"Shall we have a go?" Becker rhetorically asks, looking out at the ice track. "First, with all the systems on. We test and develop this car with systems on and off, at every stage."
Becker shifts the Vantage into Drive, and immediately it sounds happier. Under the hood is an Aston-ized, AMG-sourced twin-turbo V8, packing 503 horsepower and 505 lb-ft of torque. It was given the full work-over, and the controller algorithms were developed to make it behave like a proper Aston. Power is channeled through an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox.
How and when the power comes on depends on driving conditions and mode, of which the 2019 Vantage has three: Sport, Sport Plus and Track. Absent is the DB11's GT mode, which fits perfectly on the grand tourer but not on a pure sports car such as the Vantage.
Throughout testing, the Vantage stays under heavy camouflage and even sports some DB11 bits at first to deter speculation. But despite the partial DB11 drag, the Vantage will embody CEO Andy Palmer's directive: "[W]e need greater differentiation between the lines." While the DB11 is a striking and elegant grand tourer, the Vantage dials up the aggression over its predecessor.
A massive, oxygen-gulping grille dominates the frontend. The car is about the same width as the DB11, but in person, it seems twice as wide as more pedestrian sports cars. Fender vents serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. The lip of the trunk swoops up, a naturally integrated spoiler that will help deliver downforce.
But there's a lot more at play than is even immediately evident to the eyes, most important of which is the electronic rear differential.
This the first Aston to ever be fitted with an e-diff. As Becker explains: "What that allows us to do is vary the amount of torque across the rear axle that we have, which allows you to make the car very short, very agile. Add in tricks like Dynamic Torque Vectoring, and because we can open up the diff, it's like putting a pole in the ground when you're skiing. So, the car will rotate very quickly."
There are other differentiators, too. While the DB11 sports Bridgestone tires, the Vantage opts for 20-inch Pirelli P Zeros. The Vantage's aluminum-bonded chassis is loosely related to the DB11's, but 70 percent of its components are all new.
Sliding onto the track we glide around, the car demonstrates exceptional control. Occasionally the backend will slide out a bit, or we'll have a light glide before correcting, but we lap the track with relative ease.
"Now off," Becker says as he disables the ESP. The Vantage wails and grunts while Becker maintains a fairly consistent drift, making little corrections as traction (or lack thereof) requires.
Aston had its sights set on the Porsche 911 and the McLaren 570S with this Vantage. During initial benchmarking, Becker says one of the things that really impressed him with the 911 was how the car seemed to be gaining grip the more you turned in. To replicate that for the Vantage, he believes there are three essential elements.
First is the suspension geometry, which is absolutely crucial. And it's during development that any little tweaks end up paying real dividends for the driver once they hit their favorite roads.
Second is tires. It's not just swapping rubber, one supplier for another, Bridgestone to Pirelli. In this case, Pirelli worked with Aston to develop a compound specifically for the Vantage, a specialized version of the vaunted P Zero.
The third element to helping front-end and overall dynamics is an exceptional amount of aerodynamic work. "If you push DB11, you get a little bit of lift at the front, downforce at the rear," Becker explains. Vantage, on the other hand, profits from downforce both front and rear.
After at least a lap and a half in complete opposite-lock, it's now time for a different display of the Vantage's traction and technical prowess on a split-mu exercise. Essentially, we climb a hill with the left side of the car driving up a strip of concrete, the right side on the ice and snow. Absurdly, with the systems on, we climb right up with relative ease, despite half of the car's wheels spinning up a frozen, slick surface. At the top of the hill we bank left and drive down, to repeat the same exercise, this time with the systems turned off.
It's a busy day, and a few other camouflaged cars can be seen performing various tests. There's a BMW compact crossover hidden under a dizzying wrap; I notice the engineers inside have fixed their gaze on us, or — more accurately — on the Aston. In fact, they cannot take their eyes off of the car. There's almost a silent camaraderie that passes between us. They know they're in the presence of something exciting. After all, it wasn't crossovers they had posters of on their walls growing up.
A bit later in the afternoon, Mark Barron, one of Vantage's primary engineers (who was heavily involved in the development and testing) takes us to one of his main testing roads. At one point we're going at what feels like a very rapid clip — who really knows on the snow and ice — and we see a car flying down in the other direction past us.
"The thing to remember now is we're on real roads. Locals drive on these very roads, so this is very much real-world, everyday conditions for those that live here. It's great for testing traction and stability, but not for tuning. That's why we like the lake. The conditions are more stable than on a road like this, which is what you really need for tuning."
As we climb a sizable hill, I can hear the car in full song, and I ask him what work if any has been done on engine noise.
"We have our new controller, and the algorithms that go into that are endless. But it's about calibrating the engine and gear shifts as they should be for Vantage, and how that should sound as well," Barron says.
Much of the sound gets tweaked in the later stages of development, but the good news is Aston is starting with a sonorous, gratifying engine note.
On our final push up the hill, Barron points out that the steering is speed-dependent, and effort is adjusted instantly based on driving mode, speed and a number of other factors. "There's a lot of dialogue, communication between the driver and car, but it's still a fairly approachable car."
We reach the top of the hill, and Barron motions for me to get out. Spread before us is a dramatic scene that looks a bit like the scenes in "Game of Thrones" north of the Wall, and it's the warmest it'll get today — a balmy 14 degrees.
Heat testing: Stage two Vantage prototype, ArizonaYou can see the heat waves ripple above the asphalt. That's not the only clue that the scene is markedly different from the last time I saw the Vantage. Several months have elapsed, and instead of snow we're surrounded by sand and cacti.
Though I can't see the Vantage yet, I know it must be approaching the hotel, our starting point for the day's excursion. A gear shift and ripping snarl are bruising the surrounding air. From a distance it appears the environment isn't the only thing that's changed since Sweden; the Vantage has shed some of its DB11 bits and now sports a yellow camouflage wrap.
Jason Smith is the engineer who's been leading Vantage's durability and heat testing efforts here for a couple of months, and they are just wrapping up the final stages of this cycle. I hop in and we hit the road.
In moments we're on a highway, at speed, heading toward a favored route. Smith and his team have a unique task — aside from a daily monitoring of the car under extreme conditions, they're also looking to spot things an owner might encounter. A complete testing cycle is 12,000 miles, which takes just a couple of weeks. In theory this represents a full year in a Vantage's life, but considering Aston owners often have another car (if not several) in the garage, it might be a little high.
Much of the extreme engine duress and stress testing is done separately, including a phase carried out in Southern Italy, complete with laps at the famous Nardo racetrack. That testing is like a sprint; this more of a marathon.
There are sensors and wires everywhere, including one running by my legs. "We check temperature there, too; it's quite thorough," Smith says.
There are more than 150 different things being monitored by the Suchi Data Logger in the trunk: ambient air temperature; barometric air pressure; engine oil temperature; engine oil pressure; temperatures on the transmission, differential, brake fluid, damper, suspension bush, and more. Inside, the cabin readings are taken from the instrument cluster surface, A/C vent and general ambient air. Even the driver and passenger's head temperatures are measured. Outside of the cabin there are sensors on the rear bumper harness and trunk floor, to name just a few.
"It all goes back to the team at Gaydon at the end of every day. If we spot something that seems a little irregular, we can have a chat. This stage is all about identifying anything that could possibly come up and troubleshooting, if needed."
Engineers are only human, so on a lonely stretch of desert road, Smith opens it up, and as the sensation of speed draws us in, a great, riotous noise envelops the cabin. Aston's new sports car is a touch more feral, a little more rambunctious than its GT sibling.
We dial back the speed, and the blurred cactus we're whizzing by returns to clarity. If the Vantage fails here, it would be disastrous. But it is distinct from Aston's grand tourers, fulfilling the nameplate's promise of more speed and engagement, at least from the passenger seat. We'll be driving it ourselves soon enough, to test our assumptions further, but it's a promising first dance.