First Drive: 2019 Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Act Two: Aston’s sharp-edged new sports car aims for the younger, more aggressive set
PORTIMAO, Portugal — The shade of lime green splashed across the Algarve International Circuit's paddock is not what Aston Martin apologists, or average blokes for that matter, would call beautiful. The hue is a peculiar mix of highlighter-yellow and acid green, a visual shock clearly intended to provoke—not unlike the sharply creased silhouette of the new V8 Vantage that represents Aston's second salvo at modern reinvention.
For a company that's only seen two years of profitability in its 105-year history, the time is nigh for the seasoned marque to find a new voice. Though the DB11, introduced in 2016, was kissed with a touch of contemporary design language in the form of aerodynamic curlicues and a subtly pointed tail, it also kept a foot planted in the grand touring vernacular intended to satisfy the tweedy old world set. So far the efforts have paid off for Aston, with the DB11 fueling a meteoric turnaround in revenue last year. But now is a critical time to expand the repertoire and engage a younger, more daring demographic. Now is the time for the V8 Vantage.
Playing the role of the DB11's mischievous little brother who just might have been sired by the randy milkman, the V8 Vantage is out to crash the Porsche/Bentley/Mercedes-AMG rager and hopefully not end up in the corner wearing a lampshade hat. It's a car Aston aims squarely at the mighty Porsche 911—one of the most enduring, incalculably honed sports car stalwarts in automotive history. No big deal, right?
Externally, the Vantage's form is guided by function, not pretense. There are no lavish overhangs or gratuitous French curves. Rather, sheetmetal seems to hug, stretch, and bulge over its underpinnings and wheel edges with purposefulness: think Frank Gehry, not Frank Lloyd Wright. Up front, Aston's traditional "hill-climb" aperture has been traded for a more minimal maw. "Shock, horror, it doesn't have an Aston Martin grille," taunts head designer Marek Reichman. "Why would we put 15 or 20 kilos of weight on the furthest point forward in a sports car? The mouth is about servicing and breathing the engine, and cooling the brakes."
Fair enough. There are other points of aesthetic contention as well, among them the tiny LED headlamps dotting the sloping nose—which, for what it's worth, would not look out of place on a vehicle that hails from the Far East. "This is about function," Reichman insists. "It's got incredibly small lights because there's an incredibly small package space. The dynamic turning envelope of the [20-inch] wheel and tire leaves you with very little space." Moving along to the middle section, extractors—provocatively accented in a contrasting color and texture—draw high-pressure airflow away from the wheel wells and engine compartment. At the rear, a massive diffuser creates 169 pounds of downforce at the claimed vMax of 195 mph. Why not a nice round double century? "Everybody would love a 200 mph car," says Aston senior vehicle engineering manager Craig Jamieson, "but this is a sports car with a short final drive, not a supercar." The rear axle ratio of 2.93, versus the DB11's statelier 2.7, works with the same ZF sourced 8-speed automatic transmission to dispatch a 0 to 60 mph time of 3.5 seconds. Not bad, Aston, not bad.
Though the Vantage shares suspension architecture like the front double wishbone/rear multilink setup with the DB11, the new car is tuned with a considerably more aggressive setup. Similarly, the Mercedes-AMG sourced 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 produces the same 503 horsepower output as the DB11 V8, though its intake, exhaust, and mapping yields a punchier 505 lb-ft of torque (versus 498) delivered with a sharper ramp up, plateauing between 2,000 and 5,000 rpm. Its extruded aluminum chassis, also derived from the DB11, claims 70 percent new parts.
The rain is slow and steady at Portimão's Algarve International Circuit, and it's finally time to slide behind the wheel and spread the pretty beads of moisture across the Vantage's Lime Essence paint. The cabin, for those already steeped in Aston Martin convention, departs from protocol by utilizing a decidedly less precious, more masculine design. Rather than a waterfall dashboard delicately adorned in veneer, the center stack features an unapologetic array of a fixed 8-inch LCD screen, HVAC controls, and a cluster of buttons. The individual PRND transmission buttons are now in a chevron, not a row. A small, stitched leather patch occupies an area where a future manual transmission will reside, much to the presumable delight of Luddite diehards.
The first laps in the wet are run with the drivetrain in Sport (the least aggressive throttle/exhaust setting), and stability control in default mode. Discretion being the better part of valor, the conservative configuration almost immediately provides more intervention than it's worth, with the torquey engine easily breaking the rear tires loose and the stability control violently yanking them back. Trying Sport+ and Track mode during the next session yields a considerably smoother, more intuitive dynamic. Moderation is still the order of the day, especially with decent amounts of water accumulating on this 2.9 miles of rising and falling tarmac. But the Vantage now plays far more nicely with the itchy right foot, allowing decent amounts of yaw angle before it overloads on sliding and the car's axis is tugged back on track.
The watery conditions are unfortunate on any track, but particularly so with the Vantage because its tuning seems focused on handling, with a strong side order of torque. Regardless, my kinesthetic feedback loop corroborates the Aston's measured 50/50 weight distribution; barring dumb moves like excessive turn-in during relatively slow corners (been there, plowed that), the Vantage turns in easily and tracks responsively mid-corner, conveying a sense of willingness to rotate when provided appropriately thoughtful inputs. Part of this comes from the relatively low polar moment of inertia thanks to the engine being shoved against the firewall. Lift the bonnet, and it seems there could be enough space to house a keg in there, if not for the big ol' airboxes.
Speaking of airboxes, the optional quad exhaust system sampled at the track extracts some pleasingly sonorous sounds from the V-8. The tuning here is a tad raspier and focused on mid-frequency notes than in the AMG application, which is bit more guttural and, well, German sounding. The turbocharged setup differs greatly though from the naturally aspirated song of the old Vantage's 4.7-liter V-8, which came alive with an incomparable level of musicality (second only, of course, to the now-defunct naturally aspirated V-12). Regardless, the new mill's optional pipes make solid use of the venerable V-8 configuration, offering a pleasantly raw edge that complements the Vantage's aggressive visual style.
The 8-speed auto performs consistently well with the powerful engine, delivering appropriately aggressive shifts and downshifts when summoned via the large, stationary polished aluminum paddles. Track composure is also aided by Aston's first use of an electronic differential, which can apply up to 2,500 newton meters (1,843 lb-ft) of clamping force to help stabilize the car. The feature is a welcome addition when approaching the end of Portimão's lengthy straight, where I repeatedly saw an indicated 150 mph before slamming the carbon ceramic stoppers, whisking away speed just in time for the hard right-hander. Though there's still some lightness and a bit of tail wiggle when summoning these immense slowdowns, the proceedings still feel commendably in control considering the levels of deceleration and the slick surfaces beneath. Stopping power sometimes seemed to wane when scrubbing off nearly 100 mph of speed, only to be salvaged by what felt like a brake booster effect that sank the pedal deeper into its travel. Only slight fade was perceptible after several hard laps around the circuit.
You can only glean so much subjective data on a car's track capabilities when you're stuck in the wet, but thankfully Aston arranged a second day of street driving which shed more light on the Vantage's terrestrial qualities. On the pastoral B-roads of the surrounding region, the Vantage feels remarkably more modern and extreme than it does on the circuit's concrete superstructures. The seats are appropriately supportive and sporty, positioned about a quarter inch lower so you sit closer to earth, amplifying the sensation of speed. With relatively high doorsills, you feel you're within, not on, the car's interior, further differentiating the Vantage from its more grand touring-focused stablemate. The automatic transmission earns praise for smoothness when lolling about public roads. Shifts can be appropriately imperceptible when you're not driving in anger, and the variability feels particularly impressive compared to its crisp behavior on the track. A day spent meandering through backroads conveys an overall impression biased toward purposefulness, not plushness, though the three-mode Bilstein dampers offer a noticeably more forgiving ride in their softer settings.
So where does the V8 Vantage fit in the galaxy of outstandingly capable competitors? Well, at least in the context of its Porsche 911 archenemy, it's easy to argue that while the rear-engine German delivers on its tried-and-true mission of finely tuned driving dynamics, the Brit brings a singular sense of style to the table. Yes, the P-car's even-keeled Teutonic-ness tickles our fancy, but there's also some fun to be had in the Aston's fanciful details like leather brogue edging and tailored suit stitching. And while we'll require a head-to-head battle on dry pavement to pass final judgment on the finer points of their driving dynamics, impressions from two days of wet weather slinging suggest the Aston team has done a mighty fine job of imbuing the Vantage with a sense of athleticism and personality.
If the grand touring-oriented DB11 was the company's initial attempt at redefinition, the V8 Vantage serves as one hell of a launch for Aston Martin's driver-focused second act. There are still miles to go before Team Aston can sleep, with a steady cadence of upcoming models promising a full-circle rebuilding of the marque. But when Reichman leans in and not-so-subtlety hints at future product by asking, "What would you think of this car with 80 more horsepower and 150 fewer pounds?" these enterprising British underdogs have a way of making the skies ahead seem especially blue.
2019 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Specifications
|ON SALE||Summer 2018|
|PRICE||$152,820 (base) (est)|
|ENGINE||4.0L twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8/503 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 505 lb-ft @ 2,000-5,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA MILEAGE||18/22 city/hwy (est)|
|L x W x H||175.8 x 84.8 x 50.1 in|
|WEIGHT||3,373 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||3.5 sec|
|TOP SPEED||195 mph|