It isn't where we expected to get our first drive of what ought to be one of 2018's best sports cars, but it's where Aston decided it should happen: Raccoonsville - otherwise known as TestWorld proving ground, 200 miles north of the arctic circle, in Ivalo, Finland. Not Ascari, or Portimao, or Mallory Park, or even a wet Wednesday afternoon on the Fosse Way out of the Gaydon factory gates. Lapland: the obvious choice.
Call us cynical, but it seemed a neat trick by Aston, ensuring the likes of PH take the first opportunity to report on the new car, but don't learn so much about it that they needn't come on the press launch proper another month or so later. And it worked like a charm, since it was a chance to introduce ourselves to what could be the best alternative to a high-end Porsche 911 in a while - and also to spend some time finding out what happens when you put 500-horsepower onto polished snow through one axle and GKN Driveline's latest and greatest active rear differential.
A new Vantage, then. You're unlikely to have missed the first pictures of this car issued by Aston last November, and the discussion that followed of a front grille that may be large enough to ingest an adult male reindeer whole (though I'm pleased to report this remains an untested hypothesis). But you might just have missed some of what makes this Vantage different from the last. Aston dynamics guru Matt Becker made sure we were fully clued up before being let loose in the car, and was sympathetically brief about it too.
"The chassis is 100mm shorter in the wheelbase than DB11, and about 10 per cent more rigid," he said. "The suspension hardware is mostly shared with the DB11 but it's tuned to be quite a bit firmer-riding and smarter-handling. The AMG engine makes the same power as a DB11 V8, but a shade more torque over a broader band of revs; and that's a lot more torque than the original Vantage had. We've tuned the exhaust to make it sound different again; both from the DB11 and how you might have heard it in Mercedes' models. And there are rigid mountings for the rear suspension subframe [a la BMW M4, Porsche 911 GT3, where the DB11's was bushed] and an 'e-diff' active differential between the rear wheels [where the DB11 V8 used a simpler mechanical one]." Never let it be said that this man is a thief of oxygen.
On the inside, Aston's taken the opportunity to create a more driver-focussed cabin than you get in a DB11, and has done it pretty effectively. The Vantage's seats are a touch more supportive than a DB11's but still comfy, and it gets the bigger, shorter-throw, column-mounted shift paddles from the DB11 V8 rather than the smaller, limper ones of the V12. Gaydon's cleverest move, however, was moving the row of transmission control buttons and engine starter button downwards on the dashboard from extra-decorative shoulder level (where you'll find them on the fascia of a DB11) to the base of the car's centre stack (where they're a bit less visible, but much easier to reach while you're trying to engage reverse to, I dunno, maybe nonchalantly recover from your fifth icy spin of the day).
To the Vantage driving experience, then - or at least as much of it as we could get a handle on. Aston is offering an optional quad-piped sports exhaust on the car which I recommend you have, 'cos it makes that 4.0-litre V8 sound all kinds of wonderful. It's sweeter and more subtle than an AMG, snarlier than a DB11, with plenty of 'snap, crackle and pop' after-effects when the powertrain is set to 'track' mode.
So what can I tell you? Well, the car's electronic controls certainly work. You can turn into an icy, downhill second gear corner, nail the throttle, generally do all the wrong things, and still emerge on the other side facing in the right direction and having avoided a brush with Cyril Sneer's back garden. Vantage owners certainly shouldn't be afraid to head out on the odd wintery excursion, though I'm sure most will still prefer not to.
Body control's tricky to be confident about, but the car certainly kept itself very flat and didn't struggle for an instant to control its mass during transitions and direction changes. Steering's quick and feels precise just off the straight-ahead, but even on snow it had useful weight and didn't feel highly strung like a Giulia Cloverleaf.
After that point, the chassis' mid-corner poise just gets better and better. Now, it's not unknown for decently well-sorted rear-drive sports cars to feel particularly well-balanced on a surface on which you'd struggle to stand without the right kind of rubber sole. But it's the consistency of the Vantage's 'ESP-off' limit handling, and its willingness to stay under control even when some might think it was running rabidly beyond it, that sets it apart from other front-engined options.
"Sport+ mode is the probably best for this surface," Becker said - and in it, the car's suspension and e-diff combine to give you just enough drag at the outside rear wheel to make the nose rotate gently towards the inner verge during a trailing-throttle turn-in. Feed the power in for some forward impetus and you can control the car's attitude with remarkable confidence and accuracy. There's uncanny, almost mid-engined-level mid-corner handling poise here, so long as you're judicious with your speed and pedal inputs. And when you're not, the Vantage has plenty of steering angle so that it can be recovered from slides that would be spins in other cars.
But special enough to warrant choosing it over any one of the gaggle of mid-engined options it now has to contend with - and which, by and large, weren't around to obstruct its predecessor? Absorbing enough to rival that default-pick Porsche for driver engagement?
You know, it might be. It might well be. And even if it narrowly falls short, won't it be nice to have a really good classic front-engined, rear-drive sports car in the mix again in that ever-popular niche? We'll get a much better idea, at any rate, at the press launch proper - which is going on in a few weeks at, wait for it... Portimao. Predictable, eh? How on earth we're supposed to test our reindeer-grille theory down there is beyond me.
|Aston Martin Vantage - Specifications|
|Engine||3,982cc, twin-turbocharged V8|
|Transmission||8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||505@2,000-5,000rpm|