First Drive: Aston Martin V12 Zagato

Juergen Skarwan

Half a million dollars (330,000 British pounds). Plus options, like non-standard paint and bespoke leather. Plus a place on the waiting list, one of 101. Not to mention the guts it takes to be seen in the most extroverted Aston Martin ever built, and to drive such a precious and rare commodity. Is the Aston Martin V12 Zagato a silly proposition? Not at all. The way things are going in the crazy collector-car arena, the limited-edition Zagato likely will depreciate much more slowly over the next few years than the Vantage V12 on which it's based. More to the point, the Zagato is an even more raw and rare driving experience. It may not be outright beautiful by conventional standards, but it does look breathtakingly different: the radically aggressive, big-mouth front end vacates fast lanes more promptly than a cop car with siren wailing and lights blazing. The sculptured rear with the oversize spoiler and the eyeball taillights has "I was born on the Nordschleife" written all over it. Then there's the soundtrack, which is guaranteed to raise goose bumps on your forearms.

Promenading through Munich in this rolling disturber of the peace makes you wish for large dark glasses and a broad-rimmed black Stetson. Even before the alba blue coupe thunders-then-sizzles into sight, mothers grab their kids, men reach instinctively for their camera phones, older folks drop their jaws, and teenagers give an enthusiastic thumbs-up. While the what-is-that? silhouette composed of a race-car front and a jet-fighter rear turns heads in rapid succession, the scent of sticky Pirelli PZero rubber and hot carbon-ceramic brakes is wafting like pheromone through the crowded street cafes. True, the crouched, wide-body two-seater is so self-aware it almost hurts. But if Zorro could pick a new horse right here and now, he would saddle up the Zagato and gallop off into the setting sun.

The partnership between Aston Martin and the Italian design house Zagato dates back to 1960. The first jointly badged product was the DB4GT designed by Ercole Spada. The shapely coupe was stylistically derived from a very rare Zagato-bodied version of the 1960 Bristol 406. The lightweight DB4GT featured plexiglass side windows and was powered by a 3.7-liter straight six rated at more than 300 hp. Zagato skinned nineteen DB4GTs, and two of them gridded at Le Mans in both 1961 and 1962. In 1991, Aston and Zagato agreed to assemble four more DB4GTs, known as Sanction II models. Nine years later, two Sanction III cars were added. In 1985, the partners announced a brand-new sports car project that became known as the V8 Zagato. The two-seater was based on the V8 Vantage. The rolling chassis was completed at Aston's facility in Newport Pagnell, and the body was handmade in Milan, where the final assembly took place. A total of fifty-two coupes and thirty-seven Volantes (convertibles) left the carrozzeria between 1986 and 1990. In 2002, the next phase of the collaboration yielded the Aston Martin DB7 Zagato, which was available as a coupe and as a roadster (called DB AR1). The output was limited to ninety-nine units each. The solitary Vanquish-derived Zagato roadster unveiled at the 2004 Geneva auto show never progressed beyond prototype status.

Unlike previous Aston-Zagatos, which were completed and partially designed in Italy, the latest Z car actually has precious little to do with the Milanese coachbuilder. Despite various cues like the double-bubble roof, the in-your-face grille, and the butch stance, the new crowd-stopper was shaped in Britain by Aston Martin's Marek Reichman and his team, who had already designed the donor car, the V12 Vantage. Since the Zagato is assembled at the same special manufacturing facility as the recent Aston One-77, it really is an Aston Martin through and through. Writes Andrea Zagato in his foreword for the sales brochure: "The Aston Martin V12 Zagato embodies so much of our combined design language, we pride ourselves on the balance of high technology and hand craftsmanship which make up the heart and soul of every V12 Zagato." While this may be the case, the latest twin-badged effort is definitely more Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood than Missoni or Dolce & Gabbana. The interior in particular is modern English design at its best. The mix of daring leather colors, the wavy psychedelic stitch pattern, the shiny carbon-fiber panels, the beautifully finished metal accents, and the glass highlights make this one of the most exotic cabins in an elite automotive world where understatement is a little-known quantity.

But is this exquisite piece of street furniture, which spends more than 100 man-hours in the paint shop to receive one of five unique colors, really worth more than two and a half times as much as a V12 Vantage? Again, wrong question. Cars like this are not about value for money. They are about excitement per mile. And in this respect, the Zagato hits the bull's-eye. The door opens via a flush-fitting latch, swinging forward, upward, and sideways in one graceful motion. Wow! Despite the sloping roofline, the aperture is big enough for a big boy to slide through and fuse with the carbon-fiber bucket seat. With the chair all the way back and all the way down, the Zagato actually offers more legroom than the Vantage. Although the dashboard looks familiar, the rest of the cabin has been thoroughly transformed. For a start, quilted leather adorns the door panels, the seat cushions, the parcel shelf, and the rear bulkhead. Even the headliner is a hide-trimmed extravaganza. More leather can be found on the fascia and the console. The center stack is trimmed in carbon fiber. For the very first time in modern history, Aston has created gauges that are not only beautiful but also clearly legible. Even though the trademark Z has been applied generously inside and out, the car looks, smells, and feels British.

A firm push at the crystal key -- sorry, "Emotion Control Unit" -- starts the 5.9-liter V-12, as long as you keep the clutch firmly depressed in the process. The pedal goes down a long way, and its considerable weight is a good indication of the torque avalanche that waits to be released. Even at idle speed, the engine breathes in and out with such atmospheric energy that nearby windowpanes will rattle, fallen leaves will swirl, and puddles will ruffle. One wonders how much it cost Aston Martin in bribe money to get this monster sound machine through the tough European Commission approval process.

Underneath, the Zagato is a V12 Vantage. This genetic identity has its pros and cons. The twelve-cylinder engine is pure dynamite, but it rests more heavily on the front axle than the V-8 does. The rear wheels are in turn more lightly laden, which is good for Pirelli's stock price but makes the 3704-pound coupe struggle for grip. The gearbox is an emphatically manual six-speed, which makes for a more involving but notably less slick shifting experience than the Touchtronic transmission available in lesser Astons. The thirst is such that the 21-gallon fuel tank needs to be refilled every 270 miles or so -- unless you're really getting on it, in which case you'll struggle to cover 190 miles between pit stops. The ride is firm on smooth blacktop and harsh on poor surfaces, and no, there is no damper adjustment available. While even Aston Martin has learned its lesson in terms of smartphone connectivity, its navigation device is still the curse of the industry. The screen looks smaller than those audio cassettes we used to listen to back when the marque still built the Lagonda; it rises from its faraway dash-top tomb at an impossible angle; and it is controlled via a toggle knob that seems to have an in-built aversion to thumbs and forefingers.

Peanuts, you say? Perhaps. Perhaps we should look at the grander scheme of things instead. Perhaps it's time to unleash those 510 horses and to let the 420 lb-ft of torque tie knots in the driveshafts. Because only those with three or more eyes will monitor that in-dash screen when the Zagato storms from 0 to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds flat. About six seconds later, the coupe will crack the 125-mph barrier, still in fourth gear and with 1000 more revs to go. On the autobahn, you need to go faster than 155 mph these days to shake off the collective middle management in their E350 CDI/A6 3.0 TDI/530d look-alikes. The Aston does so with surprising ease and with the kind of top-end punch only a big-bore V-12 can muster. This car closes the 155-to-180-mph window faster than just about anything this side of a Ferrari F12 or a Bugatti Veyron, but the final 10 mph are much harder to come by. We saw an indicated 201 mph on a long downhill stretch (Aston quotes a top speed of 190 mph). At these speeds, you definitely need the extra downforce generated by the broad carbon-fiber rear wing that fills the rearview mirror, and you appreciate the aero assistance of all those strakes, flaps, and diffusers.

Even though the very latest V8 Vantage S has evolved into a nicely balanced plaything, the Zagato feels more like the earlier, shirt-sleeved iterations of the most compact Aston (the silly Cygnet notwithstanding). The Z car is clearly more interested in attitude than in manners. Gearshifts can take painfully long and need to be timed carefully. The steering is prone to get heavy upon turn-in, and it stiffens quite abruptly during quick lane changes. While the carbon-ceramic discs are immensely powerful, they need to be up to working temperature to deliver and to silence that underlying grating noise. In the dry, the PZero tires (255/35YR-19 at the front and 295/30YR-19 in back) stick like licorice to just about any type of road. But their shaved tread means that they respond to rain like the devil does to holy water. In the wet, you may experience more power oversteer with the stability control in track mode than you would in other cars with stability control switched off altogether.

It helps to reset your brain before going really fast in the Zagato. Try to ignore the price, the rarity, the possible Internet infamy. Then set the alarm for 5 a.m., fill the tank to the brim, check that the tire pressures are set for max performance, and pray for good weather. Despite the rear-transaxle layout that warrants a better-than-most weight distribution of 51/49 percent front/rear, the Zagato loves to semislide through quick S-bends, swing wide through any first-gear kink, and shrug its padded shoulders through third-gear sweepers. After a while, one gets used to the characterful steering, the gesture-rich chassis, and the no-holds-barred drivetrain. But this is still a car that demands a healthy level of respect. Why? Because with DSC off, breakaway can be hair-raisingly sudden and lurid. Because cornering at the limit involves a very live rear end whose dance steps aren't always easy to predict. And because surface irregularities can deflect the trajectory at very high speeds.

The Zagato would make a formidable drift-challenge entry, and it did prove its worth at the 24-hour race at the Nuerburgring in 2011, where both preproduction cars saw the checkered flag. But the true habitat of the super-rare Aston is not the racetrack. Instead, it belongs in the garage of a true aficionado who uses it on a regular basis. This is a car for connoisseurs who appreciate the design, the craftsmanship, and the driving pleasure provided by its five-star DNA. The Zagato is all about power and glory, superb vehicle dynamics, an infectious soundtrack, near-unparalleled design inside and out. Sweating in the roadside parking area, steaming and crackling from a long, hard ride, Zorro's new thoroughbred looks simply beautiful. It has been good to meet you, Mr Z.

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