Calais, France It's a different world inside the Aston Martin V12 Vanquish. Gone is the traditional British reliance on wood and chrome, replaced by a contemporary interior that was, by eleventh-hour upper-management decree, liberated from such working-class details as door handles from the Mazda Miata and air vents from Ford's European minicar, the Ka. Apart from the carryover switchgear in the center console that was originally conceived for the Jaguar XK8, the driver environment is bespoke, classy, and worthy of a car costing $228,000. The top-of-the-line Aston introduces a new mix of materials that is totally devoid of wood trim but big on brushed aluminum and Alcantara faux suede. It's no surprise that customers can choose from numerous color and trim combinations, but they can even specify the number of seats. We drove the two-passenger-plus-luggage version, which is a disappointingly tight fit for tall people. How a two-plus-two Vanquish could possibly accommodate two rear-seat occupants without resorting to chainsaw and blowtorch is a mystery to us.
By contrast with the sensuous Aston, the interior of the Porsche 911 Turbo that we used as transport to our meeting with the Vanquish is a somber place, a practical and predominantly black workplace on wheels.
Externally, the Porsche is loud, with an articulated rear wing and more air intakes than a fighter jet, whereas the shape of the Aston is calm and clean. There are no obvious aerodynamic aids, no go-faster add-ons, no overdone details. The proportions are perfect, the heritage is instantly recognizable, and the surfaces are so beautiful that you repeatedly catch yourself stroking them with the back of your hand. The Vanquish looks particularly impressive when it zooms in from behind, high-intensity-discharge headlights switched on.
It also looks good from behind the steering wheel, but it is a big car, and the visibility is appalling. The A-pillars and the rear-view mirror are almost always obstructing your forward view, and, to a lesser extent, the same applies to the tapered C-pillars and the sloping back window. Add in a large turning circle and the complex paddle-shift transmission, and you can understand why maneuvering this behemoth is hard work. The Porsche may be petite and plasticky in comparison, but it is sized much more conveniently for busy traffic and narrow roads. It also is easier to use and easier to get used to.
When Ulrich Bez became chief executive of Aston Martin, the Vanquish was almost ready for production. Bez, who used to be in charge of product design and development at Porsche, could make only a few last-minute changes, such as scrapping a plan to use taillights from the Mercury Cougar on the Vanquish and instead ordering bespoke lenses. Asked to give his personal view of the new car, Bez answers like a shot: "It is a competent, powerful, and rewarding car. It also looks and sounds great. But it is extremely sophisticated and complex. Before I came here, I did not believe that one could engineer a production model in such a complicated and costly way."
In pursuit of best-in-class structural rigidity, Aston's masterminds opted for a modular construction that incorporates the latest material and manufacturing techniques developed by Lotus Engineering. The backbone of the Vanquish is a carbon-fiber-reinforced transmission tunnel. Bonded to this lightweight centerpiece is a set of aluminum extrusions. Glued and riveted together, they form an integral part of the chassis and the passenger cell. The front and rear bulkheads and the floorpan are made according to the same recipe. The aluminum exterior skins are shaped using heat and air pressure, in a process called superforming. Fiberglass is the material of choice for the trunk compartment and for the low-stress inner body panels. The A-pillars and the windshield frame, which must absorb most of the crash energy in a rollover accident, are fabricated of specially woven carbon fiber strands. A similar technology is used for the strut-tower brace. Despite the absence of bolts and screws, the torsional stiffness of the Vanquish body is purportedly more than double that of the Jaguar XK8 coupe.
Unfortunately, the new Aston Martin weighs in at just over 4000 pounds--a few pounds more than the DB7 Vantage coupe, which is put together the old-fashioned way. In stark contrast, the four-wheel-drive 911 Turbo is a true featherweight, tipping the scales at only 3395 pounds. On the road, the prime difference between the steel-bodied Porsche and the alloy-bodied Aston lies in the varying degree of compliance. The British car is more precise, more responsive, more accurate, more instantaneous in the way it acts and reacts. This is a carver, not a glider. It requires determined, unambiguous inputs, and it will reward you with razor-sharp execution. If you're looking for a machine that will invariably clip the apex within an inch of the mark, this is it. If you always dial in exactly the right amount of lock, always brake exactly at the right spot, and always start feeding the torque in again exactly when it is safe to do so, the Vanquish will make you feel invincible.
What the Aston does not tolerate is sloppy driving. Because it is such a tight and coherent mechanical package, the Vanquish needs to be kept on a short leash. It takes quite a while to get used to the rather light steering; initially, you tend to apply too much lock and to make late mid-corner adjustments. The car hates that. It will wriggle and shrug in response, and it may even bite back when you veer ridiculously far off the intended line. Flying at more than 100 mph over empty but pockmarked French back roads, the Vanquish remained calm and composed in synchronicity with its calm and composed driver. But at this kind of speed, misjudging a corner or underestimating the severity of a crest can result in a hair-raising fishtail protest or a not-so-gentle four-wheel slide. Stability control would help--if the Vanquish had it. The only electronic active-safety aids are traction control, a winter driving mode, and a sport mode that lets you rev the engine all the way to its 7000-rpm redline. Also conspicuous by their absence are any kind of side air bags and an integrated navigation system.
At 2.7 turns from lock to lock, the rack-and-pinion steering is pleasantly direct. It also never leaves you in any doubt about what the fat nineteen-inch Yokohama tires are up to. Undulating tarmac will produce a fair bit of pulling and tugging at the wheel, but despite the liveliness in your palms, there is rarely a need to correct. That steely stiffness also applies to the brakes, which respond instantly and decelerate well. Made by Brembo, they employ four-piston calipers straddling vented and drilled discs. When cold, the brake pedal feels wooden, and the required pressure is on the high side, but as the discs warm up, braking performance becomes smoother and more progressive. Although a car fitted with juggernaut 285/40ZR-19 rear tires should not suffer from a lack of grip and roadholding, the Vanquish will occasionally struggle to translate its 400 pound-feet of torque into traction, especially in the wet. Directional stability at high speed is good but not always impeccable, especially when longitudinal grooves and light crests are involved.
On the same roads and in the same weather, the Aston is not as confidence-inspiring as the Porsche. The 911 carries a preponderance of its weight in the rear wheels, but it boasts four-wheel drive, electronic stability control, and meaty steering that provides all the feedback in the world. It's a case of solid German engineering versus charisma and character. The V12 Vanquish, like the Ferrari 550 Maranello, is an alluring and idiosyncratic thoroughbred that knows full well that its owners will relish the challenge that comes with the state-of-the-art execution. The Porsche just gets the job done--effectively, effortlessly, and with far less drama and emotion.
The Aston Martin uses a six-speed sequential manual transmission similar to the Ferrari 360's. Developed by Magneti Marelli, the paddle-controlled gearbox is capable of executing a shift in less than 250 milliseconds, but in many ways, it still isn't as satisfactory as a good conventional manual. There are two modes to choose from: Select Shift Manual (SSM) and Auto Shift Manual (ASM). In SSM, you do most of the work. Although the system automatically blips the throttle before downshifts--perhaps its neatest feature--there is always a brief pause before the next upshift, which can be made less obvious by a slight lift before pulling a higher gear. Instinct, intuition, and practice are required to avoid hiccups and delays, but even the most experienced driver will struggle when it comes to maneuvering the car into and out of reverse, especially on a slope. Although a hill holder (which can be found in most manual-transmission Subarus) would solve the problem, Aston preferred to do things the Italian way, which means that you pull both paddles to select neutral, then select upshift for first gear or press the console button for reverse. And don't forget to hold your foot on the brake! This is what makes uphill starts tricky, unless you are particularly deft with the left hoof or with the emergency brake, which is crouched inconveniently between the driver's seat and the doorsill. ASM provides a quick kickdown action followed by brisk acceleration, but the self-shifter is just not as velvety and progressive as a classic autobox. At this point, the Porsche Tiptronic manu-matic comes to mind--admittedly less involving but simple and reliable.
It's not the size or the weight that makes the Vanquish a grand tourer; above all, it's the glorious twelve-cylinder engine. Never mind that it started life as a pair of Ford V-6s, and never mind that it is only 40 horsepower more powerful than the closely related unit fitted to the DB7 Vantage, which costs a significant $85,000 less. The normally aspirated 5935-cc 48-valver develops 460 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 400 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. In V-12 terms, it falls halfway between Ferrari's 456M and 550 Maranello models. It wins the horsepower sweepstakes against the Porsche's 415-horsepower, 3.6-liter twin-turbo horizontally opposed six but loses out in the power-to-weight ratio department. This does not stop the Aston from roaring from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds and pushing on to a top speed of 190 mph.
The V12 Vanquish is a seriously fast car, make no mistake. Although it isn't quite as rocketlike off the mark as the 911 Turbo and its maximum speed is 10 mph short of the 550 Maranello's, the V12 Vanquish reigns supreme in the 60-to-125-mph bracket. This is also the most melodious supercar engine we've listened to for a long time, even if its aural statements are inspired more by Metallica than by Mozart. Idle speed is a busy overture for four camshafts and a pair of orchestral intake manifolds. Part load is a rich mix of valve riffs and a dozen dark-voiced backup singers. Full throttle is a blend of hoarse intake rasps and stereophonic exhaust trumpets that will leave tattoos on your eardrums. The sound engineers should do a hot lap of the Nrburgring Nordschleife in the Vanquish, capture the music in motion on CD, and present it to those customers who are going to have to wait for twelve to twenty-four months for their toy. The first year's production, a mere 300 units, is, of course, long since spoken for.
It is almost impossible not to succumb to the new Aston Martin's visual attractions. But it is equally impossible to climb into this car, push the engine-start button, take off, and immediately feel comfortable with the controls and with the car's dimensions. The V12 Vanquish demands a particular driving style: minimalistic, focused, always eager to adjust to its traits. This isn't all that surprising, really. For how many decades did we try to come to grips with the once-lethal Porsche 911? The V12 Vanquish is, of course, much more user-friendly than early 911 Carreras, but it is less straightforward than a modern 911 Turbo. Why, for instance, do you have to go into neutral to select reverse? Why is traction control occasionally achieved via clutch slip rather than by brake actuation or throttle management? Why is the sport mode switched off with the engine? There are many questions and no immediate answers.
When it comes to supercars, making a choice is an emotional thing--like buying a pair of Lobb brogues instead of a pair of Gucci loafers, like selecting New Balance over Nike, IWC over Breitling, Bang & Olufsen over Nakamichi. The more you can spend, the more important are subjective factors such as prestige, presence, and personality. At this level, ability is taken for granted, exclusivity is a bonus, satisfaction is a must. No, the $228,000 V12 Vanquish is not necessarily a better car than the $111,000 911 Turbo--just as a $73,000 Blancpain Tourbillon watch tells the time no more accurately than a $50 Swatch. But the Aston may well be a more stimulating purchase--and not just for Anglophile gentlemen drivers. After all, it is rare, it has flair, it is beautiful and beautifully made, it offers plenty of power and panache, and, despite some flaws and quirks, it is a compellingly competent automobile.