Aston Martin – Stirred But Not Shaken By Philip Cayford
As I watched an array of supercars strutting their stuff, some heavily disguised, at the Milbrook Testing centre in Bedfordshire, the question was inevitably raised – if you had to choose just one supercar to the exclusion of all others, which one would it be? The fabulous Ferrari 458, crackling sex on wheels at 200 mph? The mind-blowing Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse, faster still at 254 mph, described by one (biased) reviewer as “the most pointless exercise on the planet” and by another as the best car ever made? One of the insane Pagani collection? The awesome Maclaren F1? The Lambo Aventador? Or even the safe and dependable Porsche GT3, fifty years into its evolution and still looking as distinctive today as it did back in the 1960s?
Or would you prefer something slightly different? A car you can drive any day, anywhere. Quintessentially British, a car that exudes quality and luxury, but that will also carry you effortlessly to, and beyond, 200 mph. A design classic, with a race pedigree that dates back a hundred years to the early hill climbs in leafy Buckinghamshire, victory at Le Mans 1933, more Le Mans victories in the 1950s and once again on the Le Mans podium in 2013? A car whose iconic status was assured when the silver screen 007 chose it over his 3 ½ litre Bentley, and above all others, back in 1964? A car that epitomises Bond, and is British to the core, suave, sophisticated and elegant? Yes, Aston Martin.
Every English schoolboy since the 1960s has dreamt of being James Bond, and having the Aston to go with it. They still do, even if the present generation prefers the DB9 to the revitalised Skyfall DB5. Never mind, they are both pure Aston Martin.
There is a timelessness about Aston Martin. It is as if, within its DNA, the company can only build classic, beautiful cars. Most Astons look as gorgeous today as the moment they rolled out of the factory. Was the DBR1 (only 5 built) the prettiest racing car ever made? Possibly, but only if you think it was better looking than the DB3S. Will the CC 100 be gracing the Aston Martin museums in 2023? You bet it will. Alongside everything built in the David Brown years, the 1994 DB7 and the stunning range of cars produced under current chief designer, Marek Reichman.
Aston’s history has been exotic and often troubled; it has constantly flirted with bankruptcy and has been bought and sold more times than anyone can remember. Yet the cars, almost without exception, have been gorgeous, revered and coveted. As Marek Reichman says, “Somehow everyone loves our cars. Take a German supercar to South London and someone will key it. Take an Aston and you get a forest of thumbs up.”
So there it is. I can come off the fence. Having driven many of the supercars on the road today (and having watched Clarkson and Hammond burble and holler their way through the rest) the one supercar I would save (if I had to choose just one) would sport an Aston Martin badge on the long bonnet. That part of the decision was not difficult. But far harder is this question, which one?
To help make this critical, if ultimately fantastical decision, Aston Martin invited a group of like-minded souls to Milbrook last week, to test four of the current crop. No Zogato, no One 77, no convertibles and no CC100 unfortunately, but the new Vantage V12, DB9, Vanquish S and Rapide S were glinting in the sun as we arrived, surrounded by a posse of tame racing drivers sporting Aston badged shirts and the look of men who enjoyed the day job.
Millbrook is a patchwork quilt of race circuits – on road, off road, gravel, mud, rumble strips, a high speed parabolic bowl, a tight race track, an Alpine pass road, the drag strip, and much more. It is designated a secret location; your mobile phone is taped up by security staff at the gate to prevent prying paparazzi from identifying the new model Ferrari FF covered in zebra stripes as it thunders round the oval speed bowl.
Each of our cars carried the mighty 6 litre V12 engine, each putting out plus or minus 560 horse power. Each had hand-made and stitched leather cabins, firm seats that gave support and perfect driving positions. Each had an array of settings to suit your mood, ranging from normal to extreme sport – changing the settings, the revs per gear change, the exhaust note – and each car was reassuringly expensive. If you need to ask, the sales department know a man who runs a bank. The process of buying a new Aston must be sublime. No cars are built on spec for the dealers to flog; each new customer has a bewildering array of colour and specification to choose, followed by the unbearable agony of waiting for the car to be hand built. Most of this happens at the new plant in Gaydon, Warwickshire – Newport Pagnall is now a distant memory – although the engines are still built in Germany.
First up was the V12 Vantage – the out and out 2 seater with no pretensions to carrying babies, dogs or golf clubs in the snug cabin. Being the lightest, the kindly racing drivers gave us that one for the drag strip – a no-holds slam down the mile straight with a Mulsanne bend at the end of it. Now, no road Aston can keep up with a Pagani or Bugatti Veyron on a standing mile but at 0-60 in 4.1 seconds, and as the car was still accelerating strongly through 160 mph as it passed the ¾ mile mark – otherwise known as the braking point – that didn’t seem to matter. These cars sound glorious and are fast – very fast. If you need more, speak to Aston’s competitions department, who can sell you a GT4 Challenge for around £130,000, ready to race. The only car in our test with a conventional clutch and six speed manual gearbox, the Vantage felt more like the older generation of sports car than the others; the gear stick’s days may be numbered but holding a piece of metal directly attached to the gearbox gives you a sense of connection with the car and its power that some may miss in the two pedal versions.
Then came the new DB9, still the prettiest sports car on the road according to many. It has filled out a little since its introduction in 2004, a few edges padded out here and there, but the line has remained exquisite and it has a fair bit more room in the hand-stitched leather cabin than its smaller brother. Like the others, it punches some 565 horse power and tops out at close to 200 mph, probably enough for most road conditions.
For your typical DB9 driver, it had to be the fast Milbrook Alpine track. Balance, smooth power, speed and awesomely good ceramic brakes instil total confidence from the outset. These cars are easy to drive fast; the grip from the Pirelli zeros is phenomenal and far exceed the capabilities of all but the hardest of weekend racing drivers. 100 mph sweeping bends, a blind down hill, little flicks from left hander to right hander and full throttle acceleration were all accomplished with a minimum of effort, as the tame racing drivers guided us through the racing line and, in my case at least, pandered to the ego in calm reassuring terms. Any suggestion of the choppy ride some reviewers disliked in the earlier models has long gone; it is frankly hard to fault this car at any level.
Only halfway around the second lap did the JCB appear, without warning and very close. Visions of The Italian Job flashed in front of my eyes as I grabbed for the ceramics; calmly, without fuss, nearly 2 tons of metal slowed to walking pace in just 3 seconds. What the yellow peril was doing on the track remained a mystery, but it was a timely reminder that getting to 140 mph on a country road is the easy bit, and it is easy to be seduced by the effortless capability of these cars.
Next came the new Vanquish S, the car Aston call the best sports car in the world. Is it? Maybe. It looks amazing, all bold lines, raked for speed, a wide menacing front end, and more road presence than anything that has ever come out of Germany. It is designer Marek Reichman’s gentle evolution of the standard Aston shape into something slightly edgier, more contemporary, without losing that indefinable Aston magic.
It is a wide car – not ideal for Devon lanes but brilliant for a blast to Montenegro and back. Or the streets of London or Monte Carlo, in a way that its predecessor was not. The days of the burnt-out Vanquish clutch are long gone – in fact, all these cars displayed remarkable docility at low speeds. All apart from the Vantage had automatic gearboxes with the paddle change over-ride, quick and smooth, a user-friendly option that really does give the best of all worlds and will surely see the phasing out of the conventional gear stick in the not-too-distant future. The extra width gives it remarkable comfort levels – driver and passenger can both swivel their shoulders at the same time and talk to each other with space to spare. Both heir and spare, up to about 10 or 12 years old, will survive perfectly well, and in some comfort, at the back of the cabin. This was a lovely car to drive, solid, responsive and direct. At 140 mph on the banked Oval track, the car sat firmly on the tarmac, masses of power in hand. On the Alpine roads, it was a joy; the exhaust note in Sport mode playing tunes through the trees and the massive grip never letting go even at very high speed.
Finally, the new Rapide S – for me, the biggest revelation of the day. It looks like an Aston should – based upon the beautiful lines of the DB9 and only ten inches longer – which is a compliment, not a criticism; why play around with lines like that having seen what Porsche did to the Panamera? The cabin exudes the same aura of affluence, power and elegance that each of our cars did – but this one takes 4 adults in comfort, especially if the rear passengers are less than 6 foot 2. What was so impressive about the Rapide was how much like the others it was to drive. Never mind the extra weight, this was as good as the DB9 on the Alpine track (I came to love that road by the end of the day!) and having the most room, was probably the car I enjoyed most. Certainly the one to choose if both of you play golf and are planning to use the car on the school run. Aston’s chief platform engineer Paul Barritt told Car magazine that he was trying to give the car a Jekyll and Hyde character, and he certainly has. It is fabulous.
So there it is. Four Aston Martins, each one a classic. The single most desirable supercar in the world, at least if you want to drive it a lot. But which one do you choose? It depends. The DB9 is the most beautiful, a timeless British icon. A complete car in every respect, a car to take you and your partner of choice to the most exotic locations in the world, to arrive stirred but not shaken. The Vantage is smaller, more manoeuvrable, a pure sports car (especially in V12 guise) and with its manual gearbox, the one for purists. The Vanquish has a bit more bling about it, more dramatic, more Le Mans, the Alps and San Remo than the Surrey golf course. But it will do either. Impeccably. Or the Rapide S. If you really want to take your under-age heirs on a high speed trip to Tuscany, look no further. Leave the Range Rover in the garage. You won’t regret it.