Twelve, size small
Looking at it in pictures and on paper, it may be difficult to really get excited about the Aston Martin V12 Vantage. Sure, it’s gorgeous and has a beautifully balanced V-12 under the hood, but it’s also the final homogenization of the Aston Martin coupes: three models with the same look, the same architecture, and now the same engine.
Chief engineer Paul Barritt makes his case for this car, though, and it’s enough to pique our interest. “This is the most edgy Aston we do,” he says. “It’s our most driver-focused car.” And to drive that point further, Aston will offer the V12 Vantage with a manual gearbox as the only transmission.
On the ‘Ring
Even with race-liveried Lexus LFAs and Aston Martins lapping the Nurburgring simultaneously, our caravan of relatively slow-moving production cars captures the attention of the beer-swillers who have already erected gypsy villages in the woods surrounding the track, six days before the annual twenty-four-hour race. I have my reservations about driving such a powerful car my first time out on the legendarily complicated and dangerous track, but the 510 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque quickly prove to be more of a boon than a threat on the Nordschleife. Despite its age, the 5.9-liter V-12 pulls just as hard whether it’s spinning at 3000 rpm or 6000 rpm, so coming out of a turn in the wrong gear doesn’t really penalize a rookie. Gearing is unchanged with the exception of a shorter final drive ratio. The omnipresent torque of the V-12 makes driving in town easy as well, helped along by a friendly clutch and nicely weighted shift lever. However, when aggressively downshifting into second, it’s easy to pull the stick too far to the left where you can’t get into gear. Sport mode won’t make the car any faster, as it only alters the throttle map and opens the muffler bypass earlier.
The extra 154 pounds of the larger engine causes a two-percent weight shift to the front for a still-respectable 51/49 percent front-to-rear split. Steering feel and response is near perfect and the 19-inch Pirelli PZero Corsa tires grip masterfully. The V12’s suspension is lowered 15 millimeters and stiffness is comparable to a sport-pack-equipped V8 Vantage. The car corners flat and confidently, but the ride became tiresome on a lengthy road drive. Standard carbon ceramic brake discs are easy to modulate on the road and provide the stopping force they promise. The pedal, though, doesn’t provide much feedback when pushed firmly, obscuring the antilock brake threshold.
A tight fit
The V-12 was such a tight fit in the Vantage’s engine bay that engineers had to install a shallower sump, smaller alternator, and new oil filter housing. When engineers began working on the V12 Vantage, they were unsure they could meet U.S. crash standards, because the V-12 provides less underhood crush space than the V-8. The solution, though, was surprisingly simple. Two aluminum bars, about five inches long and one square inch in cross-section are added behind the bumper to direct crash forces from the impact points down toward the subframe.
The visual giveaways
Visually, you can identify the V-12 car by the carbon-fiber louvers in the hood that help cool the engine and reduce lift. A carbon-fiber lower splitter, brake cooling ducts in the front fascia, larger flared sills, a taller spoiler, and a new rear fascia designed to pull more air over the transmission oil cooler also differentiate the V12 from the V8 Vantage. Inside, there are unique instrument panel graphics, a new shift knob, and carbon-fiber door grabs. Other than that, it’s the same Aston interior with great materials and mediocre electronics and ergonomics.
A tight fit, part II
The Vantage’s small size may make it more agile than the $270,350 DBS, but it also makes for a tight fit in the cabin. At six feet, three inches tall, the seat back is forced forward as I slide the bottom cushion rearward. I’m able to get far enough away from the pedals, but I still struggle to find a comfortable position between the seat, wheel, pedals, and stick. After logging 300 miles in two days, my body feels like it’s been flying coach class for twelve hours. The optional fixed-back, lightweight seats don’t comply with U.S. regulations and won’t be offered here.
The bargain Aston Martin
A big engine in a small car is a formula for fast, and it holds true here as the V12 Vantage is the quickest car in Aston’s lineup (aside from the radical One-77), claiming a 0-to-62-mph time 0.1 seconds faster than the DBS. Consider the $90,000 discount over the DBS and we’re starting to think that V-12 homogenization isn’t such a big deal after all. Aston Martin isn’t calling the V12 Vantage a limited-edition car, but only 1000 will be built. The V12 Vantage will be in U.S. showrooms in the fall of 2010, starting at a price of $181,300.