Across a lean reindeer steak and a surprisingly good Riesling in the only Scottish-run Irish pub in Arvidsjaur, there’s one question in particular I want to ask Aston Martin’s Mark Barron and Matt Becker: why now?
It will be another nine months before the brand new Vantage is unveiled to its baying public, and another year, if not more, before a journalist sits behind the wheel of, what company CEO Andy Palmer refers to as, “a huge step” and “the most beautiful car [he’s] ever been involved in designing” (see sidebar). But why involve the media now, during a stability control systems test in Sweden? Why not just wait?
“We really wanted to get you guys involved in the process,” explains Matt, chief engineer of vehicle engineering. “To invite you and let you see how the Vantage can behave and perform in these conditions, and how much of a challenge they really are. Something like this demonstrates the full range of capabilities and we wanted to bring you on at least part of the journey.”
“But we’re also very excited by this too,” continues Mark, Aston’s go-to on stability control systems. “Involving the media and getting the buzz going early that the Vantage is going to be something very special.”
‘Buzz’. Make no mistake, the significance of the new Vantage in Aston’s ‘Second Century Plan’ is colossal. Behind last year’s new DB11, and ahead of the more brutal Vanquish set to arrive in 2019, the new, more performance-focused Vantage – no longer a ‘baby’ DB – is the biggest step yet towards Aston Martin’s resurgence as a credible rival to Bentley, Porsche, and maybe even Ferrari (seriously, check out the sidebar) thanks to a planned, broader diversification of products. A crucial stage of which is this test of the sports car’s stability controls in Sweden.
“It’s effectively hitting the reset button,” Matt explains, nursing his burger. “Previously it was very confused. I mean, you drive some of the current Astons today, and it’s difficult to fully tell their characters apart: the Rapide is a really nice handling car, but the ride can, and in fact should, be more comfortable. You drive a DB9, and it was a bit too punchy and not GT enough. So this is all about trying to push the cars back into the positions they need to be. That’s a gradual process, but I’d say the Vantage, at the moment, is about 60/70 per cent of the way there.”
“It will be another nine months before the brand new Vantage is unveiled to its baying public, and another year, if not more, before a journalist sits behind the wheel.”
Ironically, it’s this significance that makes our introduction to the prototype Vantage all the more comical. There’s no myriad camera flashes as the silks are dropped, nor a hint of the Lime Essence ‘communication colour’ that will split the room nine months later. Instead, behind a shuttered door at the Arvidsjaur winter testing facility, the heavily camouflaged mule we’re here to see – AM600 – sits beside two-dozen small packing crates, a spare set of heavily grooved tyres and a discarded fire blanket. It’s as ‘un-Aston’ like as you can get…
Cosmetically more DB11 than Vantage for now, the restyled headlights, new side gills and gorgeous flowing rear bodywork are still some months away from being finalised, but we’re assured the 4-litre bi-turbo V8 beneath is good to go, bar a gruff soundtrack that still needs fine-tuning. Indeed, the AMG-sourced eight cylinders – which replace the predecessor’s naturally aspirated unit – now sit lower and further back for improved 50:50 weight distribution and a lower centre of gravity. The test team keep rigidly schtum about performance figures, explaining only that the V8 will give ‘around 500bhp’ (it’s actually 503bhp) and will hit 0-100kph in ‘3.8, ish’ (later confirmed as 3.6, four-tenths quicker than the outgoing model).
“We’re assured the 4-litre bi-turbo V8 beneath is good to go, bar a gruff soundtrack that still needs fine-tuning.”
The chassis on which the engine and new eight-speed ZF transmission is mounted shares the same basic architecture as that found on the DB11, but is 230mm shorter and features up to 70 per cent new componentry for added precision. There’s almost laser-guided focus on agility, courtesy of brand new multi-link suspension and ‘Skyhook’ dampers at the back, a shorter – and thus more responsive – steering rack at the front, and the first ever E-Diff attached to a production Aston (“technically it’s given us a range of functionality and capability we’ve never had before, but basically it’s just us showing off!”).
The prolonged tease mercifully comes to an end as the (gruff) V8 is fired into life, Matt slides behind the wheel – I’m in the passenger seat – and the stud-shod Pirelli P-Zeros crunch their way over the snow towards the test track. The buzz in the air is difficult to ignore.
“Technically it’s given us a range of functionality and capability we’ve never had before. But basically it’s just us showing off!”
Almost all of the DB11 cabin has been ripped out, save the analogue speedometer, the P, R, N, D transmission buttons on the centre stack – which, sadly, won’t make the transition to the finished model – and a lifeless infotainment screen on the dashboard. There’s no hint of the restyled cabin that will be unveiled in November. Instead, there’s a complex web of wires snaking their way to a junction box next to my left boot – “try to avoid kicking that as that’s where we get most of our data from” – and a dramatically big and red ‘kill switch’ on the centre console, ‘just in case. Behind my left ear and beanie hat sits a half roll cage, and the leather-clad sport seats have been ripped out for four-way harnesses and buckets. Again, the focus is on precision and performance, emphasised as Matt flicks some switchgear to activate Sport+.
“By December we’ll be focusing on wet and dry road testing, and by then the engine calibration, the transmission, the chassis dynamics and the brakes will all have advanced. So the next test will check all these complex systems still work in these conditions, and to tune them a bit further.
“The [DB11] was brand new, and you’ll really see everything we learnt used in the Vantage. It’s just an evolution of the product. I mean, look at the 911, which has been going for many years because Porsche keeps learning from each new generation. You think, ‘they can’t make that better’, and of course, they then make it better!”
“There’s a complex web of wires snaking their way to a junction box by my left boot, plus a dramatically big and red ‘kill switch’ on the centre console. ‘Just in case’. “
Despite Mark having the wherewithal to explain all this whilst driving sideways, I hear almost none of this, my knuckles getting ever so much whiter as we traverse a 1.5km circuit, carved out of the ice – complete with hairpins and chicanes – that’s no wider than a two-car garage, at about 50kph. For lap two, Mark snaps right into Track mode, the back-end threatening to pirouette immediately, perilously close to the very substantial snow banks around us. There’s a little more sawing at the wheel required on this lap – Matt making a mental note about the Continental-sourced ESP and the build-up of snow in the front splitter as he does so – but there’s nowhere near the kind of histrionics having a performance-focused Aston Martin on ICE should entail. To club its true capability home, Matt even takes – and parks – the Vantage mule on a 45-degree ice slope. Successfully. Christ!
It’s difficult to fully gauge the capabilities from the passenger seat – my request to take over from Mark ‘if he’s tired’ is gently declined – but even despite the VERY sub-zero conditions, there’s no doubting the sharpness of the front end, Mark commenting that the new Vantage is considerably more nimble than its more podgy predecessor (cut the bells and whistles and the Vantage will weigh in at 1560kg). But then, of course, that’s not why we’re here today. We’re not here to test the agility of the Pirellis, the comfort of the ride or the outlandish grunt of the V8. We’re here to see a new era begin. To learn just how committed Aston Martin is to its next ‘century’. To feel the buzz, one that will have hit fever pitch come November. And this is just the beginning.
*Images courtesy of Aston Martin and Max Earey