Aston Martin Vantage V12 S: Monster almost tameable

By Matt Greenop

Across the endless dry desert of the American southwest in a decidedly British sports car

The V12 Vantage S was built by Aston Martin to be usable for a competent driver and not too scary.
The V12 Vantage S was built by Aston Martin to be usable for a competent driver and not too scary.

The old blokes in leisure suits and their 20-something girlfriends with designer dogs in designer handbags were left far behind in one of California's favourite playgrounds for the rich and aimless, Palm Springs.

As interesting a destination as this desert resort town is - especially if your interests include spending vast amounts of money and trotting around with bite-sized "dogs" - when you've got 12 cylinders of Britain's finest burbling away just in front of you, and the promise of long, fast, flat desert roads just over the hill, it's time to be on your way.

Old Blue Eyes used to entertain the Rat Pack in Palm Springs, and while the wall of noise of the cars wasn't exactly crooner calm, I'm sure he would have approved as a half-dozen V12 Vantage Ss made the sensible decision and headed for the heat.

Turning the opposite way would have led the group past thousands of huge wind turbines, and that just didn't seem appropriate.

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The Vantage is the baby of the Aston range, but most babies don't pack this sort of punch. It started life with a V8, before CEO Ulrich Bez wondered what the little GT would be capable of with one of the company's V12s under the bonnet. Turns out, quite fast. The V12 Vantage definitely put the power in place but the car itself, while astoundingly quick and initially rather terrifying, wasn't what you'd call a solid sports car.

So Aston Martin have again pushed, ever so slightly, out of their "big-donk, rear drive, Bond me" comfort zone, and with the "S" version of V12 Vantage have built what can only be labelled a sports car; a solid step sideways from its range of very fast gran tourers.

On paper, it's an animal; on the road, it's a rabid one that had a bad night's sleep. And with a 100 years of racing behind it, Aston have made this little monster almost tameable.

It's powered by the same V12 engine that debuted last year in the stunning Vanquish coupe, spitting out 422kW - up from the old V12 Vantage's 380kW, and serving up 620Nm, 50 more. These tweaks in themselves would necessitate some major changes in engineering to keep the car on the road, but with a stroppy new engine management system it makes nearly all of this torque from a measly 1000rpm.

That equates to a 3.9 second slingshot to 100km/h, more than half a second faster. Top speed is 330km/h, making it the quickest Aston Martin that could be obtained with a good lottery win. The actual fastest - and extremely limited - car is the showpiece One-77. There's one in New Zealand that's insured for more than $2.8 million.

Getting this generous bucket of power to the road has been made possible with a new Sportshift III automated manual gearbox, which is 20kg lighter to start, and offers an extra cog. This is a big improvement on the slightly jerky system that it replaces, although full-attack acceleration does benefit from a slight lift off the accelerator, with the column-mounted paddles flicking each gear past in under 70 milliseconds.

This probably explains why the call of sticky hot desert roads was so strong, and the wish that the local constabulary had taken the day off for sightseeing.

The last few miles of urban sprawl offered the first real contrast between the V12 S and its stablemate.

Getting power down off the lights with any degree of stealth can be difficult in machines that contain this much power with a robo-manual, and it's still not super-subtle, but a huge improvement on the old V12.

The Aston Martin Vantage's tidy V12 engine generates an impressive 620Nm of torque at a mere 1000rpm.
The Aston Martin Vantage's tidy V12 engine generates an impressive 620Nm of torque at a mere 1000rpm.

Adaptive suspension lets the driver pick from Normal, Sport and Track, and while Sport was fine for most surfaces, the extra stiffness of the Track setting didn't exactly keep things settled over lateral bumps, even with the recalibrated stability control. But when things do get a bit hairy, the massive - at 398mm there's no other polite way to describe them - carbon ceramic brakes pull the V12 S up easily. A bit more brake feel is always wanted after driving cars with traditional brake rotors, but the grab was very progressive and pushing down a little more the carbon dinner plates responded with as much braking ability as you could ever need.

Perhaps the bloke who smashed his Rapide into the bank on Auckland's Tamaki Drive this week should have ticked that box when he ordered the car.

The one thing that really stood out on my 450-odd kilometre desert blast was the immense amount of grip. Sure, a 911 or the right kind of prancing horse would stick a little bit more, and point to point would be a touch quicker.

On top of the tricked-up suspension, the whopping great Aston-custom 295 Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres wrapped around the well-rendered spoked lightweight rims gave no quarter, especially with the road at temperatures that we won't see in New Zealand until global warming really gets its act together.

The drive route was staggering, with long twisting mountain passes only interrupted by other road users only too happy to get out of the way and let the Astons through.

But once off the beaten track, heading down off the mountains and into the desert below, things really get interesting.


Heading over a blind crest, the rocky walls and odd farm led up to a drop off that left breakfast in the air before dropping into the well-cooked canyon via dozens of perfectly sculpted curves that were so well made and so well suited to a short-ish wheelbase car like the Vantage that the huge drop-offs on the outsides of corners may as well have been marshmallow pillows. It didn't really matter what was around the next corner, the chassis is so well balanced, even with the weighty six-litre V12 sitting at the front end, that turning was razor sharp, and if it got too tight, a tiny bit more steering input and a stab on the accelerator would simply push the back end into line and settle it down again.

The V12 is reasonably heavy, at 1660kg, but it's very low and very taut and can eat up road surface at a near-alarming pace. The 55mph speed limits became somewhat of a guideline at times, with fairly quick runs up and down the hills and long, arrow-straight sections that allowed the car to thoroughly stretch its legs, always feeling like it just wanted to keep going. Heading up the rev range towards gear changes north of 6500rpm got the freshened and faster engine singing, with an exhaust back box derived from the One-77 giving it a unique sound among the other Astons, befitting a car that doesn't quite play by the same rules.

Bez is adamant that he's created a sportscar rather than a GT and it's difficult to make an argument against that. Sure, it's got a lot of the creature comforts you'd expect in a car that'll set you back a few hundred grand and some, but where weight could be saved it has been.

Aston Martin V12 Vantage S.
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S.

One gets the sense that Bez considered the V12 S an exercise in engineering and accepts that it was a challenge for the company's boffins. In his late 60s and showing no signs of slowing down - regular drives at the Nurburgring 24 Hours ably demonstrates this - Bez shows the sort of passion that a CEO in this end of the market needs. Sitting down for well-earned refreshment after a hot day of hard and fast driving, he whipped out his cellphone to show me a picture of his tyres following a fang up the hill. Needless to say, they got very warm indeed.

Bez's enthusiasm for Aston, and the car world at large, is infectious - he met a hillbilly the day before who had an ingenious chainsaw motor-driven bicycle that he thought was the greatest piece of automotive innovation he'd seen in years.

It doesn't need to be a hand-built luxury sportscar to appeal, and this attitude is noticeable throughout all of the Aston team who were in Palm Springs. This pet project has furnished Aston with a desirable go-fast model that is slightly ill-mannered in comparison to its composed and dignified GT stablemates.

While the general consensus is that it would be too much of a handful as a daily driver, with the automated manual able to be put in D for Duh and left alone, it is possible. A manual 'box fitted to the car could have been a real revelation, but Bez believes that there's no need for a traditional H-block shifter.

"When we first had the V12 in the small car as a concept in 2007, fitted with a race engine with 650hp, it was undrivable - much too much on the road," explains Bez.

"It has to be civilised and, in this edition, it's very satisfying. As exciting as a manual transmission can be, to really drive precise and fluid and fast, changing corners and radiuses - it's far faster to shift with paddles. I don't say this because I can't shift manual.

"If you drive it like it can be driven, and don't have traffic so you can really use these roads, it's an absolute delight.

"If there's traffic you'll still find it's a nice car to drive, but it kicks off with the clear road. It's important for me that it's still controllable and still usable - it's not frightening you."

Well, maybe a little bit, but in a good way. Kiwi Aston Martin distributor Greg Brinck of Independent Prestige says the base price of the V12 Vantage S will be from $320,000 when it arrives at the beginning of 2014.

Aston Martin V12 Vantage S. Photo / Supplied
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S. Photo / Supplied

- NZ Herald

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