The run up to V-Day had been all about the 911. It arrived first, and in time for the weekend. Revelations? There were a few. Graphite Blue, a roundabout way of saying grey, is a more compelling colour than you might imagine. At night especially. Under it, Aston's proclaimed benchmark for its new Vantage: the 991.2 in the rear-wheel-drive, Carrera-4-wide GTS format. With a manual gearbox, too - and a nasty habit of being unconscionably good at practically everything.
On Friday afternoon it did its whole usability thing, as if waltzing from multi-storey car parks and gliding through road works were the bread and butter of 450hp sports cars. On the weekend, one parboiled by the kind of high barometric pressure that finds England in April about once in a billion years, its capacity for doing everything you want in the perfect amount just as you want made it virtually unputdownable. Then on Monday it whisked itself to Wales, quietly and expediently and without even having the decency to completely drain its tank along the way.
Honestly, it was a masterclass; a great Graphite Blue cliff of unscalable Teutonic exceptionalism. Would I have cherry picked something else for each day given the choice? Sure. A Golf R would've quelled the commute just as expertly, and a Caterham or Lotus or Ariel conquered the weekend more compellingly, and something like an Alpina would've thrust me toward Afan no less satisfyingly - but one car to Leatherman the lot? No, not on your nelly. The GTS ensorcelled my undersides from closing time on Friday, and didn't quit for 72 hours straight. In Wales they had to lever me from it, gasping and griping, for work to begin.
Which it didn't. Or not in earnest at any rate, the (technically pre-production) Vantage having been delayed somewhere over the horizon for multiple reasons beyond anyone's immediate control. It was delivered instead at last knockings, its arrival bringing with it sheet after sheet of unending drizzle; an unfitting omen on the downslope of St George's day, and unbecoming too, for Gaydon's new champion. I braved the smear to stare at its haunches for a nanosecond, to finally see it away from a studio or show lights. Only an arrowhead silhouette stared back.
The next day, at dawn (or as close to it as a murder of motoring journalists ever gets) the Vantage turned out to be blue - Zaffre Blue Q Special, in fact - and the sky above it battleship grey. No matter. Did it look better than a 911 GTS in a hotel car park? Yes - yes in the quintessential way you'd want an Aston Martin to stand out when sat on gravel. Its engine is in the front after all, and everything else swoops toward that duck bill of a backside in low, louche curves. Is it objectively, eye-stingingly pretty like the outgoing Vantage? No, not quite. Aston wanted some meanness in the styling mix and it is that confrontational aspect - embodied by the contentiously oversized grille - which ultimately undermines Marek Reichman's usual preference for elegance.
There's a similar sort of sacrifice going on inside, too. Plainly, the cabin is meant to feel thrusting and modern and functional (in a way its venerable predecessor was most certainly not). And while it succeeds at being all of these things - not to mention being immaculately clad in leather and Alcantara - the dash is too cluttered for it to qualify as handsome in any classical sense. The GTS, which favours horizontal lines and a timeless sort of simplicity, does rather show it up - and tops it off with an emphatically circular steering wheel. The Vantage's is almost criminal in contrast, being puffy and flat-bottomed and barely curved even at the crest. The control surfaces are also blighted by Mercedes' flawed infotainment controller, a notorious wrist botherer which has its lack of intuitiveness highlighted by the sheer number of shortcut buttons chosen to flank it.
The interior's redemption is in the details: the driving position is excellent, the seats very decent, the paddle shifters marvellous - i.e. enormous, forged, squeezable - and the new steering wheel-mounted selectors for damper and powertrain settings are like the shoulder buttons on a PS4 controller (well, not really, but almost). On top of that there is the inescapable aura of it all: the genuinely low-slung seats and that gun slit of a glasshouse coaxing the gentleman racer out of you before a single yard of Welsh scenery has moved. The GTS, while being both easier to see out of and simpler to use, does not do this - making the virtue all the more notable.
Power, Beauty, Soul - Aston's previous greeting - has been expunged from the Vantage's new all-digital readout, yet the mantra stands, and if the manufacturer has supplied one quality in questionable measure, it has not skimped on the Power. The donor 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 ought to be familiar by now, given that it is virtually omnipresent in Mercedes-AMG's product lineup, yet it is apparent from the outset that it has been reconfigured with the intention of better delivering on the Soul. Principally, this is about burbling, swirling noise, which the engine delivers amply and right when you want it, but it's also about response and graft and the sheer go of its 510hp.
Make no mistake, on the squiggle of A roads leading up to Afan (the Forest Park famous for its mountain bike trails and slightly less famous for the A4107 which meanders obligingly through it) the V8 reveals itself to be at the heart of much that is good about this slingshot of a Vantage. The outgoing naturally aspirated motor - a hand-assembled descendent of Jaguar's venerable AJ-V8 - was similarly integral to the bullishness of the previous car, and, by the end, outputted 436hp at 7300rpm. Yet it was never mated to a proper slusher, and while heavily modernized over time, it was too racuously old-fashioned to be called modern.
The new engine is. Palpably so in its supreme tractability from low crank speeds, and fizzing relentlessness beyond them. Its driveability is about torque, sure - because it's assuredly of the bottomless sort you would expect when two AMG blowers are helping to summon up 505lb ft of the stuff from 2000rpm - but it's also about the midas touch of the eight-speed ZF transmission marshalling its ratios (and therefore, the flow of entertainment) with a speed of thought that makes the previous seven-speed, single-clutch automated manual seem every bit as outmoded as it sounds.
Had this unremitting drivetrain merely been strapped to the old car and nothing else changed, a better Vantage would still have resulted. But, as Matt found at Portimao last month, the car around it is unambiguously different too. The outgoing V8 model, in keeping with its lineage, was fabulously brawny, mechanically cocksure and - compared to its rivals - mildly undercooked. The GTS is on a different planet to that car. The new Vantage though, while utilizing an evolution of the old model's aluminium monocoque, and not proving all that light on its feet (Autocar has it at 1,720kg with a full tank), has altogether different ambitions.
For a start it is unmistakably firm, more so than a DB11 - as Aston promised it would be - and commits to a robust sense of poise even with the Skyhook adaptive dampers in the gentlest of their three stages (aptly named 'Sport'). Its tight-knit sense of compliance is not corrupted by the pockmarked high streets of south Wales, but nor does it do the same job of muffling them that the PASM system does in the GTS. Even with lowered sports springs and 20-inch alloys, the 911's wheel control is uncannily supple; the Vantage, with its rigid rear subframe and heftier presence, is a little less apologetic about its vertical stiffness.
If that sounds like a problem, it doesn't often feel like one. Mostly because ride quality is not the only measure of refinement, and while it may occasionally let a pothole prod at you, the car also glides forward like a bloody SBS canoe, manoeuvres more nimbly than any Vantage before it, and does nothing at all which isn't underwritten by that lush, baritone soundtrack. In other words, being the tip of Aston's new spear has not sabotaged the car's about-town usability; it does not feel overblown or needlessly theatrical like a V8-powered F-Type, and nor is it quaint or compromised or outwardly under-endowed like its predecessor. It is every inch the progressive, prestige sports car.
Then, 14 minutes later, as the village of Nant-y-moel falls away and the Bwlch-Y-Clawdd Road climbs into the sodden hills, the Vantage succeeds in becoming something else again. At big speeds, in big open corners, its overt tautness inevitably comes good. Tweaked into Sport+ mode, and with an electric steering rack geared for directness and consistency, the car feels superbly accurate and agile - and electrifyingly quick with it. In manual mode, when wrung out, the V8 doubles down on the aural drama as it climbs into high revs. The ZF 'box upshifts in mostly immaculate blips. And while the last model also had the bulk of its engine shoved back behind the front axle, the Vantage's nose has never felt so limber, nor its line trailed so faithfully by the back end.
This is no coincidence. If the V8 is the new beating heart, then the GKN-supplied active locking diff (and the three-stage stability control wired up to it) is its brain. Or possibly the adrenal gland. It is thanks to this torque-vectoring feat of technology that the rear axle is able to flit between remarkable tenacity at pace in shocking conditions, and flagrant mobility at slower speeds whenever the mood takes you. Had we finished on a track (rather than the A4061 heading east) it may well have proven the ideal rudder; the one to make Aston's feast of noise and gusto truly, gleefully moveable. But on uneven Welsh roads, in the pouring rain, the heavyweight Vantage does occasionally leave you wanting for that final layer of handling finesse.
Or it does if you've spent half the preceding time in the best 911 Carrera money can buy. The GTS has no electronic diff, it has a mechanical one, and that crisp seven-speed manual to go with it. Porsche makes the relationship between you and it and everything else feel positively elemental. Real-time appreciation of the Aston's contact patches is somewhat dependent on traction actually running out; in the 911, you lean into the available grip utterly convinced about its threshold. The steering feel is on another level; so too the adjustability - not just because the mass of the engine is more conveniently positioned for when the weight starts to transfer or for the assistance of the optional rear axle steering, but because the GTS is so unendingly communicative that you find yourself with the confidence to attempt just about anything.
Effectively then, Porsche has done a worthier, subtler job of making the underside of its car a little more tactile for the driver. The 911 itself is better chiefly because it is tangibly lighter - by how much, precisely, we couldn't say on the day. But it feels every bit like the 200 or so kilograms that Autocar's scales suggest it might be, and while that doesn't necessarily make the lower-powered GTS seem quicker in a straight line, it does enable it to indulge in slightly more body roll here, and give a little more deference to bumps there - all to the general enhancement of the experience.
Then there's the price. Aston has been in the game plenty long enough to know where the starting price of the new Vantage ought to be so we won't dwell too long on its £120,900 sticker, except to say that the manual GTS is almost exactly £25k cheaper out of the box. And that feels like a substantial saving when it buys you a car that can justly claim to have very few conspicuous faults. In this sense it was wholly appropriate for Gaydon to treat the model as its developmental yardstick, and it is no less understandable that the Vantage is not yet quite at eye-level in every aspect - Porsche having had six good years to perfect the 991, on top of a half century's worth of practise building virtually the same car.
That Aston Martin has succeeded in planting a flag so far up the mountain, though, is exemplary; certainly no-one has come this close to upsetting Stuttgart's apple cart since quattro GmbH launched the original R8 over a decade ago. That car was powered by a sublime V8 engine, too - and handled and steered and went in a way that was all of its own. The Vantage gets that bit closer to the mount because it seems that bit more multi-faceted than the mid-engined Audi. Moreover, without ever appearing anodyne or derivative, it already feels like a proper Aston Martin; the heft and assurance and sense of exclusivity of the last model having carried over. The sophistication, speed, soundtrack, convenience and agility are all-new though, and enormously welcome.
It's stirring stuff - not least because we're only at the end of day one. Its manufacturer has shown just this week with the DB11 AMR what it is capable of down the road. With a life cycle at its disposal, and fruitier variants yet to come, there's plenty of time yet for the new Vantage to leave everything else trailing in its wake.
SPECIFICATION - PORSCHE 911 CARRERA GTS
Engine: 2,981cc, twin turbocharged flat-six
Transmission: 7-speed manual, rear-drive with limited slip differential
Power (hp): 450@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,150-5,000rpm
Top speed: 194mph
Weight: 1,450kg (DIN, so with fluids including 90 per cent full tank but without a driver)
MPG: 30 (NEDC combined)
SPECIFICATION - ASTON MARTIN VANTAGE
Engine: 3,982cc, twin turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-drive with e-diff
Power (hp): 510@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 505@2,000rpm
Top speed: 195mph (limited)
Weight: 1530kg (dry weight, with lightweight options)
MPG: 26.8 (NEDC combined)
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