First Drive: 2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR with—Yes!—a *Manual Transmission*

Meet the latest, increasingly rare stick-shift angel.

NÜRBURG, Germany—The automotive-enthusiast world is in a bit of a bad state when, along with a few other remaining outliers, we need a limited-production, $180,000 sports car to remind us of the manual transmission's enduring pleasures. The car in question, the 2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR, comes with a seven-speed Graziano gearbox that will be rowed by just 200 stick-shift holdouts around the globe.

Those determined buyers join an equally small club of refuseniks: People who demand a high-end sports car that's not some flavor of Porsche 911. Hell, should an AMR buyer spec some unusual, custom paint color, he'll surely be the only driver in the world with a car like it.

Fortunately, the Vantage will continue to do its part to stave off the stick's extinction. At Aston's AMR racing shop, tucked alongside the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany, company officials confirmed next year's 2021 Vantage will offer the same, dogleg-patterned manual as an option. Spend more for features such as carbon-composite brakes and carbon-fiber exterior bits, and 2021-model-year buyers will be able to create a literal carbon copy of the AMR version we've just driven.

Aston fans will recall a version of this manual transmission pulling duty in the previous-generation Vantage V12 S. And this smartly reworked manual makes the new Vantage even more of a dream car than it already was. Let's review: Take a crowd-slaying gorgeous Aston Martin. Power it, lustily and vocally, with a hand-built, twin-turbo, 503-hp Mercedes-AMG V-8. Add brilliant steering and handling courtesy of Matt Becker and his team—Becker is Aston's handling chief and former maestro of Lotus's renowned chassis engineers. And now you tell me I can have three pedals and a stick?

Heaven might have been assured had I lapped the Vantage AMR on the 'Ring, where you would expect its impeccable speed, agility, and balance to suit the 73-turn task. Instead, Aston Martin—perhaps wanting to avoid saying prayers for its cars—turned us loose on public roads. But when life hands you lemons, turn them into Le Mans, including gunning the Vantage to a heady 186 mph on the autobahn, as translated from the 300-kph indicated on its digital speedometer. This exotically styled two-seater will reach a no-fooling 205 mph with the stick popped into seventh, the company says. That compares to 198 mph for the automatic version.

The Vantage AMR weighs a svelte 3,298 pounds in dry form, a significant 220 fewer than a standard, paddle-shifted Vantage. Weight savings include 154 pounds between the manual gearbox and mechanical limited-slip differential (the standard Vantage uses a heavier, electronic rear diff); 24 pounds from standard carbon brakes; and 22 pounds via handsome forged 20-inch wheels, wrapped with staggered Pirelli P Zero tires.

To compensate for reduced and shifted weight, rear spring rates decrease slightly. A rear antiroll bar is 20-percent stiffer and works in concert with a mechanical limited-slip diff that can force more oversteer than the e-diff. Electric power steering is retuned, as are the selectable powertrain and damper settings in Sport, Sport Plus, and Track modes.

But the manual is the star, even if that star aligns differently than any stick sold in America: The dogleg shift pattern removes first gear from the familiar H-pattern of gates, positioning it down and to the left, with reverse being above that. Second gear is where you'd normally find first, third where you'd expect to find second, and so on. The race-bred idea, which originated with early five-speed transmissions, is that you only need first gear to roll from the pits; the dogleg pattern then makes it a breeze to shift from second to third and back again—the most common changes on a track—without having to move sideways between gates.

Departing Nürburg and heading for Germany's verdant countryside, I review and practice the pattern, accompanied by the growling, spitting 4.0-liter V-8. Every once in a while, I find myself reaching for the wrong gear, but I acclimate quickly enough. Becker has an analogy for the quirky layout: "It's Marmite," he says, referring to the yeasty British foodstuff that Aussies call Vegemite. "People either love it or hate it."

Marmite, for the record, is disgusting. But dogleg be damned, this manual feels improved over its Vantage V-12 execution: Still charmingly mechanical and analog, but with less tendency to jam or slip into the wrong gear during brisk changes. Aston fitted a dual-mass flywheel to the Mercedes V-8 to keep driveline resonance from rattling the gearbox. The dhift cables are revised, a new shift lever and knob feel better to use, and shift "fingers" are chamfered to help guide the lever into its proper gate.

Asked the "why" of the dogleg box, Becker answers frankly. Other than its supposed on-track benefit, he says with a sly grin, "Because it was available." Yep, manufacturers aren't lining up to supply seven-speed manuals to companies that will count sales in the hundreds.

The clutch and its take-up are sports-car perfection, including an action point near the very top of a short overall pedal stroke. A dual-chamber clutch master cylinder, developed from a previous Formula 1 brake-cylinder design, moves a high volume of fluid quickly without undue pedal pressure. The resulting effort is meaty, but not so meaty as to torture your left quad when you are stuck in traffic. An "AM Shift Mode" console button delivers not only rev-matching downshifts, but matched, full-throttle upshifts that make any driver look and sound like a pro.

To help promote the increasingly lost art of heel-and-toe downshifts, Aston also gentled the standard model's brake booster. "Otherwise you'd be head-butting the steering wheel," during forceful heel-and-toe maneuvers, Becker says.

Aston Martin also did its homework on the proper placement of shifter and pedals in relation to the driver and steering wheel, including benchmarking its Porsche 911 rival. "The relationship between the steering wheel, shifter, and pedals is just about perfect," Becker says.

To keep this gearbox in equally good health, the standard Vantage's peak torque is lowered from 502 lb-ft to 461, with further reductions in first and second gear. Without those critical torque decreases, "the gears will just fail," Becker says. The upshot is a self-shifting, 3.9-second squirt to 60 mph. Yes, a Vantage with its eight-speed ZF automatic turns the trick in 3.5 seconds. But would you prefer to win a stoplight race as an algorithm sorts you out, or get to the end of the run knowing you did the shift-timing part yourself? A relationship coach should give the Aston straight A's in fun, driver engagement, and old-school physical education. Driving the Aston is like being reintroduced to a beloved, classic movie you'd nearly forgotten.

Certainly, controlling this sports car with a manual clutch instead of paddles heightens every sensation of an already sensational conveyance. That traditional shifter partners beautifully with new-school turbocharged might. So I shut off the rev-matching function through a misty green playground of switchbacks and sweepers. I brake late into corners for downshifts, heel-and-toeing as though I'm driving some vintage supercar, and catapult out the exits. Second gear, third gear, fourth—it doesn't matter, as the Aston pulls like the dickens, with oodles of front-end grip and the kind of can't-go-wrong confidence that characterizes the world's very best sports cars. This beauty's balletic moves are choreographed through a squircle-shaped steering wheel, and if you told someone the Vantage had a hydraulic steering rack, most people would never question it; it's that good.

If the Vantage AMR has issues, they're all cabin-related. The Alcantara-heavy interior is stylish, but some materials and controls are so-so considering the price. Chintzy plastic seat switches are still located awkwardly on the transmission tunnel. Next year, Aston's eagerly awaited DBX SUV will adopt a newer version of Mercedes' infotainment system and screen, though not the German maker's latest MBUX unit. This Vantage soldiers on, limpingly, with a poorly integrated Mercedes Comand system that dates back more than a decade, including its thick-framed and stingy central screen.

By some standards—especially, say, C8 Corvette standards—this Aston plays in rarefied company. At $183,081 to start, it costs $20,000 more than a 911 Turbo and just $12,000 less than a McLaren 570S. Fifty-nine of the 200 AMRs will be sold in "59 Edition" trim, priced from $204,995. The car's most direct competitor is probably its engine-sharing cousin, the Mercedes-AMG GT, including a 550-hp GT C coupe at roughly $152,000.

We're big fans of that Mercedes-AMG GT. But the Aston is more beautiful than the Benz—actually, it's prettier than all the rivals we just named—and it feels more alive and analog. And now it's got the stick you can't have in the Mercedes, McLaren, or the 911 Turbo. Aston has done its part. People of means, it's time to do yours, and keep the manual miracle alive: Every time you buy a Vantage AMR, an angel gets his stick-shift wings.

 

2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $183,081 (base)
ENGINE 4.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8; 503 hp @ 8,000 rpm, 461 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD sports car
EPA MILEAGE 18/24 mpg (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 175.8 x 76.5 x 50.1 in
WHEELBASE 106.5 in
WEIGHT 3,298 lb
0-60 MPH 3.9 sec
TOP SPEED 205 mph
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