2011 Aston Martin V8 Vantage S
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Power420 hp / 346 lb-ft
MPG14 City / 20 Hwy
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Aston Martin boss Ulrich Bez used to be the head of R&D at Porsche. The Porsche 993, still regarded as the best of the air-cooled 911s, was developed on his watch, so you could say he knows a thing or two about sports cars. Never one to doubt the veracity of his view of the world, Bez left Porsche after clashes with senior management, most notably over the stillborn four-door 989, and spent several years in the wilderness at Daewoo. When he was appointed head of Aston Martin in 2000, it not only brought him back into a world he loved and understood — sports cars — but also gave him the opportunity to settle a few old scores with his former employers in Stuttgart.
Thus, the glamorous Aston Martin Rapide went from concept to production in record time, upstaging Porsche’s Panamera. And the tight, taut V8 Vantage was designed from the outset as an exclusive alternative for those bored with Porsche’s endless reworking of the ubiquitous 911. Bez might enjoy sticking it to Porsche whenever he can, but he’s not afraid to follow its playbook when it comes to slicing and dicing a model range. If the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is his answer to the 911 Carrera, and the V12 Vantage is a 911 GTS rival, the new V8 Vantage S neatly splits the difference between the two — just like a 911 Carrera S.
The Vantage S is powered by the same 4.7-liter Aston Martin V-8 used in the base car, but now it develops 430 hp at 7300 rpm, and 361 lb-ft at 5000 – increases of 10 hp and 15 lb-ft, respectively. The extra power and torque come courtesy of a new variable-length intake system, and more aggressive spark timing. Changes to the chassis include a quicker steering rack – 15:1 versus 17:1 in the standard car – plus stiffer springs and shocks, half-inch-wider rear wheels, and newly developed Bridgestone tires. The front brakes feature larger 15-in. rotors and new six-piston calipers, and the stability control system has been retuned.
The most significant mechanical change is the new seven-speed Sportshift II transmission, a single-clutch automated manual designed and built by Graziano. The new tranny is 24 kg lighter than the six-speed unit used in the Vantage until now, primarily because it is now air-cooled rather than oil-cooled, and switches ratios 20-percent faster, according to Aston Martin. A sport-mode button enables faster shifts, coupled with quicker throttle response, and opens the exhaust bypass valves.
So, what’s it like? Is the Vantage S worth $14,000 more than the regular Sportshift I-equipped Vantage? Mostly, yes.
There’s noticeably more snap from the engine — Aston claims 0-60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds – and the chassis is a delight. Our test route in southern Spain included a selection of open highway, fast mountain roads, and narrow village streets, plus ample track time on the wonderful 3.2-mile Ascari circuit, and the Vantage S handled it all with rare aplomb. The ride is firm, very buttoned-down, but never harsh, and the car corners with minimal roll. The steering is concise and beautifully linear, though it doesn’t quite have the breathtaking clarity of a 911. The brakes are strong and, like the steering, linear in their response. Bez is particular about such things — there aren’t many automaker CEOs who can talk with authority on steering and brake feel as he can.
Push hard the Vantage S hard — racetrack hard — and the chassis will default to mild understeer as the Bridgestones reach the limit of adhesion. Though its wheelbase is relatively short, and track relatively wide, the Vantage S telegraphs its punches fairly predictably as you run out of grip. It does, however, feel a little nervous through very fast sweepers, as if it can’t quite make up its mind whether the front or the rear wheels will slide first. It’s nowhere near as heart-stopping as a Corvette on the ragged edge, however, and the stability control’s “track mode” is excellent, allowing you to adjust the attitude of the car on the throttle like a pro racer, yet intervening as smoothly and discreetly as an English butler mopping up her ladyship’s spilled champagne when it senses things are about to get away from you.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Vantage S on the track was its feeling of indestructibility. The aluminum spaceframe structure is astonishingly rigid – the roadster versions feel as tight as the coupes – and the drivetrain seems bulletproof. We did three flat-out 10-lap sessions of the 3.2-mile Ascari circuit, which includes 26 turns, handing the car over to other journalists in between, and the Vantages felt just as strong and ready to race at the end of the day as they did in the morning, with tires and brakes intact. Just like a Porsche…
So what’s not to like? Sadly, the one thing Aston has spent most of its money on: the new seven-speed Sportshift II transmission. Put simply, the Graziano single-clutch unit feels a day late and a dollar short compared with the rest of the Vantage S. Left in auto mode, the shifts feel almost as slow and ponderous as those of an old SMG-era M3. Hitting the sport button doesn’t seem to speed things up all that much, either. It’s best to use the paddle shifters all the time, and in this mode, on the road, the whole Vantage S package comes together nicely. This is a great sports car.
In manual mode on the track the tranny still feels a heartbeat behind the rest of the car, though. It doesn’t help that the tweaked V-8 is also fairly peaky — there’s barely 2500 rpm between max torque and the rev limiter — so you have to watch the revs like a hawk, and time your shifts carefully. Logic suggests there’s more to come out of this transmission as development progresses. Let’s hope so — insiders say a dual-clutch manual is too big and heavy to fit in the Vantage, so Aston is stuck with the single-clutch scenario. We know from Ferrari’s Graziano-built F1 transmission in the 430 that a single-clutch manual can be made fast and responsive (though tellingly, Ferrari has now switched to a Getrag dual-clutch unit for the new 458 Italia), but whether Aston Martin, now four years into life without the deep pockets of Ford Motor Company behind it, has the resources to fully unlock the potential of the Sportshift II remains to be seen.
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage S might seem a small slice of a tiny pie. But as Porsche has proven — would you believe there are now 20 versions of the 911 on sale in the U.S.? — it’s a strategy that appears to work for automakers with a passionate customer base. So if you want a V8 Vantage that’s a little sharper, a little edgier, a little cooler, then the Vantage S is for you. Just be prepared to work that transmission 24/7.
|2011 Aston Martin V8 Vantage S|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door, hatchback or convertible|
|ENGINE||4.7L/430-hp/361-lb-ft DOHC 32-valve V-8|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed auto-clutch manual|
|CURB WEIGHT||3550-3750 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||172.6 x 73.5 x 49.6-50.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5-4.7 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||14 / 21 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||241 / 160 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||1.18 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|