As far as unexpected encounters with wild animals go, squirrels don't normally rate. The furry little nut-smugglers are omnipresent fixtures in my neck of the woods – literally – so a chance meeting doesn't warrant caution the way a bear or even an ornery raccoon might. But one's list of priorities can't help but change a bit at 175 miles per hour. That was exactly the case when I drove this Aston Martin's predecessor, the DBS, a few years ago.
I was hammering around a closed course – Ford's Romeo proving grounds – on the company's high-banked 5-mile long track, 25 mph shy of the double ton, when a little red dot appeared on the surface of the track, far up the straight. It was a squirrel, which, lacking the good sense not to be on the track at that particular moment, was at least smart enough to flatten itself into a pancake (perhaps it heard the Aston's mighty V12 closing in). I prayed it wouldn't dart from its adjacent lane into mine, because at my closing speed, I figured I wouldn't have time to retaliate. Naturally, the kamikaze rodent skittered on its stomach directly into my trajectory at the last minute, leaving me no choice but to issue a critical hair's breadth correction at the wheel. Roadkill manufacturing is normally a momentary wince-inducing affair – a grimace, a quick appeal for the universe's forgiveness – and then on with one's day. Yet in a car as low as an Aston Martin, at the velocity I was traveling, a bit of fur flying and battered karma would've been the least of my concerns.
The squirrel, the DBS and I all survived to fight another day, and that 175-mph run still stands as my own personal v-max. The Aston's high-speed stability and steering saved my bacon that morning, but in truth, I wasn't that impressed with the car overall. So it was with some consternation that I took possession of this 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish, its replacement killer.
Like the DBS I drove, this Vanquish rear-wheel-drive coupe arrived riding atop Aston's VH platform, powered by a 5.9-liter V12 paired with the company's Touchtronic six-speed flappy paddle gearbox. It's a direct descendant of the DBS. Hell, it even looks basically the same... all of today's Astons – save the court jester Cygnet – do. And while today's Aston design waters flow obviously and directly from the DB9 of 2004, we've said it before and we'll say it again: that's no bad thing. This Vanquish, now fully sheathed in carbon-fiber bodywork, is about as visually stunning as modern automobiles get. From its general proportions to its exposed carbon elements (everything from the front splitter to the side mirrors and rear fascia is sporting a weave) to its One-77-inspired taillamps, it's so gorgeous that you can't help but take every raindrop that dares fall on its flanks a little personally.
It's so gorgeous you can't help but take every raindrop that falls on it personally.
Thankfully, despite the visual similarities, a lot has actually changed under the skin in this car's transition from DBS to Vanquish. For starters, it rides atop Generation 4 VH architecture. Based on the One-77 supercar's bones, the aluminum chassis is said to be 25-percent stiffer than the DBS' thanks to a carbon-fiber intensive parts count that's 75-percent new. Needless to say, this Vanquish is a substantially different beast than the model that carried its name until 2007.
The Vanquish is still a pretty large car, as those voluptuous curves need a big canvas to stretch their legs. It's definitely scaled to grand tourer proportions, even if it isn't as big as more common rivals like the Bentley Continental GT Speed or Maserati GranTurismo MC, both of which are quite a bit longer yet far narrower. To open the swan doors of the Vanquish is to be greeted by a heady hit of tanned leather aroma. From there, you cast a curious eye onto this example's two-tone leather seats, which my child-of-the-'80s-self thinks looks like something stolen from GI Joe's Cobra Commander thanks to its odd Spectral Blue quilting and stitching. They're a bit ridiculous, to be honest, but they're comfortable and supportive, and you needn't spec them this way: if you've got the money, honey, Aston will happily skin your seats in whatever manner you like (though it might turn up a refined nose at squirrel fur).
My child-of-the-80s-self thinks the seats look like something stolen from Cobra Commander.
Newer Aston cabin hallmarks are here in full force: the outboard handbrake, the counter-rotating tachometer, the button-based transmission selector and, of course, the crystal key "Emotion Control Unit" receptor/start button are all present and accounted for. The latter two remain a bit fiddly, but unique 'surprise and delight' features like these telegraph luxury and exclusivity better than any high-tech electronics ever could. They're the secret handshakes of the automotive world, reserved exclusively for the rich or in the know impostors like me.
Yet there are important changes to note, here, too. There's much more interior space than in the old DBS, including another inch and a half of legroom. The center stack, encased on either side by leather-stitched bulwarks, is effectively all new, with backlit capacitive-touch crystal buttons that offer subtle haptic feedback when pushed.
There's a fresh infotainment system as well, with a power-fold screen as before. While not the best unit we've ever used (the input controller is still a bit difficult to use and there are moments when it's a bit slow), it is light years ahead of the old setup. That's particularly true of the navigation system, even though it suffers from a graphics package that looks jarringly inelegant in this environment (it's a Garmin-based unit, and the 6.5-inch screen looks it). At least the 13-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo sounds predictably wonderful, should you want to blot out the V12's soundtrack for some unearthly reason.
The nav system is a Garmin-based unit, and the 6.5-inch screen looks it.
In addition to the optional squarish steering wheel (One-77-derived and much better in feel than it looks), our test car was also fitted with the available rear seat package. They're so tight as to be useless for anything other than convincing your twenty-something trophy wife that you are genuinely serious about entertaining the possibility of having a baby this late in life. Trunk space is way up over the DBS, too, some 60 percent in fact, to around 13 cubic feet. That's good, because the missus won't be stashing any wet naps in the glovebox – there isn't one. Overall, the interior is a pretty stunning environ, but even now, years after Aston's Ford ownership chapter and close kinship with Jaguar, it's marred by numerous bits of switchgear scavenged from lesser parts bins that even the Blue Oval forgot it had.
For our First Drive, West Coast Editor Michael Harley journeyed to the Big Easy to sample the Vanquish at NOLA Motorsports Park, but he wasn't given time in the car on public roads, a real pity since that is a GT's most natural element. Thus it fell to me to spend a week with this Cobalt Blue tester in the greater Detroit region, where I would sample it under real-world conditions – broken pavement, torrential rain and all.
This Aston's numbers just aren't enough to Vanquish a pretty wide cross-section of today's competitors.
Deploying serious power in suboptimal road conditions demands due care, and the refreshed AM11 V12 (now with dual variable valve timing, bigger throttle bodies and a revamped manifold) qualifies for all of your attention by delivering 565 horsepower at 6,750 rpm and 457 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm. Those are healthy metrics for any stable, but with a starting price of $282,820, they had better be. 0-62 mph is quoted at 4.1 seconds and top speed at 183 mph. Those performance totals seem almost modest in today's 3.0-second, 211-mph-world of the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (a coupe that doesn't cost much more), to say nothing of more accommodating (if pedestrian) four-doors like the 3.6-second, 190-mph Porsche Panamera Turbo S. Of course, it takes a particular sort of gentleman to buy an Aston, and they're generally not the type who will challenge others to stoplight drag races (even if this model does include a new launch control system). But even aristocrats like to rib each other about their inadequacies, and while they might be impressive figures in isolation, this Aston's numbers just aren't enough to Vanquish a pretty wide cross-section of today's competitors.
What those numbers don't readily convey is the character of the Vanquish, which is delightfully old school in many ways, even as advanced materials have rendered improvements to just about every aspect of its performance. As Harley noted, there's a pleasing heft to, and commensurate feedback from, all controls, from the hydraulic speed-sensitive steering (2.62 turns from lock to lock) to the throttle and brake pedals. The latter is hooked to standard carbon-ceramic brakes, six-piston up front and four-piston rear, assuring fade-free stops for this 3,900-pound blue bolide. They might be a bit soft upon initial application for track usage, but they're nicely predictable and linear for street use. We did notice some minor squealing on cold, wet discs at low speeds, but they warmed quickly.
After tooling around for a bit with the car in its standard settings, I found it desirable to thumb the S button on the steering wheel and leave the car in Sport, otherwise the throttle tip-in felt a bit too relaxed for this sort of car. And besides, putting it in Sport opened up the active exhaust's bypass valves for maximum engine music.
Putting it in Sport opened up the active exhaust's bypass valves for maximum engine music.
Admittedly, the greater Detroit area isn't exactly awash in world-class driving roads, but the Aston did its level best to make the most of my favorites, with exceptional mid-corner stability and front-end grip from the 20-inch wheels. Part credit goes to the three-mode adaptive suspension system (double wishbone, coil springs front and rear), with Normal, Sport and Track settings accessed through a button to the left of the steering wheel's center spoke, and part goes to the stiffer chassis with its lower center of gravity, a new front chassis section that parks the engine around three-quarters of an inch lower than in the DBS, and 50-50 weight distribution. Body roll is well snubbed in any setting, really, but Sport shines nicely for B-road usage. Track mode is too firm to be much good around these parts – on winding roads with virgin paved surfaces, it might have its moments, but otherwise, the back end can get squiffy under power.
On the spec sheet, the six-speed paddleshift automatic comes across as the Vanquish's immediate Achilles heel, lacking both the cog count and lightening-quick changes of most modern dual-clutch gearboxes. And indeed, there's some room for improvement, but the transmission isn't the black mark you might think it to be. For one thing, it's quicker to execute manual changeups with the magnesium paddles than you might expect (37-percent quicker than before, in fact), and it has the sort of low-speed driveline refinement that even the best dual-clutch setups lack. The six-speed fits the GT character of this car just fine, but I can't help but wonder what Aston's engineers could do if they had enough funding to source a new gearbox with more ratios.
The Vanquish is likely the GT apogee of what is achievable with these Aston Martin VH + V12 building blocks.
The Vanquish is likely the GT apogee of what is achievable with these Aston Martin VH + V12 building blocks, so the question is, what's next? Gorgeous though it may be, the brand's styling language is now a bit too familiar and some of the driveline and convenience technology in this, the company's most expensive model, has fallen behind the curve. Given the brand's rather vague funding picture, one has to wonder how many more 175-mph financial squirrels the company can continue to successfully dodge. Of course, Aston has lived the majority of its 100-year existence under tenuous pecuniary conditions and still managed to turn out some marvelous cars. So while we certainly aren't betting against it, a brand with this much history and cachet deserves to have as firm a monetary footing as those of the clients who regularly purchase its cars. Here's hoping Aston gets it.