Thun­der­ing Triad

TWO OF GER­MANY’S BEST SU­PER SPORTS CARS TAKE ON AS­TON’S NEW VAN­TAGE IN AN ALPINE SHOOTOUT

Automobile - - Contents - By Ge­org Kacher

The As­ton Mar­tin V8 Van­tage ap­pears poised to take its place among to­day’s top-tier sports cars. But to be the best, it will have to prove its met­tle against two of Ger­many’s finest—the Mercedes-AMG GT C and the Porsche 911 Car­rera 4 GTS— in an alpine shootout to thor­oughly test the dy­namic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of all three.

THE WIND­ING ROAD that forks off to the right dead-ends about 3,000 feet below the Tim­mel­sjoch sum­mit. Be­fore things get se­ri­ous, we ex­plore the lightly traf­ficked ter­rain at a leisurely pace, just in case there are any stray cat­tle, odd mud­slide rem­nants, or au­thor­i­ties try­ing to boost end-of-month rev­enues. As ex­pected, the long climb is clear ex­cept for some roadwork sec­tions and a bark­ing-mad, car-chas­ing shep­herd dog.

An hour later, at the bot­tom of the nar­row, al­most sym­met­ri­cally V-shaped val­ley, our trio lines up for the first se­ri­ous run up the big hill: the lat­est As­ton Mar­tin V8 Van­tage, Mercedes-AMG GT C, and Porsche 911 Car­rera 4 GTS. The Porsche stam­pedes away, its trade­mark flat-six stac­cato trail­ing be­hind. Next, the AMG growler from Af­fal­ter­bach scram­bles into po­si­tion be­fore it takes off and storms away with such thun­der­ous noise that we ex­pect a health and safety com­plaint from the nearby wildlife. Last to leave is the even more vo­cal and melodic metal­lic white As­ton, look­ing like a streak of motile ice as it spi­rals out of sight.

It’s still early in the day, and so far this is only six- or sev­en­tenths stuff. The Miche­lins and Pirellis need warm­ing up, the brakes are still grabby from a frosty night, and the moth­er­boards in­side our heads need re­pro­gram­ming. The sur­face is dap­pled with blacktop patches, some cor­ners are off-cam­ber, and wa­ter from the glaciers over­head sprin­kles the road here and there. Down­hill, ev­ery sec­tion is good for third or fourth gear. Twice, fifth would be an op­tion, but 125 mph on this type of road is beg­ging for a prime spot at the mor­tu­ary.

While the AMG GT S would—on pa­per—be a bet­ter fit for our test, the GT C with the Dy­namic Plus pack and car­bon-ce­ramic brakes is ev­ery bit as good. Money-wise, it’s al­most a dead heat between the Van­tage and the GT C, which share the same 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8. The Porsche is the least ex­pen­sive con­tender and the only car­ry­over model. All were de­liv­ered fully loaded, though the Porsche lacks the op­tional rear-wheel steer­ing. Com­plete with sun­roof and com­fort seats, the 911 is kind of an an­ti­dote to the big, bad Benz. The Van­tage sits in the mid­dle, a GT with the soul of a sports car.

Per­for­mance is far from the de­cid­ing fac­tor in this com­par­i­son. The en­trants go grille to grille in the 0-60 sprint; even at top speed, the fastest car (AMG GT C, 196 mph) beats the least fast (911, 191 mph) by a mere to­ken ges­ture, and ingear ac­cel­er­a­tion times are equally close. There’s not much sep­a­rat­ing power and torque, ei­ther. The Porsche’s flat-six lays down the least at 450 hp and 405 lb-ft, but it’s also more than 400 pounds lighter than the 3,748-pound, 550-hp, 502-lb-ft GT C. As­ton claims a dry weight of 3,373 pounds for the 503hp, 505-lb-ft Van­tage, which sug­gests around 3,650 pounds or more all in. As for real-life fuel con­sump­tion fig­ures, the AMG was thirsti­est dur­ing our two-day, 400-mile ex­cur­sion on a route sans au­to­bahns or city driv­ing (the As­ton slightly less so), with the 911 con­sum­ing the least amount of su­per un­leaded by far.

En­ter­ing the 911 feels like com­ing home. De­spite the up­dated, semi-con­tem­po­rary in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem and a choice of driv­ing pro­grams, the rear-en­gine coupe is still pleas­antly

THESE SLEDGEHAMMERS DANCE ALONG THE EDGE OF AD­HE­SION LIKE NUREYEV AF­TER A THIRD VODKA.

Olde Worlde in the way it looks, feels, and does its job. On tight and wind­ing roads, one quickly ap­pre­ci­ates its more com­pact di­men­sions, lighter weight, and com­par­a­tively com­fort­able sus­pen­sion.

The Mercedes-AMG GT C, on the other hand, packs a 3XL rear track, the longest hood this side of a pre­war SSK road­ster, and shoul­ders al­most too broad for an au­to­matic car wash. While great for blat-blat­ting down Fifth Av­enue in first gear, as soon as a haz­ard—pot­hole, cy­clist, on­com­ing traf­fic—pops up on a real road, the mar­gin for er­ror shrinks to zero be­fore you can ut­ter a four-let­ter word. The As­ton isn’t quite as bloated (er, mus­cu­lar) as the Benz, but it too high-fives road­side flow­ers and pep­pers the wheel­wells with gravel picked up from the soft shoul­der. Set ESP in han­dling mode or switch it off al­to­gether, and these fron­tengine sledgehammers dance along the edge of ad­he­sion like Nureyev af­ter a third vodka.

The As­ton has the most well-rounded trans­mis­sion by a whisker, a no-frills eight-speed transaxle au­to­matic sup­plied by ZF. It’s a quick-shift­ing set of cogs that adapts nicely to pre­de­ter­mined de­grees of ex­cite­ment named Sport, Sport Plus, and Track. The seven-speed DCT fit­ted to the GT C might be an eye blink faster, and it can cer­tainly change gears with greater fe­roc­ity, but down­shifts tend to be lumpy, and af­ter a hard day’s work our test car de­vel­oped an odd take­off hic­cup that was for­tu­nately gone the next morn­ing. The 911’s PDK has a lot go­ing for it too. Although it’s light-years quicker than that bag­ful of antlers known as a man­ual gear­box, sadly the Porsche power­bro­kers chose a frus­trat­ing emis­sions-bi­ased cal­i­bra­tion that au­to­mat­i­cally se­lects the tallest avail­able gear and coasts when­ever pos­si­ble—though it down­shifts promptly when the throt­tle is opened wide. Se­lect­ing Sport or Sport Plus does change things up, namely to the tune of ear­lier down­shifts, later up­shifts, and a ten­dency to avoid fifth through sev­enth.

Below 2,000 rpm, none of the three en­gines is overea­ger to jump out of bed. But get near 7,000 (AMG, As­ton) or 7,500 (Porsche) rpm, and cli­max is unan­i­mously spelled with a triple X. If you want to frighten not just your next-door neigh­bor but the whole street, hit the but­ton adorned with an ex­haust sym­bol, or, in the case of the Van­tage, keep the starter but­ton pushed for more than 3 sec­onds. The re­sult is un­abashed pueril­ity, though none quite matches the sonic overkill of Fer­rari & Friends.

Fast des­cents like the road from Vent to Zwiesel­stein are a bap­tism by fire for steer­ing, sus­pen­sion, and brakes—es­pe­cially brakes. While car­bon-ce­ramic ro­tors never made much dif­fer­ence in the nu­mer­ous 911s we’ve driven, the cop­per-col­ored, high-per­for­mance calipers and car­bon-ce­ramic discs that glis­ten be­hind the wheels of the GT C com­bine amaz­ing stop­ping power with in­ex­haustible stamina. Pedal pres­sure and travel never vary, and be­cause the front end turns in with­out greas­ing so much as half an inch off-line, brak­ing deep into bends soon be­comes sec­ond na­ture. The As­ton does all that, too, though with­out the same aban­don, and it re­quires warm tires and hot brakes to pro­vide the kind of bru­tal de­cel­er­a­tion that tests your neck mus­cles. Jug­gling mass and mo­men­tum is par­tic­u­larly ef­fort­less in the Porsche un­til ABS in­ter­ven­tion in­ter­rupts play early, which hap­pens quite fre­quently due to the lighter front axle load of the rear-en­gine lay­out.

A knob at­tached to the steer­ing wheel of the 911 of­fers a choice of four modes, plus a boost but­ton that pours on even more torque—for 20 sec­onds, any­way. Un­less your com­mute in­cludes a sec­tion of the Nord­schleife, this fea­ture is lit­tle more than a gim­mick. The GT C can be tweaked by the mode se­lec­tor in the cen­ter con­sole and via di­rect con­trol but­tons tweak­ing dampers and ESP,

though even Race mode is of lit­tle use for fast-but-not-in­sanely-fast stints on sec­ondary roads. In prin­ci­ple, the Van­tage way of cal­i­brat­ing its DNA is the most log­i­cal and prag­matic. Ac­cess is via two three-way but­tons on the steer­ing wheel, one linked to the dampers, the other to the driv­e­train. Sport, Sport Plus, and even Track are OK for early Sun­day morn­ings, but ESP needs to be ad­dressed sep­a­rately via one of 15 but­tons grouped around the touch­pad and in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem also sup­plied by Mercedes.

Then there’s steer­ing. The AMG guys like the helm to be stable and firm, at least around the straight-ahead po­si­tion. This setup makes a car that can be a bit ner­vous at times feel less way­ward on bumpy as­phalt. As soon as you turn in with vigor, though, the hot­line between the front wheels and the driver’s hands fades just a lit­tle, trig­ger­ing a dash of in­dif­fer­ence and an un­ex­pected light­ness. In our quest for a firmer, more pos­i­tive feel, we switched to the Van­tage, only to frown at its silly squared-off, Austin Al­le­gro-style Quar­tic steer­ing wheel. The rack tuned by the Brits does in­deed turn in a tad more pro­gres­sively, and it’s a touch stiffer and marginally less ar­ti­fi­cial over­all. Hav­ing said that, chang­ing di­rec­tion in the Car­rera 4 GTS is an even more seam­less task, ef­fort­less and re­spon­sive with­out fil­ters or fla­vor en­hancers.

We ar­rive at the top of the next pass just be­fore the toll­gate closes for the night. It’s a mixed bag of chal­lenges, in­clud­ing wide-open straights, nar­row crests framed by panoramic sky, pairs of U-shaped aqua­plan­ing ruts topped by freshly laid as­phalt, cor­ners fast and slow, light rain, and blar­ing sun­shine.

On mir­ror-smooth roads, all three con­tenders score 11 out of 10 for un­bri­dled en­ter­tain­ment and sure-footed con­fi­dence. But when the go­ing gets rough, even the 911— nim­ble and in­volv­ing as it is—balks at trans­verse rip­ples, deep grooves, and patch­work ter­rain where the front axle feels more rest­less than it should. The AMG is ham­pered at times by a less than op­ti­mum low-speed ride, chronic tram­lin­ing, and that busy rear axle. But its stan­dard rear­wheel steer­ing helps sort out those torque vec­tors while calm­ing the eye of the kine­matic hur­ri­cane you sit on.

The Van­tage feels at home in rac­ing suits or three­piece suits. It rules the fast lane and runs with the best of them through the twisties. As it doesn’t de­ploy things

THE BENZ IS A MODERN MUS­CLE CAR PAR EX­CEL­LENCE AND OOZES HOOLI­GAN­ISM THE IN­STANT YOU HIT THE EX­HAUST BUT­TON.

like rear-wheel steer­ing, all-wheel drive (and was ham­pered some by a wonky e-diff), high-per­for­mance brakes, ac­tive aero­dy­nam­ics, air sus­pen­sion, and ad­justable anti-roll bars, the new As­ton is in essence an old-school sports car. It can’t go through a round­about with­out wag­ging its tail, it’s pure dy­na­mite in the 125 to 185 mph bracket, and it feels fast the way a 797-hp Chal­lenger Red­eye feels fast. Trou­ble is, the sus­pen­sion comes across as some­what un­der­sprung and over­damped. Point the nose to­ward curvy, un­even ter­rain, and brace your­self for ver­ti­cal kicks, which make the car’s rear end tap-dance un­til ESP cuts in, which is late in han­dling mode. Can we have a bit more com­pli­ance, please?

When you drop $150,000-plus on a car, sense of oc­ca­sion usu­ally ranks high on the list of buy­ing mo­tives. As far as the ex­te­rior ap­pear­ance goes, the sheer pres­ence of the Van­tage trig­gers about twice as many smart­phone snaps as the AMG. (No one no­tices the Porsche.) In­side, though, the Bri­tish won­der is a dis­ap­point­ment, sport­ing ho-hum sur­faces, yes­ter­day’s er­gonomics, and un­event­ful in­stru­men­ta­tion. The 911 is bet­ter made and has bet­ter seats and a roomier cabin. The AMG im­presses with its ma­jes­tic dash­board, flashy elec­tron­ics, and the ex­pen­sive am­biance of a ma­te­rial world, but seat travel is com­pro­mised by the rear bulk­head, and the ul­tra-wide trans­mis­sion tun­nel looks as if some­one nicked it from an ocean liner. So there’s no real win­ner here, but then no­body has yet com­bined a Fer­rari steer­ing wheel with Ch­i­ron seats, E30 M3 in­stru­ments, and Ve­lar er­gonomics.

So which is our pick? To qual­ify for the top spot, the Van­tage needs a more for­giv­ing ride, a bet­ter-bal­anced sus­pen­sion, and work done to the in­te­rior. The Benz is a modern mus­cle car par ex­cel­lence and oozes hooli­gan­ism the in­stant you hit the ex­haust but­ton, but it feels big and has a few dy­namic nig­gles. This leaves us with a clas­sic that boasts a time­less de­sign and an im­pos­si­ble en­gi­neer­ing con­cept honed to great­ness. On pa­per, the 911 GTS is more un­der­dog than over­achiever, yet it wins by a bumper for all the rea­sons that make this icon so iconic. AM

SPEED CHECK We found plenty of ve­loc­ity, but these cars re­quire ju­di­cious in­putson this type of road.

There are quicker cars and there are faster cars than these three, but we wanted for lit­tle as we drove this lineup.

WEDGED INNone of the in­te­ri­ors wowed us, but that’s not what this ex­er­cise is about.

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