First Drive

2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR First Drive Review | It has a manual!

There are other things to love, sure, but that one really stands out

2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR
2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR / Image Credit: Aston Martin
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  • Engine
    4.0L Turbo V8
  • Power
    503 HP / 461 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    7-Speed Manual
  • 0-60 Time
    3.9 Secs
  • Top Speed
    195 MPH
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
  • Seating
  • Base Price

NÜRBURG, Germany — The new Aston Martin Vantage AMR has a manual transmission. In the precision-engineered, sequential dual-clutch automated hell-scape in which we now dwell, that might be enough copy for a full review. But driving this boisterous menace around the perfect, sweeping, foothilly roads around Germany's Nürburgring (but not on the ‘Ring itself), I discovered that the seven-speed stick shift makes the Vantage approximately 77% more engaging.

For this, we have Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer to thank.

“Andy committed to always having a manual in the lineup,” said transmission engineer James Owen, at the Aston Martin Racing (AMR) Performance Center at the edge of the ‘Ring, when I asked, insolently, why this car exists. “And as the sports derivative of our sportiest, most focused sports car, Vantage, it’s right for the lineup.”

A bit more about that transmission, because it should be dwelled upon: It is built by famed Italian manufacturer Dana Graziano, which has been building transmissions for the likes of Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo since the middle of the past century. It has a dogleg high-ratio first gear that requires some increased load to knock into. It rev-matches on downshifts, and also allows no-lift upshifts, so you can keep the pedal floored between gears to minimize transitions. It’s air cooled, for less weight. And it has a Launch Control feature that works like this: clutch down, find first, stomp on the gas, wait for the little light to appear on the dash, clutch out progressively but quickly. Glory.

It was, in fact, surprising just how much the gearbox changed my relationship with the Vantage, a car I already liked. The AMR doesn’t add any power, the Mercedes-sourced 4.0-liter turbo V8 still sits at 503 hp. But the torque figures are down significantly, from the 505 pound-feet available in the automatic to 461 with the manual. Remember, this is the first time a manual has been paired with this engine, be it by Aston Martin or Mercedes-AMG. Despite losing 200 pounds from the Vantage's curb weight – through the use of the lighter transmission, forged wheels, carbon ceramic brakes, carbon fiber body and trim bits, and the switch from an electronic differential to a limited-slip one – it’s nearly a half-second slower from 0-60 than the base Vantage (3.9 seconds vs 3.5). Yet it somehow feels quicker, probably in the way that an Iberian Gin and Tonic bar you discover while wandering around in Barcelona is far more fun than one recommended when you ask Siri “What’s the Best Iberian Gin and Tonic Bar in Barcelona?” (Even if it’s the same bar.)

This is what is known as the Effort-Justification Paradigm, the direct if not always objectively significant relationship between the amount of energy one outputs in a given situation, and how it impacts ones feelings about the achieved result. And its incorporation in the Vantage is very intentional.

“The manual is another avenue to move Vantage into a more focused, analog, and engaging vehicle, and one that is more challenging for the driver than the automatic,” said Owen. “It needs more patience, but you see the benefit.”

This is an understatement on both counts. The gearshift action is notchy, especially in the aforementioned neutral-to-first shift, and the gears are packed knife-edge tight, not unlike the whiny box on Leslie’s dad’s 280Z track car (high school friend, you probably don't know her). The short-stroke clutch has a rather gentle effort, but engages relatively high up in the pedal. The leather ball atop the selector feels slightly oversized.

Yet in every moment of the daylong drive through the German countryside, I felt more and more connected to this Intense Blue menace, and more in love with the notion of myself as a driver, driving it. Plowing into gentle corners that wended through fulvous fields of mustard. Attacking hairpin turns pinned tightly against terraced Riesling vineyards. Blasting through storybook riverside villages at speeds that elicited LED frowny-faces from radar-enabled speed-monitoring road signs. Achieving 170 mph on open stretches of the sublime German autobahn (the AMR’s top speed, like the base Vantage, is 195). Every engagement felt like a personal achievement. But more than this, it felt like something that I had accomplished not just in the Vantage, but in partnership with the Vantage. If one could high-five a car after a drive, I would have high-fived this one, right on the stick shift knob.

Somehow, the car even sounds meaner in this iteration: louder, more menacing, more replete with grunt and throat, like the dearly departed V12 Vantage. Further pressing my insolence, I asked Owen over drinks later in the evening for an explanation of this.

“The hardware is exactly the same. But the software – the driver – is different.”

This was the least technical explanation ever received from an engineer, and perhaps the most obscure. But also the most appropriate. In the Vantage AMR, you’re not just a ghost in the machine. You are the machine. And it’s an exquisite melding. I'm not alone in gladly accepting the “less fast” option any time in exchange for this kind of enhanced delight. 

The “regular” AMR will be available in only 141 helpings, globally, at a price of $184,995. Those will be preceded by the special launch edition, known as the AMR 59 – to honor Aston Martin’s 1959 Le Mans win, and painted in a heritage-appropriate silver-green livery – which will cost another $25,000. But, fortunately for us, once all 200 of those AMR's are produced and sold, in Q2 of 2020, the seven-speed manual will become an available option on all Vantages. There is no official word whether Aston will charge for the privilege of acquiring a manual gearbox, or whether it will be a no-cost delete. Either way, we should celebrate the decision to keep this form of archaic engagement alive.    

When asked if we might find the manual transmission proliferating through the Aston range, Owen pulls a face. “It doesn’t make sense in a DBS or a DB11, in a GT,” he said. “But never say never.”

Aston Martin Vantage Information

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