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Driven: Aston Martin Vantage prototype

After the challenge of a frozen lake, Aston's new baby faces a tougher test: the A429

By Mike Duff / Thursday, March 15, 2018

The wait is nearly over, honestly.

, and soon we'll be able to tell you how the finished version feels on the glamorous media launch in Portugal. But, before then, one last intermediate step: a blast of a full dazzle-liveried engineering hack in UK roads.

While I should probably try to make out that this was a hard-won exclusive and the result of the sort of journalistic graft that normally wins prizes and pay rises, the reality is considerably more mundane. I couldn't make it to the Scandinavian ice-drive so Aston very generously offered to let me have a go closer to home. The journey starts at the company's new engineering base in Wellesbourne, and with the reassuring presence of the company's chief vehicle attributes engineer - and driving god - Matt Becker in the passenger seat.

The basics have all been well covered with our previous stories on the car so need detain us only briefly. The Vantage uses the AMG-sourced twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8, with 510hp and 505lb ft - slightly more torque than the same engine produces in the

. Although it sits on the same platform as its grand touring sister it is lighter and shorter, has no rear seats, but gains a very clever electronically controlled locking rear differential plus a mission to go and harry the

in a manner its predecessor never quite managed.

The huge workshop at Wellesbourne is full of immaculate Vantages being prepared for the official press launch, in marked contrast to the general skankiness of the prototype and its peeling zebra-pattern disguise wrap. There's plentiful evidence of a life lived hard, from chips and abrasions on the exterior panels to fault messages on the instrument screen and a feral fug to the cabin itself. It smells like many engineers have spent many hours sweating in here.

As this isn't a test of niceness, none of this matters. The Vantage's cabin feels smaller and tighter-fitting than the DB11's and the natural seating position is lower. The fat A-pillars also seem to eat more front quarter visibility than in the '11, it takes several of the roundabouts we encounter on our way to the Fosse Way to get used to the need to peer around this to check the substantial blindspot. The steering wheel is the same as the DB11, the prototype having the same insubstantial feeling rocker switches to toggle between the different handling and powertrain dynamic modes. The big difference is that the Vantage loses its big sister's "Comfort" mode; instead there is a choice between Sport, Sport Plus and Track.

Well before reaching faster roads it's obvious that the Vantage is a very different beast than the V8-powered DB11, with a much darker soundtrack when exhaling through what Becker says will become an optional sports exhaust, full of rasps and crackles. To my ears it sounds angrier than anything else fitted with this engine below, perhaps, the full-on AMG GT R.

While Finland didn't offer the chance to check performance beyond the ability to spin tyres, the first derestriction sign puts a tick next to "Aston fast" on the list. The engine feels brawny low down, but saves its best for the higher reaches of its rev range, pulling with increasing seriousness as it closes in on the 7000rpm redline. As in the DB11, the union between the highly strung AMG engine and the eight-speed ZF auto is a happy one, the box feeling pretty much as quick as a twin-clutcher in the punchier powertrain modes and when bossed by the steering wheel paddles, yet smooth when left in Drive. Becker says that in full-fang Track mode upshifts are actually fractionally slower than Sport Plus, to give a more forceful torque bump and a louder exhaust crack.

The Vantage is both firmer and louder than the DB11, with the subframe that carries the rear suspension mounted directly to the bonded aluminium body rather than through refinement-enhancing bushes. Although the exhaust dominates most of the time, there's plenty of road noise when cruising, and some pattering from the prototype's front suspension as it deals with bigger bumps. Damping is more about control than comfort, Sport is pliant enough but there's always an edge to the Vantage's ride over rougher surfaces. It feels very stable at speed, tracking true at the sort of making progress pace the Fosse Way encourages. This is where the prototypes come to play, and it's not long before we pass a line of similarly disguised Land Rover mules heading back to Gaydon. The brakes feel great too. Becker admits that the 911 GT3 was the inspiration for the Vantage pedal's weight and feel, firm and with little travel but very easy to modulate through pressure.

But it's tighter turning onto some smaller and tighter roads that make things really interesting. Becker says the Vantage's steering rack has an identical ratio to the DB11, but the fact the wheelbase is 100mm shorter gives it a higher effective ratio and makes it feel much quicker. The front end responds with plenty of bite, even in the damp conditions I'm driving the car in. And the e-diff gets the chance to prove how clever it is.

Becker says that this can produce up to 1845lbs of locking torque almost instantly, much more than a mechanical LSD, but it can also disengage fully. So as well as helping to find traction it vectors torque across the rear axle to help the car turn, but adds none of the low-speed understeer that aggressive locking diffs tend to create. The Vantage feels nimble and secure even when being pushed hard, but with an impressive degree of throttle steerability with the stability control switched on. With nanny turned off it becomes predictably lairy - that peak torque arrives at just 2000rpm - but without turning scary.

Although Aston is committed to producing a manual version of the Vantage, which will get seven ratios as well as its clutch pedal, it won't arrive until some time after the automatic has gone on sale. Nor will it get the clever e-diff, having to make do with an old-school mechanical LSD instead, which is likely to give it a substantially different dynamic character.

Aston's development engineers travel the globe to tune new cars, from frozen lakes in reindeer country to the heat of Death Valley in the summer. But the greatest amount of chassis development work is done on the company's doorstep, right here in the UK. Which, on the basis of how well the prototype Vantage deals with the challenge of rural Warwickshire, is exactly how it should be.

And while our next appointment with the Vantage is at its formal launch, and in full production form, I reckon it will be the one after that which will be the most significant. Because I, for one, am itching to see how it will feel in direct contrast to a Porsche 911. Pretty bloody well, I reckon.







Aston Martin Vantage - Specifications
Engine 3,982cc, V8 twin-turbo
Transmission 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp) 510@6,000-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft) 505@2,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph 3.6sec
Top speed 195mph
Weight 1,530kg (EC)
MPG 26.9
CO2 245g/km
Price £120,900

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