Nestled in a secluded valley in the south of Spain is the Ascari Race Resort. Celebrated as one of the world's most beautiful tracks, the private 3.2-mile ribbon of perfectly smooth blacktop challenges drivers with 26 corners, 10-degree climbs and 18-degree banks as it weaves through the mature oak trees that dot the landscape. Named after Alberto Ascari, the first double world Formula 1 champion, the well-manicured decade-old venue is the type of circuit enthusiasts fantasize about.
Our private shuttle takes us through the manned guard gate towards the main clubhouse. As we round the corner, and head down the shallow hill, the sun reflects off something in the distance. Parked in the paddock are a dozen glistening sports cars – some coupes, some roadsters – each still dripping wet from the overnight shower that leaves the air fresh and crisp. The vehicles, the latest offering from Aston Martin, are the enthusiast-targeted Vantage S Coupe and Roadster.
Nine times zones from home with jet lag extinguished by a morning café grande, I figure it is time to get behind the wheel. Only one thing is more enjoyable than driving the new Aston Martin Vantage S through the mountains of Spain – spending a long afternoon with the sports cars on the wide-open Ascari race circuit.
Continue reading First Drive: 2011 Aston Martin Vantage S...
Photos copyright ©2011 Michael Harley / AOL and Aston Martin
The Aston Martin Vantage secured its position as the automaker's sportiest model when it was introduced at the 2005 Geneva Motor Show for the 2006 model year. Like the DB9, the then-new two-door utilized the now common VH Architecture (the chassis is constructed with extruded and bonded aluminum panels). Today, the platform is also shared with the DBS and Rapide.
The four basic body styles in the Aston Martin lineup have much in common, but the Vantage holds the trump card when it comes to handling. Unlike its architecture-sharing siblings, the Vantage is shorter by a foot and its wheelbase undercuts the others by nearly six inches – the reduction in overall size translates to a lighter curb weight (3,549 pounds Coupe, 3,726 pounds Roadster) and greatly improved handling.
Aston Martin offers its Vantage in a dozen flavors these days, from the entry-level V8 Vantage Coupe ($120,350) to the flagship V12 Vantage Carbon Black ($194,995). Following on the heels of the limited-edition sport-tuned V8 Vantage N420 models, introduced less than a year ago, are two new models both wearing the automakers coveted 'S' badge - the 2011 Vantage S Coupe and 2011 Vantage S Roadster.
While their aluminum platforms are virtually identical to the standard coupe and roadster models, the British automaker is targeting driving enthusiasts with these heavily upgraded Vantage S variants. Under the hood of each is a specially-tuned version of the familiar all-alloy 4.7-liter V8. Fitted with an adjustable air intake (engineered to open nearly unrestricted at 3,500 rpm), more aggressive spark mapping and the ability to take advantage of higher octane fuel, the engine delivers 430 horsepower at 7,200 rpm and 361 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm (its power rating tops the N420's output by about ten horsepower). We estimate the Vantage S will hit 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds (Aston Martin lists the maximum speed at 189 mph).
The Vantage S also boasts a new transmission. The six-speed Sportshift gearbox (a single-clutch automated manual transmission) fitted to the standard Vantage models and the N420 has been superseded by Aston Martin's all-new seven-speed Sportshift II. While it remains a single-clutch automated manual transmission ( rumor has it a dual-clutch unit won't fit), Sportshift II is 52 pounds lighter than Sportshift I. Plus, it is at least 100 pounds lighter than a dual-clutch transmission, reports Aston. Specifically designed with the performance of the V8 Vantage S in mind, the transmission is engineered to operate automatically in Drive mode, or to be manually commanded via column-mounted magnesium shift paddles (the new transmission is reportedly able to select gears 20 percent faster than the older gearbox, in both modes). The rear-mounted gearbox is also now air-cooled, not oil-cooled like its predecessor, helping to shed an oil pump and other unnecessary ancillaries.
The exhaust system is also unique to the V8 Vantage S (it shares some commonality with the aggressive muffler system used on the V12 Vantage). Its overall capacity is larger, and the bypass valves are engineered to open earlier in the rev range to produce a throatier sound and more "crackle on the overrun," says the automaker.
The steering rack has been modified with a quicker ratio (now 15:1, as compared to 17:1 on the standard Vantage models), dropping the number of wheel turns (lock-to-lock) down to just 2.62. The suspension has also been overhauled with retuned passive damper valves, revised rear spring coil rates and revised bump stop rates and lengths.
The braking system delivers more stopping power, thanks to larger 15-inch slotted front rotors with six-piston calipers. While their overall diameter has increased over the standard Vantage, their weight has done just the opposite (credit an innovative two-piece system that uses a lightweight aluminum hub with a durable iron braking surface). The rear 13-inch rotors are cast iron, with four-piston calipers. The braking software has been refined to take advantage of existing brake-related systems (ABS, electronic Brake Force Distribution, Traction Control and Positive Torque Control), and the three-mode Dynamic Stability Control has been specially calibrated for its new enthusiast-tuned role. The Vantage S is also the first Aston Martin to be configured with Hill Start Assist (the brakes are automatically used to hold the vehicle stationary on a steep grade for two seconds, or until the accelerator is pressed).
Visually differentiating the Vantage S from its other siblings, Aston Martin has resculpted the front bumper and added a carbon fiber lower front splitter (its larger intake channels more air to the engine and brakes). There are larger side sills with styling derived from the GT4 race car, and a new carbon-fiber rear diffuser. Lastly, the rear decklid features the slightly raised "flip" shared with the V12 Vantage. All of the design elements contribute to lowering the coefficient of lift and drag, thus increasing high speed stability.
The wheels are also unique to the Vantage S lineup. Standard fitment is 19-inch "V-spoke" cast aluminum alloys, wrapped in Bridgestone Potenza RE050 performance tires (245/40R19 in the front and 285/35R19 in the rear - the rears on the Vantage S are 10 mm wider out back when compared to the standard Vantage). Forged 10-spoke aluminum alloy wheels, saving additional unsprung weight, are optional.
A glance at the interior reveals that it, too, has its own unique look. The cabin has been upgraded with distinctive three-track stitching on the door panels and seats (Aston Martin says the design element "echoes the gills of a shark"). The steering wheel can be covered in Obsidian Black leather (or Alcantara) with matching or contrasting stitching and there is an option to specify a Piano Black package, complete with a piano black center console, door handle surrounds and handles. The option list for both Vantage S models reads nearly identical to the other Aston Martin siblings, whether one is seeking a 1000-watt Bang & Olufsen BeoSound audio system, satellite radio upgrade or a boot-mounted umbrella. Track junkies overseas will want to opt for the extra-cost carbon-fiber and Kevlar bucket sport seats, with soft leather faces, saving nearly 40 pounds of weight (sadly, the DOT won't certify them for the States).
Aston Martin is offering the 2011 Vantage S in two body styles. The standard V8 Vantage S Coupe (with mandatory Sportshift transmission), starts with a base price of $138,000. The V8 Vantage S Roadster with a power-operated soft top (also only fitted with Sportshift) will set you back $151,000. The pricing puts the two new models comfortably mid-pack in the Vantage lineup. (All pricing includes gas guzzler tax, but exclude the $1,615 fee for delivery and destination.)
By luck of the draw, I'm on the track in the first round. My fortune is short-lived, however, as I quickly realize my dallying in the heated lounge has cost me first choice of vehicles – I'm left holding the glass key to a bright blue right-hand-drive model. The minor annoyance accepted, my six-foot, two-inch frame settles comfortably into the optional sport seats (as mentioned, the nice carbon/Kevlar buckets won't be offered in the States). Strapped in place with the standard three–point belts, I slide the white open-face helmet over my skull. I have plenty of wiggle room.
The new Sportshift II, like its predecessor, doesn't have a traditional PRNDL gate on the lower console. Instead, there are four round buttons ("Sport," "R," "N" and "D") high on the center stack. The Vantage S, like all Aston Martins these days, is started with the signature key held in place for a few seconds. The V8 fires over and settles to a tempered growl. I step on the brake and tap the "D" button, followed immediately by the "Sport" button – it electronically changes transmission maps so the new gearbox will shift more rapidly and hold each gear longer through the counterclockwise sweep of the tachometer. The sport mode also alters the flapper in the exhaust to give it a more aggressive note.
With an open track beaconing, and a flagman waving a bandera verde, I bury my right foot on the metal accelerator pedal. There is a very reassuring growl from the ass-end of the coupe as the 4.7-liter forces me back into the seat.
It takes about three full laps of the 3.1-mile circuit before I am comfortable with the layout. There are twenty-six corners, so much of the orientation is spent memorizing entry points (speed will come). With most committed to my internal RAM, I increase my velocity gradually. I immediately find the Vantage S very docile - it is nearly perfectly balanced (49:51 front to rear) and the steering is nicely weighed. I'm pleasantly surprised.
After ten minutes, I'm starting to really enjoy things. The Bridgestone Potenza tires are getting some good heat into them, as are the brakes. I push harder. At about eight-tenths, the Vantage S transforms from being a street car on a track to a showroom-ready racer. The back end starts to break free if power is applied on a lightened rear end (easily corrected with some opposite steering input) and a bit of understeer in the sharper corners becomes an issue. It's time to crank things up.
At nine-tenths, I'm grinning ear-to-ear. Diving into the hairpin corners, I use trail braking to help rotate the Vantage S (masking much of the understeer). Body roll is minimal, and there is plenty of low-end torque to control rotation and bring the coupe back to speed upon exit. The width of the Vantage requires some caution in the tighter areas (unless you enjoy unsettling impacts with curbs), but nothing overly distracting. That same low stance does contribute to ample, and welcomed, grip on the small and medium-size corners. On the larger sweepers, I find it easiest to keep my foot down until I feel the rear end get light. Then I just hang it there and enjoy the ride.
The Vantage S is truly one of the more enjoyable vehicles I have ever driven on the track. The engine pulls with gusto (it prefers to spin at the top of the tachometer, so be wary of the fuel cutoff), the exhaust sounds tremendous (even through a helmet) and the brakes are more than competent for the job. And one has to mention the chassis – it is a spectacularly stiff platform. Aston Martin takes some abuse for using the same VH architecture on all of its models. I say, who cares? It works.
Yet hold your applause.
Even with its sexy styling and eight-cylinder rumble, there is something working against the Vantage S. It's the darn brand-spanking new Sportshift II gearbox. While it is admirably lighter and quicker than its predecessor, it still trails the pack when compared against the dual-clutch offerings from the competition (there is no prize for inventing the ultimate VHS machine these days). Even when the transmission is in manual-shift mode, there is an agonizingly noticeable delay between gears. Aston Martin's redesigned single-clutch gearbox may finally be quickest of its kind, but the industry moved on. Several years ago.
With my helmet back in the lounge, I grab the keys to another Vantage S and depart Ascari Circuit on two-lane public roads for the small Spanish villages of Cuevas del Becerro, Setenil de las Bodegas and Arriate. In a relaxed manner, the transmission is left in "D" allowing the electronic nannies do the shifting. Once again, I find myself flustered with the slow gearbox, so it's back to manual mode (thankfully, it only takes a brief tap on the paddleshifter to kill the autobox and the system doesn't revert back to automatic without pressing the "D" button again). With my brain in control, and my fingers doing the work, the Vantage S is a fun scalpel to carve local Spanish roads. I am smiling once again.
The British automaker doesn't hesitate when asked to put the crosshairs on the Vantage's direct competition. It understandably comes from the volume-selling rear-engine Porsche 911. Granted, Aston Martin money ($138,000-plus) will buy every single naturally-aspirated 911 in today's lineup, and get you in a standard 911 Turbo – an established segment benchmark.
Aston Martin Vantage S verses Porsche 911 Turbo. That's a tough dilemma.
If asked to choose a weekend track car with those lottery winnings, I'd toss both aside and place my money on the Porsche 911 GT3 RS – that lightweight slot car is a no brainer. But, if asked to pick a sports car to fill the void in the third garage slot, one that would shuttle me to work a couple days a week, get front billing with the valet at the country club, provide me with an engaging driving experience up Mulholland Highway on days off and make me look over my shoulder each time I park, I'd choose the new Aston Martin Vantage S. But, really... can I get one with a manual transmission?
Photos copyright ©2011 Michael Harley / AOL and Aston Martin