Back when Top Gear was still capable of producing some genuinely sublime moments amongst the ridiculous, you may remember Clarkson's brilliantly evocative 'wonderful, wonderful, wonderful' review of the then-new Aston Martin V12 Vantage. I think it's fair to say that only people who truly understood cars could have made a piece of prime-time TV like that. Why? Because they were confident enough to let the car do the talking. Clarkson said next to nothing about the way the Vantage drove, leaving it to the stunning cinematography and the equally stunning V12 soundtrack to tell a poignant story about how the final chapter of great cars may very well be upon us. It was thoughtful, and it was memorable, too. And, thankfully, completely and utterly wrong.
The V12 hasn't disappeared in the intervening years. And to prove the point, in short order there will be an all-new Aston Martin V12 Vantage. Ahead of the new model's arrival, we were lucky enough to grab the 'Emotion Control Devices' for two exceptional examples from the book of genesis: a V12 Vantage manual and a Sportshift-equipped V12 Vantage S.
I mention that Top Gear clip because it was the inspiration that eventually led to us driving this very manual car. It's a 2010 model that's covered just 14,500 miles, and finished in a glorious shade of special-order Lightening Silver. The car's owned by Charles Porter and is one of three Astons in his collection, which also includes a Rapide and a DBS. "I owned a V8 Vantage at the time and thought the V12 was going to be fairly unattainable. Then, watching Jeremey Clarkson review the V12 on Top Gear - listening to his words and how he was visibly moved by the car and the end of an era - was my moment in time. I had to have one before it was too late."
That wasn't the only celebrity endorsement that turned his head. "I also read a piece by Chris Evans who went to a party with two V12 manuals parked outside; one driven by Christian Horner and the other by Adrian Newey. Evans wrote 'I want to be in that club.' Well, so did I, because if it was good enough for the boss of the Red Bull F1 team and the best designer in F1 history, it was good enough for me." Fair point that, don't you think?
The V12 S is owned by Phil Trussell. He bought it in 2014 as an ex-demo car from HWM in Walton on Thames. It's also in a special-order paint scheme - Ferrari Nero Daytona, making it one of just two finished in the colour. His car has covered 20,000 miles, although it didn't take long for him to get flack about the 'wrong' gearbox. "I once filled up with petrol in Chester and went in to pay. I remember the attendant, who was a goth who clearly read up on his cars, knew what it was straight away. He said 'Oh that's the new V12 S. It's a beautiful car. But it's the one with the sh*t gearbox isn't it?'" 'Fair enough,' thought Trussell, but he had his reasons for choosing it. "I'm into technical things, so the Sportshift transmission really appeals. And this is the seven-speed Sportshift III, which is much better than the six-speed and Sportshift II that preceded it."
To get a flavour of the wider story behind the V12 Vantage, I also chatted to Aston historian, Steve Waddingham. "The V8 Vantage was a great car, but the engineers knew it could easily handle more power. The idea of a V12 going into the same body, to create a sort of niche/ hot-rod/ flagship model, had been discussed among senior engineers, and it was decided to offer it as an additional engine option to expand the range."
Because the Vantage used the VH Generation II architecture, it gave the team the flexibility to fit the larger engine. It just needed the front crash structure adapting to accommodate the longer V12 alongside a new cooling pack, and with revised radiators and those multiple bonnet vents to improve airflow around the engine bay. A new sump was also developed that allowed the unit to sit low enough to accommodate the original bonnet and front wings. A single V12 mule was made. It proved the theory worked and that developed into the RS Concept car in 2008.
In total, the V12 Vantage took around two years to go from concept to production. To save time and development costs, Aston didn't originally design the car for the US market. That would've meant meeting a different set of crash regulations. But in the end the demand from dealers was so rampant it forced Aston's hand, and the V12 went stateside, too.
Launched in 2009 as the V12, with a price tag of £135,000, the 6.0-litre engine produced 510hp and 420lb ft, which enabled it to hit 0-62mph in 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 190mph. Drive was via an alloy torque tube with a carbon fibre propshaft to the rear-mounted, six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip diff. It also came as standard with carbon-ceramic brakes.
The V12 S arrived in 2013. This added a new Bosch engine management system and lessons learned from the Vantage GT racers, including CNC machined combustion chambers and hollow camshafts. In the UK it was available solely with the Sportshift III transmission, which saved 25kg over the six-speed manual. And it raised the power to 573hp and 457lb ft, lowering the 0-62mph sprint to 3.9 seconds and pushing its ultimate speed to 205mph. It was lighter, too, thanks to an exhaust system that had been developed from the One-77's and forged alloy wheels. It also came with a quicker steering rack and three-stage adaptive dampers. Even by Aston standards these are relatively rare cars. Out of the 10,000-odd Vantages built, there were just 1,200 V12 coupés and 1,278 V12 S coupés, plus around 500 roadsters in total.
Now, I've driven both good and bad (and downright shonky) Astons over the years, but only three standout. The first is the current DBS, which I thought, after an epic drive following its launch, was the best front-engined, rear-wheel-drive coupé I'd ever driven. I still do. The other two are this brace of V12 Vantage. And I say that after beginning the day assuming they wouldn't be. I was even going through the process of inventing nice things to say about them to spare their owners' blushes, which I quickly forgot because I was gabbling effusively about how genuinely lovely they both are. The 'Emotional Control Unit' used to start them is still more cringeworthy than those people who say chillax, but the cars themselves...they are properly emotive devices.
In fairness, that conclusion wasn't instantaneous. We were based at the Gilks' Garage Café in Kineton, not far from Aston's factory at Gaydon, and pulling onto the battered stretch of village street away from the car park, both cars felt immediately rugged at low speed - to the extent where you could feel the aftershock of potholes through the steering column. But in the same way that speedboats only shine when they're up on the plane, it turns out V12 Vantages work better at a higher tempo.
Beyond that fleeting column shake the structure of both cars feels impressively stiff, and once I was swooping though the flowing Warwickshire countryside the ride quality morphs into the sublime. Taut, yes, even in the V12, which is certainly the grand tourer of the party, but you only feel that in hefty compressions. Otherwise, the V12, which tips the scales at 1,680kg, trips across the topography with such a lambent style that you'd swear there was half the mass involved.
It sounds divine, too; every bit as good as in that Top Gear epic. There are whirs and whines coming from the great mass of machinery up front, while from tailpipes you get a depth of character and sweetness that comes only from two banks of six. And it's ridiculously torquey. Even from idle there's so much grunt that second-gear getaways would be the norm, were it not for the joy of stoking the V12 with the manual 'box. The gear lever isn't one that works with clickety-clack precision, instead it's the kind that's well-damped and notch free. The offset pedals mean blipping the throttle on downshifts isn't innate, but you get there and when you do - matching the revs perfectly for a crisp change - it is something to savour.
Not that I disapprove of the Sportshift gearbox in the V12 S. Far from it, as it happens. Automated manuals still offer the opportunity to interact with a car in a way that modern, technically superior dual-clutch transmissions don't. You need to observe two rules, though: avoid the automatic mode, which never works with this type of gearbox, and have the drivetrain set in Sport. Thrussell gave me that tip and explained why. "I always use it in Sport. For me, it's like those '90s computers with the turbo button that switched the processor from 128k to 256k. That's not speeding it up, it's slowing it down, which is what the Sport button does here by dulling the gearchanges and the throttle mapping." It's a good analogy. And it's a good 'box, too. You still need to feather the throttle with each change (that's the interaction) but the changes are quicker than you can execute in the regular manual, and the change paddles have a satisfying, tactile click.
Significantly, the V12 S's engine has a very different character to the V12. It feels more urgent, which it should do with a heap more power, but it's more driveable as well. That's because the torque curve is much flatter, so even though peak twist arrives at the same 5,750rpm as the V12, it builds more progressively from idle and blends seamlessly with the power that's available at the top end. Then there's the note, which, with that One-77-derived exhaust, sounds more piercing and baleful. Does the extra performance and chassis upgrades make it too track focused? Not at all. In the softest damping setting it's cosseting, and still liveable with even when you ramp up the DEFCON scale. What the V12 S is, is noticeably more alert. That comes from the steering, which is not just quicker but lighter, too, making it feel that bit more agile.
Otherwise, there are many obvious similarities between the two derivatives. Their limited-slip diffs feel tightly wound, because you can feel the car turning from the rear as you apply the power out of corners. They also have the ability to overwhelm the tyres quite easily due to their immense torque. Both have brilliant brakes, thanks to the mighty carbon-ceramic discs that feel strong and easy to modulate. And, when you see them sat next to a current Vantage, the cars look dainty and pretty and compact, which is what they feel like on the road as well.
The only thing better than having your socks blown off in this job is having them blown off twice in the same day, which is what these two cars did. So which would I choose? Well, I've always been a sucker for cars that feel precision-honed for a track, and on that basis, I'd choose the V12 S. But only by a whisker. The manual is certainly no less of a hero, if for different reasons, and I came away thinking that, genuinely, I'd love to have either on my drive. Which means Clarkson was right, then. The V12 Vantage really is fantastic. And, wonderfully, he was wrong, because it's still very much alive.
Specification | Aston Martin V12 Vantage
Engine: 5,935cc, V12, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 517 @ 6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 420 lb ft @ 5,750rpm
Top speed: 190mph
Weight: 1,680kg (EU)
Specification | Aston Martin V12 Vantage S
Engine: 5,935cc, V12, naturally aspirated
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual (Sportshift III), rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 573 @ 6,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 457 lb ft @ 5,750rpm
Top speed: 205mph
Weight: 1,665kg (EU)
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