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.