­la­bly honed sports car stal­warts in au­to­mo­tive his­tory. No big deal, right?

Ex­ter­nally, the Van­tage’s form is guided by func­tion, not pre­tense. There are no lav­ish over­hangs or gra­tu­itous French curves. Rather, sheet­metal seems to hug, stretch, and bulge over its un­der­pin­nings and wheel edges with pur­pose­ful­ness. Think Frank Gehry, not Frank Lloyd Wright. Up front, As­ton’s tra­di­tional “hill-climb” aper­ture has been traded for a more min­i­mal maw. “Shock, hor­ror, it doesn’t have an As­ton Martin grille,” taunts head de­signer Marek Re­ich­man. “Why would we put 15 or 20 ki­los of weight on the fur­thest point for­ward in a sports car? The mouth is about ser­vic­ing and breath­ing the en­gine and cool­ing the brakes.”

Fair enough. There are other points of aes­thetic con­tention as well, among them the tiny LED head­lamps dot­ting the slop­ing nose—which, for what it’s worth, would not look out of place on a ve­hi­cle that hails from the Far East. “This is about func­tion,” Re­ich­man in­sists. “It’s got in­cred­i­bly small lights be­cause there’s an in­cred­i­bly small pack­age space. The dy­namic turn­ing en­ve­lope of the [20-inch] wheel and tire leaves you with very lit­tle space.” Mov­ing along to the


mid­dle sec­tion, ex­trac­tors—provoca­tively ac­cented in a con­trast­ing color and tex­ture—draw high-pressure air­flow away from the wheel­wells and en­gine com­part­ment. At the rear, a mas­sive dif­fuser cre­ates 169 pounds of down­force at the claimed Vmax of 195 mph. Why not a nice round dou­ble cen­tury? “Ev­ery­body would love a 200-mph car,” As­ton se­nior ve­hi­cle engi­neer­ing man­ager Craig Jamieson says, “but this is a sports car with a short fi­nal drive, not a su­per­car.” The rear axle ra­tio of 2.93, ver­sus the DB11’s state­lier 2.7, works with the same ZF-sourced eight-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion to de­liver a 0 to 60 time of 3.5 sec­onds. Not bad, As­ton. Not bad.

Although the Van­tage shares sus­pen­sion ar­chi­tec­ture like the front dou­ble A-arm/ rear mul­ti­link with the DB11, the new car is tuned with a con­sid­er­ably more ag­gres­sive setup. Sim­i­larly, the Mercedes-AMG-sourced 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 pro­duces the same 503 horse­power out­put as the DB11 V8, though its in­take, ex­haust, and map­ping yields a punchier 505 lb-ft of torque (ver­sus 498) de­liv­ered with a sharper ramp up, plateau­ing be­tween 2,000 and 5,000 rpm. Its ex­truded-alu­minum chas­sis, also de­rived from the DB11, claims 70 per­cent new parts.

The rain is slow and steady at Portimão’s Al­garve In­ter­na­tional Circuit, and it’s fi­nally time to slide be­hind the wheel and spread the pretty beads of mois­ture across the Van­tage’s Lime Essence paint. The cabin, for those al­ready steeped in As­ton Martin con­ven­tion, de­parts from pro­to­col by us­ing a de­cid­edly less pre­cious, more mas­cu­line de­sign. Rather than a wa­ter­fall dash­board del­i­cately adorned in ve­neer, the cen­ter stack fea­tures an un­apolo­getic ar­ray of a fixed 8.0inch LCD screen, HVAC con­trols, and a clus­ter of but­tons. The in­di­vid­ual PRND trans­mis­sion but­tons are now in a chevron, not a row. A small, stitched leather patch oc­cu­pies an area where a fu­ture man­ual trans­mis­sion will re­side, much to the pre­sum­able de­light of Lud­dite diehards.

The first laps in the wet are run with the driv­e­train in Sport (the least ag­gres­sive throt­tle/ex­haust set­ting) and sta­bil­ity con­trol in the de­fault mode. Dis­cre­tion be­ing the bet­ter part of valor, the con­ser­va­tive con­fig­u­ra­tion al­most im­me­di­ately pro­vides more in­ter­ven­tion than it’s worth, with the torquey en­gine eas­ily break­ing the rear tires loose and the sta­bil­ity con­trol vi­o­lently yank­ing them back. Try­ing Sport+ and Track mode dur­ing the next ses­sion yields a con­sid­er­ably smoother, more in­tu­itive dy­namic. Mod­er­a­tion is still the or­der of the day, es­pe­cially with de­cent amounts of wa­ter ac­cu­mu­lat­ing on these 2.9 miles of ris­ing and fall­ing tar­mac. But the Van­tage now plays far more nicely with the itchy right foot, al­low­ing de­cent amounts of yaw an­gle be­fore it over­loads on slid­ing and the car’s axis is tugged back on track.

The wa­tery con­di­tions are un­for­tu­nate on any track but par­tic­u­larly so with the Van­tage be­cause its tun­ing seems fo­cused on han­dling, with a strong side or­der of torque. Re­gard­less, my kines­thetic feed­back loop cor­rob­o­rates the As­ton’s mea­sured 50/50 weight dis­tri­bu­tion; bar­ring dumb moves like ex­ces­sive turn-in dur­ing rel­a­tively slow cor­ners (been there, plowed that), the Van­tage turns in eas­ily and tracks re­spon­sively mid­corner, con­vey­ing a sense of will­ing­ness to ro­tate when pro­vided ap­pro­pri­ately thought­ful in­puts. Part of this comes from the rel­a­tively low po­lar mo­ment of in­er­tia thanks to the en­gine be­ing shoved against the fire­wall. Lift the bon­net, and it seems there could be enough space to house a keg in there if not for the big ol’ air boxes.

Speak­ing of air boxes, the op­tional quad ex­haust sys­tem sam­pled at the track ex­tracts some pleas­ingly sonorous sounds from the V-8. The tun­ing here is a tad raspier and more fo­cused on mid­fre­quency notes than in the AMG ap­pli­ca­tion, which is bit more gut­tural and, well, Ger­man sound­ing. The tur­bocharged setup dif­fers greatly, though, from the nat­u­rally as­pi­rated song of the old Van­tage’s 4.7-liter V-8, which came alive with an in­com­pa­ra­ble level of mu­si­cal­ity (sec­ond only, of course, to the nowde­funct nat­u­rally as­pi­rated V-12). Re­gard­less, the new mill’s op­tional pipes make solid use of the ven­er­a­ble V-8 con­fig­u­ra­tion, of­fer­ing a pleas­antly raw edge that com­ple­ments the Van­tage’s ag­gres­sive vis­ual style.

The eight-speed auto per­forms con­sis­tently well with the pow­er­ful en­gine, de­liv­er­ing ap­pro­pri­ately ag­gres­sive shifts when sum­moned via the large, sta­tion­ary pol­ished alu­minum pad­dles. Track com­po­sure is also aided by As­ton’s first use of an elec­tric dif­fer­en­tial, which can ap­ply up to 1,843 lb-ft of clamp­ing force to help sta­bi­lize the car. The fea­ture is a wel­come ad­di­tion when ap­proach­ing the end of Portimão’s lengthy straight, where I re­peat­edly saw an in­di­cated 150 mph be­fore slam­ming the car­bon-ce­ramic stop­pers, whisk­ing away speed just in time for the hard right-han­der. Although there’s still some light­ness and a bit of tail wig­gle when sum­mon­ing these im­mense slow­downs, the proceedings still feel com­mend­ably in con­trol con­sid­er­ing the lev­els of de­cel­er­a­tion and the slick sur­faces be­neath. Stop­ping power some­times seemed to wane when scrub­bing off nearly 100 mph of speed, only to be sal­vaged by what felt like a brake booster ef­fect that sank the pedal deeper into its travel. Only slight fade was per­cep­ti­ble af­ter sev­eral hard laps around the circuit.

You can only glean so much sub­jec­tive data on a car’s track ca­pa­bil­i­ties when you’re stuck in the wet, but thank­fully As­ton ar­ranged a sec­ond day of street driv­ing, which shed more light on the Van­tage’s ter­res­trial qual­i­ties. On the pas­toral B-roads of the sur­round­ing re­gion, the Van­tage feels re­mark­ably more mod­ern and ex­treme than it does on the circuit’s con­crete su­per­struc­tures. The seats are ap­pro­pri­ately sup­port­ive and sporty, po­si­tioned about a quar­ter inch lower so you sit closer to earth, am­pli­fy­ing the sen­sa­tion of speed. With rel­a­tively high door­sills, you feel you’re within, not on, the car’s in­te­rior, fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing the Van­tage from its more grand tour­ing-fo­cused sta­ble­mate.

The au­to­matic trans­mis­sion earns praise for smooth­ness when lolling about pub­lic roads. Shifts can be ap­pro­pri­ately im­per­cep­ti­ble when you’re not driv­ing in anger, and the vari­abil­ity feels par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive com­pared to its crisp be­hav­ior on the track. A day spent me­an­der­ing through back roads con­veys


an over­all im­pres­sion bi­ased to­ward pur­pose­ful­ness, not plush­ness, though the three-mode Bil­stein dampers of­fer a no­tice­ably more for­giv­ing ride in their softer set­tings.

So where does the V8 Van­tage fit in the gal­axy of out­stand­ingly ca­pa­ble com­peti­tors? Well, at least in the con­text of its Porsche 911 arch­en­emy, it’s easy to ar­gue that while the rear-en­gine Ger­man de­liv­ers on its triedand-true mis­sion of finely tuned driv­ing dy­nam­ics, the Brit brings a sin­gu­lar sense of style to the ta­ble. Yes, the P-car’s even-keeled Teu­tonic-ness tick­les our fancy, but there’s also some fun to be had in the As­ton’s fan­ci­ful de­tails, like leather brogue edg­ing and tai­lored-suit stitch­ing. And although we’ll re­quire a head-to-head bat­tle on dry pave­ment to pass fi­nal judg­ment on the finer points of their driv­ing dy­nam­ics, im­pres­sions from two days of wet-weather sling­ing sug­gest the As­ton team has done a mighty fine job of im­bu­ing the Van­tage with a sense of ath­leti­cism and per­son­al­ity.

If the grand tour­ing-ori­ented DB11 was the com­pany’s ini­tial at­tempt at redefinition, the V8 Van­tage serves as one hell of a launch for As­ton Martin’s driver-fo­cused sec­ond act. There are still miles to go be­fore Team As­ton can sleep, with a steady ca­dence of up­com­ing mod­els promis­ing a full-cir­cle re­build­ing of the mar­que. But when Re­ich­man leans in and not-so-sub­tlety hints at fu­ture prod­uct by ask­ing, “What would you think of this car with 80 more horse­power and 150 fewer pounds?” these en­ter­pris­ing Bri­tish un­der­dogs have a way of mak­ing the skies ahead seem es­pe­cially blue. AM


WAKE TUR­BU­LENCE Air and wa­ter exit the As­ton Martin Van­tage’s tail as it crests at Portimão.The dif­fuser helps pro­duce up to 169 pounds of down­force at Vmax.

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