First Drive: 2011 Aston Martin V12 Vantage
Sketched drawings of imaginary sports cars covered my notebook as an elementary school pupil. Assembled in the ether of a daydream, each penciled design came from an imagination unrestrained by reality, with nary a concession to things like outward visibility, bumper heights or ground clearance. Engines were huge, tires were wide and bodywork was unbelievably sleek. It didn't matter that none of the drawings represented real cars. From my naive perspective, I could bring the world's coolest cars to life in two-dimensional black and white.
Thirty years later, I find myself sitting in the driver's seat of a 2011 Aston Martin V12 Vantage. To a car guy, this artful amalgamate of aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber, leather, rubber and glass represents pure sensory overload. As a jaded automotive journalist, I'm supposed to maintain a poker face when presented with such an objet d'art. Plainly, I am struggling today.
Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL
The Aston Martin V12 Vantage is immediately acknowledged as something special – it isn't difficult to figure out why. There is no subtlety when one of the world's most gorgeous automotive sculptures is glistening in opalescent "Mako Blue" paint ("The name is taken from the Mako shark, which is the fastest and most agile shark known to man," says the automaker). Drawing even more attention are the strategically placed carbon fiber components and the bolt-on, diamond-turned forged ten-spoke alloys.
Aston Martin says that nothing on the V12 Vantage was altered simply for cosmetic reasons – all modifications were done to enhance the vehicle's driving dynamics. Lessons learned from the company's N24 race car program allowed its engineers to reduce aerodynamic lift on the new model without any penalty in drag. The aggressively sculpted front splitter more effectively channels air to the front brakes and radiator, yet still produces downforce. The carbon fiber louvers cut into the aluminum hood allow heated air in the engine compartment to escape, thereby lowering air pressure and lift brought on by high speeds. Even the new side sills are functional, as they channel air around the car rather than under it. Lastly, a subtle increase in the area of the rear decklid spoiler helps the carbon fiber lower diffuser channel air through the rear-mounted high-capacity oil cooler and increase downforce.
The range-topping V12 Vantage understandably shares platforms with Aston's least expensive model, the V8 Vantage, but that's nothing to be ashamed of. Under the aluminium bodywork is a brilliantly engineered all-alloy aluminum monocoque platform (Aston Martin's recognized "VH architecture"). The lightweight bonded framework is both strong and very rigid – an ideal platform for the robust powertrain.
The interior is also familiar Vantage, but the V12 receives some special attention. The driver and front passenger drop into leather and Alcantara bucket seats, upholstered for both comfort and holding power. The swan doors pull shut with carbon fiber handles and the gearshift is a massive hunk of sculpted aluminum alloy. Even the instrument cluster has been revised for improved clarity (higher contrast numerals and a splash of color), with the intent of more quickly delivering pertinent information to the driver.
The standard Aston Martin V8 Vantage is fitted with a 32-valve 4.7-liter V8. With 420 horsepower and 346 pound-feet of torque, it scoots to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Not too shabby, but each of us can name a handful of much less expensive vehicles that will simply embarrass the V8 Vantage at a light.
Nobody in an Aston Martin deserves to be shamed, so the British automaker has dropped its largest powerplant into its smallest platform. The company must have generously lubricated the engine bay, as the 48-valve 6.0-liter V12 is packaged as tightly as World Cup soccer fans watching a title match. Displacing 5,935 cubic centimeters, the naturally-aspirated all-alloy powerplant is rated at 510 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque.
Power is sent to the rear mid-mounted transaxle through a carbon-fiber propeller shaft (within an alloy torque tube). A traditional (three-pedal) six-speed manual transmission is the sole gearbox offering. Keeping the rear wheels in check is a standard mechanical limited-slip differential.
The suspension is again familiar Vantage underpinnings. Up front is an independent double wishbone incorporating anti-dive geometry, coil springs, anti-roll bar and monotube dampers. The rear utilizes independent double wishbones with anti- squat and anti-lift geometry, coil springs, anti-roll bar and monotube dampers. Compared to the V8 Vantage, the rear suspension of the V12 model features a more compact dual-rate spring design – changes that allow a more aggressive wheel/tire package. Furthermore, the spring rates have been stiffened by 45 percent and the anti-roll bars are stiffer (by 15 percent up front, and 75 percent in the rear). The ride height has also been dropped .59 inches, lowering the center of gravity with it. The automaker's Adaptive Damping System (ADS) is not offered, or needed, on the V12 Vantage.
The front brakes are gargantuan ventilated/drilled carbon ceramic discs (15.67 inches in diameter) with six-piston calipers. The rear brakes are only slightly smaller ventilated/drilled carbon ceramic discs (14.17 inches in diameter) with four-piston calipers. Wheels are forged aluminum alloy, 19-inches in diameter, wrapped in custom Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires (255/35ZR19 front and 295/30ZR19 rear). The UTQG treadwear rating on the tires is "60." Flypaper has less stick.
While increasing the cylinder count boosts horsepower, it also shovels on mass. According to Aston Martin, the V12 engine weighs about 220 pounds more than the V8, but thanks to the lightweight construction and componentry (including carbon ceramic brakes and forged wheels) the V12 Vantage is only about 100 pounds heavier than its V8 sibling. The curb weight is listed at 3,704 pounds, of which 85 percent lies between the front and rear axles (weight distribution is a near-perfect 51:49). Shift properly, and the V12 Vantage should punch through 60 mph in 4 seconds flat, and the coupe won't stop pulling until it hits 190 mph.
The price for all of this goodness starts at $176,995. Add in destination charges ($1,615), gas guzzler ($3,000), Bang & Olufsen Audio ($7,200), satellite radio ($1,250), Special paint ($1,895) and a few other goodies, and the bottom line on our car tallied $193,755. That's a pretty substantial bottom line, but somehow we don't see Aston having any trouble moving the 1,000 examples it plans to mint.
It's best to use one's left hand to open the door by pressing the middle finger into the left side of the flush door handle. The right side rises from its resting position, where it is grabbed by the left thumb (practice this at home, before you fumble it in public).
The door sill is wide, but not difficult to cross as I drop into the driver's seat. Tucking in, the cabin is enjoyable, even for my six-foot two-inch frame. There is plenty of leg, shoulder and head room. The passenger sits a good foot away, with a wide center console (housing the transmission tunnel) between both occupants. With the doors closed, there is a feeling of intimacy within the cockpit, yet no claustrophobia. My forehead remains nearly level with the roofline, thanks to the sculpted headliner and small side windows (you can't stick your head out without knocking your skull), but visibility out the front 270 degrees is excellent. With both feet on the pedals, one hand on the thick steering wheel and the other on the cold aluminum shift knob, the driving position alone is enough to stir the soul.
Insert the fiddly crystal fob into its home below the center dash vents and press it firmly. The glass key glows red, then green, then white as the engine fires. The 6.0-liter twelve-cylinder settles into a very smooth idle.
Clutch engagement is late in the pedal travel on this press fleet V12 Vantage, but the manual transmission is a joy to row. It is very mechanical, with a positive engagement and an assuring snick (felt, not heard) as the gears engage. Thankfully, the metal shift knob doesn't absorb any of the tactile feedback, and gear changes are nearly impossible to miss.
The V12 Vantage is far from your average high-strung exotic. It can be as docile as a hibernating bear, with about the same amount of untapped power in reserve, when driven with care. It is entirely possible to shift to the next higher gear at 3,000 rpm and avoid all downshifts during deceleration. This would really be a shame, as the two-seat coupe begs to be driven hard.
When pushed, the 6.0-liter V12 comes alive like a caffeinated teenager. The nearly identical engine is fitted to the Rapide sedan, where it is bolted to the automaker's standard "Touchtronic 2" six-speed slushbox, but a six-speed manual gearbox completely changes the game. Freed of the computerized shift, the quad-cam engine spins as if suspended by frictionless magnetic levitation. Power is delivered in such a linear and turbine-like manner that it's nearly impossible to avoid hitting the fuel cut-off without making a conscious effort to do so. Inexplicably, there is no redline painted on the tachometer dial. (A call to Aston Martin clarifies that the engine's terminal speed is 7,000 rpm.)
During an extended spin around one of my favorite Southern California public circuits (Decker Canyon road to Mulholland highway and then up Pacific Coast Highway), the V12 Vantage proves itself as an impeccable GT coupe. While it is hardly the weapon of choice in a close combat duel on the tightest twisty sections, the Aston Martin demonstrates impressive athleticism when faced with a variety of road conditions.
While a great many modern sports cars rely on electronic dampers and sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems to maximize grip and cornering capability, the V12 Vantage is decidedly old school. Complementing its stiff alloy platform are four sticky contact patches, a robust limited slip differential and a very determined V12 engine. Third gear is the ratio of choice in the canyons, as the engine pulls willingly from low on the tachometer, and just the right amount of torque finds its way to the rear wheels (try the same action mid-corner in second gear, and the sticky Pirellis break free when the accelerator is pressed with any authority). The stability control, even in default "on" mode, lets things get plenty interesting before yanking on the reins. That said, there is no reason to ever touch the nanny button short of leaving public roads.
The audio track emanating from the Aston Martin is breathtaking. For the ultimate audible thrill, forget your local THX Certified Cinema and seek out a V12 Vantage. Drop into the driver's seat to hear a balanced symmetry of V12 mechanical resonance from under the hood and the bellow of a deep exhaust from below the rear valance. It's hard to believe, but passersby report the exhaust rumble, cackle and burble is even better from outside the vehicle. If isolation is your gig, crank up the kick-ass 1,000-watt Bang & Olufsen BeoSound stereo and invite the band into the cabin with you.
Most exotics require a nervous level of attention when tooling around town, thanks to notoriously low front splitters (just try to drive a Porsche GT3 without scraping its lip). Credit a long wheelbase (pushing the wheels out to the corners), and rounded extremities for keeping the rigid carbon-fiber front splitter on this V12 Vantage from never kissing anything harder than a dozen low-flying insects.
Another source of amazement is found with the gear ratios. In the relentless pursuit of fuel economy, automakers that still offer a traditional six-speed manual transmission have turned sixth gear into a fuel-saving, and powerless, overdrive. Not these Brits. Cruise down the highway at 65 mph in the tallest cog and smash the throttle. Necks won't snap, but the V12 pulls strongly enough that a downshift is nearly always completely unnecessary. It is hard to describe how much this improves the overall driving experience (and likely slaughters EPA fuel economy - 11 miles per gallon city/17 highway, if you really need to know).
One last source of fascination is credited to the carbon fiber gills on the front bonnet. When stopped, superheated air from the engine spills readily from the vents and rises away from the hood – the effect is light distortion, a visual blurring as if looking through the exhaust of a jet engine. How cool is it that the beasty V12 reminds you of its presence even at a standstill?
With a standing ovation, the Aston Martin V12 Vantage earns every bit of praise I have bestowed on it. However, I want to be perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that this is the best sports car in the world. It holds no acceleration records, no top speed records, and no lateral grip records. Come to think of it, there isn't a single road circuit on the planet where the Aston Martin V12 Vantage reigns as king.
But this isn't a motorized mechanism for winning battles against a clock – it is much more profound than that. The Aston Martin V12 Vantage is one of those rare cars that are as stunning to look at as they are genuinely enjoyable to drive. The low-volume exotic is a treat for the physiological senses of touch, smell, hearing, sight and balance. More succinctly, it is an intoxicating machine masterfully engineered to gratify every emotion in a car enthusiast's soul.
As an automotive journalist, I am often asked, "What is your favorite car?" From the driver's seat of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage, with a striking recollection of those early sketches, I may have finally found the answer.
Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL
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