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Aston Martin Vantage AMR | Driven

Has the Vantage with a clutch pedal been worth the long wait?

By Mike Duff / Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Most of us will know what it's like to make a promise that later seems like a less good idea, or even just far too much hassle. I was in the small group of journos that heard Aston's newly arrived boss Andy Palmer commit the company to the option of manual transmissions in what were then its next generation of cars. This was at the Geneva show in 2015 and Palmer was fresh from introducing the DBX concept to widespread acclaim and was happy to share his longer-term vision for the brand in what was probably more detail than his PR minders wanted him to let on.

Four years later and the Vantage manual is here to fulfil that pledge, but arrives into a world where both Palmer and the wider company have considerably bigger concerns, principally the sliding share price since last year's IPO and the need to get the DBX over the line and into production to generate the cash needed to keep the everything afloat. Against that a new gearbox that even Aston execs admit will be of minority interest pretty much everywhere now looks like an indulgence. But a welcome one: barring trucks this is set to be the most powerful car fitted with a clutch pedal.

Getting a manual transmission to work with the Vantage was what engineers call a non-trivial task. The base gearbox is the same dog-leg seven-speed Graziano transaxle that was used with the previous-generation V12 Vantage S, and which sits at the rear of the car connected to the engine by a torque tube. Using it meant getting it to play nice with both the Mercedes electrical architecture and the AMG-sourced 4.0-litre V8, a motor that was never designed to work with something as crude as do-it-yourself gears.

Doing that has meant reducing the engine's torque output, from the 505 lb-ft of the automatic Vantage to a peak of 461 lb-ft. Aston chief engineer Matt Becker admits that this has to be further limited in first and second gear, to 313 lb-ft in Track mode and just 266lb ft in Sport and Sport Plus. The challenge of integrating the manual box with the Vantage's active rear differential was so great that "we didn't even consider it" according to Becker; instead it has a conventional mechanical LSD at the back.

As the limited-to-200 Vantage AMR it is 100kg lighter than the automatic version, although Becker says that around 30kg of that saving comes from standard-fit carbon ceramic brakes. Static weight distribution has moved slightly forwards - the AMR having 51 percent of its mass sitting over its front wheels versus a perfect 50/50 for the auto - and it is also slower off the line. Aston claims a 3.9-sec 0-60mph, against 3.5 for the standard car.

The Vantage's launch event was held at the Nurburgring, although the invitation made clear that it wouldn't involve track driving, rather using Aston's engineering centre as a base for a route of local roads. This produced plenty of "I might just sneak off for a quick lap" banter from the lucky attendees, but after arriving in torrential rain I find myself not exactly sad that my first experience of the Vantage isn't going to be on the Nordschliefe. Ten minutes later, and after an unscripted moment involving a fair amount of opposite lock while the stability control is fully on, I'm profoundly grateful not to be on the World's Crashiest Racetrack.

Sodden conditions are undoubtedly responsible for the difficulty the P-Zeros have finding traction, but even on shallower corners and with relatively small throttle openings the Vantage's rear axle struggles to grip. While the regular Vantage also has a rear-endy handling balance I don't remember it feeling as raw as this. The manual is missing the active differential's ability to juggle torque from side to side, but also the torque converter's capacity for smoothing the abruptness with which the engine's considerable low-down urge arrives.

More miles, and what is soon a drying surface, reveal that beyond initial slip the stability control will step in hard to restore order, and there's an undoubted frisson of excitement in driving a road car so determined never to surrender to understeer. At higher speeds traction ceases to be an issue; it feels stable and utterly planted on a still-greasy stretch of derestricted Autobahn at 200km/h. The AMG V8 itself is as mighty as ever, savagely fast and with what has to be one of the finest turbocharged soundtracks in the world.

Which brings us, eventually, to the gearbox itself. In the excitement of trying to keep the car pointing in something approximating the intended direction harvesting impressions of the new transmission took a back seat; the only thing that really came through was how often the dog-leg layout had me in an unintended gear, but also how little this mattered.

Owning a car with a dog-leg box myself - although with increasingly distant memories of actually driving it - there's no excuse for my frequent confusion between ratios, although left-hand drive was another complicating factor. To be honest, the engine has more than enough low-down urge to mean there's no real need to use the down-and-left first; the Vantage will pull away cleanly from standstill in second and from that point onwards you can just treat the box in the normal way with the engine's prodigious torque sufficient to mask the fact that you are one gear higher.

While the bulbous selector itself looks a bit Mazda-like and under-endowed for something so muscular (I'm trying to get the knob jokes out of the way) the action has a nice weight and obviously mechanical feel to it. It can be shifted quickly and cleanly, but doesn't like to be rushed across the planes of the gate. I found the fourth-to-third downshift the hardest to get right, with the Vantage ending up in fifth a fair percentage of the time when I tried it. Owners will quickly get used to it - and then start mis-shifting everything else as muscle memory takes over.

Like the V12 Vantage S, the new Vantage manual has a rev-matching function dubbed AMSHIFT, which works aggressively and accurately on downshifts but has also gained the ability to allow flat-shifting on the way up the box, cutting the throttle as soon as the clutch is depressed. Both work well, although it is possible to turn them off if you want to prove that you can't manage quite as well yourself.

Just 200 of the Vantage AMR will be produced, but I didn't actually get to drive one. Aston says it wants to keep the cars for the customers, so the press demonstrators were all normal Vantages that had been brought up to pretty much the same spec. That's alright, because once the AMRs are sold the company plans to continue to offer the manual transmission as an ongoing option with the regular Vantage. Whether Aston will ever attempt anything similar depends on how many times that order form box gets ticked.

Would I? Um, I have to reluctantly admit probably not. Despite being a sufficient fan of manual boxes to have not even considered a PDK when buying my 987 Cayman S it's getting increasingly hard to fault the way that modern autoboxes deliver the best of all worlds. There's a huge amount to like about the idea of an Aston with a third pedal, but the manual lacks the auto's polish and, as I discovered in the wet, also some of its stability. It might be the most interesting Vantage, and probably the most exciting - but it isn't the best all-rounder.

Engine: 3982cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: Seven-speed manual, rear wheel drive
Power (hp): 510 @ 6000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 461 @ 2000rpm - 5000rpm
0-60mph: 3.9-second
Top speed: 200mph (limited)
Weight: 1430 kg (dry)
CO2: 285g/km [NEDC]
Price: £149,995


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