The car industry is (finally) waking up to the fact that nearly half of all drivers are women. RAC’s Technical Director, David Bizley, said that the UK has seen a boom in women drivers over the last 25 years, and recent research reveals that women play a major part in the purchase of seven out of ten cars. One of the world’s most influential men in the car industry, former Executive Vice President of Nissan Dr. Andy Palmer, has just taken over the driving seat at Aston Martin as CEO, which is not only great news for this iconic car brand, but also for women. Dr. Palmer recently noted research showing that half of all women are unhappy with their cars and that three quarters feel ‘‘misunderstood.’’ Firms are failing to make cars that appeal to females – paying more attention to a car’s horsepower than to the effect of high heels on leg-room and whether seats fit women’s backs better than men’s. Motor industry bosses must learn to make cars that women want, Dr. Palmer admitted.
Today, of the 35.2 million drivers on the road in the UK, 16.3 million (some 46%) are women. So as an enthusiastic member of that 46%, I was delighted to be asked by Aston Martin to experience the launch of this year’s brand new Vanquish Volante Super GT, along with the beautiful four-door Rapide S sports car in and around the Scottish Highlands. An iconic brand in an iconic location – and a woman driver!
For the backdrop and drive, Aston Martin had chosen 200 miles of open road around the stunning Loch Ness trail, taking in picturesque villages in the surrounding area, including Beauly, Braemore, Dundonnell, Autlbea and Cannick.
First up was the Vanquish. As well as some motorway and dual carriageway (where we were allowed to unleash some of this supercar’s 568 horsepower), we idled through small towns, soaking up the landscape at 30 mph.
Even at the low speeds, I was able to appreciate the smoothness and comfort of the Volante, as well as the obvious respect from passers-by at traffic lights! Let’s not forget this is a brand that Cubby Broccoli chose for James Bond in one of his first movies, Goldfinger.
Monday saw the launch of a gold third-scale replica of that iconic DB5 (going under the hammer in an online auction to benefit the NSPCC), fifty years on from the film’s initial release, and even today Eon Productions continues to use Aston Martins in their James Bond movies. The latest 007, Daniel Craig, most recently drove a DB5 in Skyfall.
Last year, Aston Martin celebrated its 100th birthday, despite having been on the brink of extinction several times. A testament indeed to the iconic design of the cars and to the people who have spent years working with the brand. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of driving with John Muirhead, Brand Communications Manager at Aston Martin for the last twenty years. I wanted to know what it was about the cars that had kept him at the same company for so long. “For me, it’s more than a brand – it’s a way of life,” he told me. “No other brand really gives me the same thrill and the same pleasure.” A testament indeed!
Having only driven a V8 Vantage Aston Martin before (“only!” I hear you say), I was keen to see whether this 6.0-litre V12 beast of an engine that now pushes the Vanquish in excess of 200 miles an hour (322 km/h) really does give you a thrill – or whether it is in fact just a “blokey thing” that men who watch Top Gear talk about amongst themselves. I also wanted to know whether a price tag of £205,000 can really be worth it, even for something as beautiful as these cars undoubtedly are.
Well, within a few thrilling minutes I knew the answer. Frankly, if I knew the code I would definitely have joined the boys’ club, but for now I can only start my own girls’ club! Forget the high heels girls, as you really need flatties to squeeze the exhilarating acceleration from this wonderful beast (0-100 km/h in 3.8 seconds – down from 4.1 seconds in the previous generation, I am told).
The improvements to the Vanquish include a new Touchtronic III eight-speed automatic gearbox, the first time that this state-of-the-art box has been placed towards the rear of the axle – which is to improve not only the car’s performance but also its fuel economy.
Before we set off, John Muirhead showed us an exposed axle with engine and gearbox, which really put this car into perspective for me. We were told this new automatic gearbox now gives exceptional shift speed and moves between ratios as quick as 130 milliseconds – far quicker than even the most accomplished racing driver is capable of! Allied to a raft of other detail improvements and new colour and trim options, as well as a decrease of 11% C02 emissions, this was good enough for me.
First impressions? Clearly, the modern cars are still very reminiscent of those classics they built back in the fifties and sixties, with smooth lines and tight curves. But every body panel is now made from carbon fibre, and the interiors are also pretty special. The smell of soft leather, the hand-stitching and the attention to detail of the cabin is really a work of art. And as the weather was particularly clement for a Scottish summer, I was lucky to be given the Volante, probably one of the best looking cars I have ever seen. Or was it the Devine Red body with Fandango Pink stitching inside that took my vote?
The sound of the Vanquish engine brought to mind the vision of a highly strung stallion, rearing to go. You feel that unless you take full control, it will almost run away with you. It doesn’t of course, and its responsiveness and steering is very impressive. Luckily for me, my co-driver John Muirhead was able to explain the new transmission with its “paddle shift” and “paddle shift sport” options for greater driving involvement, as well as adaptive Drive Recognition that tailors shift points to a driver’s individual style. Once I got to grips with that, I was able to really put this car through its paces.
Our course through the Scottish highlands took us on varied roads at variable speeds and I was able to push the car as far as I dared. The ride is sublime, extremely smooth and the car really does grip the road, handling the corners around the Scottish lochs with great ease. With its looks, smoothness and acceleration (which Aston Martin says makes the Vanquish the quickest accelerating production car in the company’s history), it’s hard to come up with any criticism at all. If I must, I would have to say that I found the speedometer incredibly difficult to read in open sunlight and the side mirrors whistled at high speeds. Other than that, I was utterly hooked.
At this stage, I must not only congratulate (and thank) Aston Martin for inviting us to stay at Aldourie Castle but also to make a point of highlighting this impressive building, which has recently undergone a £10 million development to its 57 rooms and 2000 works of art. Each room is unique and meticulously decorated in a baronial and Scottish style. Set in 500 acres, the gardens run down to the shore of Loch Ness and we were are able to sit around a campfire late into the night drinking fine whisky. Heaven – and a perfect end to the day.
The Castle itself sleeps 23 in 13 en-suite bedrooms and you can either hire the entire castle or take four luxury holiday cottages independently. The staff are there for your every whim and the food is delicious. My four poster bed and room were resplendent with old oak furniture and luxury Scottish décor. Waking up in the tower overlooking Loch Ness (no sightings that morning!) to the aroma of frying bacon and Scottish kippers was a great start for a new day and a test of the revamped Rapide S.
I spoke to Aston Martin’s Design Director Marek Reichman, and asked him how he comes up with new ideas to improve the already-iconic design of the cars. He told me that “in your mind, you see these objects moving – they’re dynamic things. It’s important to say that Aston Martins will always be beautiful, and the technology has to be a part of who we are and what we are as a company.”
The Rapide S is no exception to this, and the modifications are the same as those made to the Vanquish. As a driving experience, it was hard to tell the cars apart. Marek told me the changes add a more spirited edge to the existing luxury. With its new eight-speed gearbox and stiffened suspension, I would never call the Rapide S a touring car, or even a family car. It’s purely and simply a four-door sports car that delights and thrills those who have earned a real reward for working hard.
Whether it’s the new leather trim colour options, including contemporary blue/black Dark Knight and bold Fandango Pink, or the optional new Duotone leather seat finish in Sahara Tan or Vibrant Red with mix quilting in fine leathers or Alcantara, it doesn’t matter. The Rapide S and its sister, the Vanquish, are the top of the leader board. They are gorgeous! Whether you fancy yourself as Emma Peel from The Avengers or James Bond himself, good things in life are worth waiting for, regardless of whether you are a male petrol head or a female luxury connoisseur. These cars really are the dream ticket! Persuade that husband of yours (only if he has the cheque book, of course) that one or the other of these is the car to buy, not just for him, but for you too!
For more information, go to www.astonmartin.com.
The Vanquish Volante
Price: from £204,995
Engine: 6.0 litre AM29 V12
Torque: 568 bhp
Top Speed: 201 mph
The Rapide S
Price: from £147,950
Engine: 6.0 litre AM29 V12
Torque: 552 bhp
Top Speed: 203 mph