I recently asked a long-standing Aston Martin employee what the most obvious difference was between the firm he works for today and the one he joined more than 15 years ago. His answer was instant: “It’s the sheer pace of things – it’s absolutely incredible.” And anyone who has followed Aston’s fortunes since former Nissan executive Dr Andy Palmer took over as CEO in late 2014 is likely to agree.
Arriving the year after the marque celebrated its centenary, he swiftly implemented his “second-century plan”, based on introducing seven new models over seven years, each with a seven-year production span. Palmer’s aim, he told How To Spend It in 2016, is to hear Aston Martin spoken of as a purveyor not just of sports cars, but of a complete luxury lifestyle with the same resonance as Hermès or Louis Vuitton – to which end he has kickstarted the building of an exclusive residential development in Miami, instigated the Art of Living programme, set Aston Martin Consulting on the road to designing premium powerboats and submersibles and established a female advisory board to keep him in touch with what women want.
As well as all that, he’s addressed the core car‑ manufacturing side of the business and given it a whipping-into-shape that’s resulted in the most diverse model range in the firm’s history. “In the past three years, we’ve created 20 per cent of all the body types the company has produced since 1913,” he says.
Before he arrived it was difficult to see a great deal of difference between the compressed model range that existed, but now clear parameters have been laid for cars to cover the segments of sports, GT and “super GT” with a petrol-engined SUV – potentially to be called Varekai – that’s due to go into production next year at the firm’s new St Athan factory in Wales.
In the past three years, meanwhile, Aston has entered the lucrative market for ultra-low-volume, high-priced collectors’ “specials” with cars such as the £1.8m track-only Vulcan – of which 24 were made – and a series of 25 “continuation” versions of the DB4GT from 1959, costing around £1.5m apiece. The £2m Valkyrie hybrid hypercar is currently in the pipeline, and at last month’s Geneva motor show it was announced that a series of luxury, all-electric vehicles will be produced under the Lagonda name that Aston Martin has owned since 1947.
It’s starting to sound like a potential case of too much, too soon, but figures released last month tell a different story – that Aston Martin has made a profit for the first time in a decade, selling 5,100 cars during the 2017/18 financial year to account for EBITDA of around £207m from revenues of more than £840m. Palmer puts much of this down to the success of the DB11 launched two years ago, the grand tourer successor to the ageing and outclassed DB9, in production since 2004. Now, in line with the second-century plan, a potentially even more important new model is about to hit the streets: the all‑new Vantage, Aston’s latest, sports-orientated, two-seat coupé.
The significance of this car should not be overlooked. Since 1951, when the badge was first used on versions of the DB2 to denote a high-output engine option, Vantage has become synonymous with Aston’s quickest, edgiest cars. Save for a brief appearance on the six-cylinder DBS of 1972, however, it did not become a specific model name until the 2005 V8 Vantage I reviewed here at launch, quoting Aston Martin’s then chairman, Dr Ulrich Bez, as saying: “The problem we have is that the shape is so perfect we don’t know what we could do to improve it.”
That first-generation Vantage became the most successful Aston Martin of all time, with 25,000 cars sold in a 12-year production run that included the original V8 version and a later V12 option – and its lines certainly wore well, remaining attractive today from almost any angle.
Even Bez might have to agree, however, that this latest car looks even better, thanks to an entirely new, more aerodynamic shape that takes more than a little of its appearance from the 10 V8 Vantage-based DB10s created for the Bond film Spectre (see “The Spectre spectacular Aston Martin DB10” on Howtospendit.com).
Under the skin it’s a different car altogether, utilising its own version of the bonded-aluminium chassis first seen on the DB11 that houses a twin-turbo, four-litre, 503hp V8 engine supplied by Mercedes AMG (which holds a five per cent stake in Aston Martin), and driving through an eight-speed, ZF automatic gearbox, which, as is the modern sports-car way, can be overridden with manual paddle-shifters. By the end of this year, a traditional manual transmission option will be made available in a bid expected to attract purist drivers seeking the more connected feel of changing gear in the old-fashioned way.
For now, however, Palmer believes the automatic setup could help the Vantage broaden Aston’s reach by tempting more female buyers than the outgoing model, which singularly failed to attract women: no fewer than 94.4 per cent of the V8s and 98.9 per cent of V12s built between 2011 and 2017 went to men. “I think the automatic transmission will be the most popular because there is a trend in that direction; we chose to introduce the car only in that format initially because we want it to appeal to as wide a range of people as possible. About 50 per cent of the cars we sell in China go to women, for example, and one of the key rationales behind using that gearbox was to make the car less intimidating to drive on a daily basis.”
I first got behind the wheel of the new Vantage on a rain-soaked March morning at Portugal’s Portimao race circuit. With standing water on the surface, it seemed sensible to leave the car in the gentlest of its three dynamic settings (Sport, Sport Plus and Track) to avoid any embarrassing spins. But the first impression sitting in the new, 195mph, £120,900 Vantage was that, while Palmer wants it to appear “less intimidating”, it is not a mollycoddling sports car that does it all for the driver.
For a start, there’s a rich exhaust note that’s been allowed to make itself heard in the cockpit (and that any V8 fan will appreciate). Then there’s the suspension that, even on its most restrained setting, certainly favours grip over comfort. And most notably, the truly eye-opening torque of the engine quickly indicates that, while the traction control systems on the Vantage do their stuff, they are designed to kick in later than on other sports cars. “You’re right,” says Palmer. “It is a much naughtier machine than people have come to expect from modern cars, many of which have become very good, but also soulless. We could have tuned out a great deal of the soul of the Vantage, but we chose not to because it is intended to be the expression of the Aston Martin sports car.”
As it powered down Portimao’s long straight at 140mph with the windscreen wipers going full tilt, jinked into the first right-hander and – thanks in part to its new electronic differential – somehow managed to find some rear-wheel grip on the subsequent hairpin, the Vantage certainly felt a bit naughtier than I was expecting. And proved itself to be a superbly capable track car that must be a dream to drive around a circuit in the dry.
In the real world, however, such a test is almost irrelevant, since most new Vantages are likely to spend the majority of their lives prowling the streets of the world’s financial quarters – and yes, this car should be pretty happy doing that too, if the following day’s road drive was anything to go by. On the open highway, the Vantage is smooth, surprisingly comfortable and, due to that twin-turbo engine, unexpectedly economical when driven gently. From a practical perspective, the hatchback rear door opens to reveal sufficient space for two sets of golf clubs (the long-recognised benchmark of the “every day” sports car) and there’s appreciably more headroom than in the old model thanks to a lower seating position.
But while potential Vantage buyers will doubtless welcome such features, the deal-maker won’t be the car’s practicality, but its pace. Which, as that long-standing Aston employee might say, is absolutely incredible.