Aston Martin Vanquish gets gold in Highland Games

By Matt Greenop

Aston Martin's screaming high-performance V12 doesn't give opponents any show at all.

From the outside there are few very noticeable differences but under the surface a host of changes have been made.
From the outside there are few very noticeable differences but under the surface a host of changes have been made.

Watching the ribbon road stretched around the loch, almost entirely unpopulated, for the first time I was truly thankful for the Commonwealth Games. Now don't get me wrong here, the only thing that really excites me about the Games is the fact our Kiwi athletes have punched well and truly above their weight. Other than that, the only things with wheels are propelled by lycra robots, and there's not a racecar to be seen.

But when you're blasting around the countryside atop a screaming high-performance V12, on roads that were seemingly cut from beside a huge lake beckoning you to just go a little, tiny bit quicker, it's nice to avoid a man in a blue hat. And the bulk of them were in Glasgow keeping the peace at the Games. So we played our own version around Inverness and Loch Ness. As pleased as I am that New Zealand won gold in the 30-mile Highland Fling, it's hard to take credit for something created by the passionate powermongers at Aston Martin's headquarters in Gaydon.

On the outside, there's not much to report. The Vanquish is still the broad-shouldered, swooping piece of GT artistry that the last one was. Scratch the surface though, and there are a host of changes that have taken an already impressive machine and honed it without giving away what Aston's design boss Marek Reichman calls "analogue motoring".

This is a good ethos but one that will eventually be regulated out the door by the European Union's hordes of enviro-countants, or hippies with calculators. Whichever way you want to look at it, as regulations on electronics, tree-cuddling and cottonwool safety increase, the days of a rear-drive car with 424kW that leaves it up to the driver to get things done are most certainly numbered. With new engines coming from a deal inked with the Mercedes-Benz AMG tuning arm, the beautiful sound of that 6-litre V12 as it graduates from angry rumble to bellowing psycho is going to give way to more muted turbocharged engines that will meet emissions requirements.

Photos: 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish

One welcome change underneath the Vanquish's oh-so-suave exterior is the 8-speed gearbox. This does help knock back some of the fuel consumption and emission figures that are changing the game for all European car companies. The Vanquish is now dipping under 300g of C02/km and has a 12.8L/100km thirst, says the European combined cycle. I don't quite know how they managed that, but suspect it was being driven by someone so hard of hearing that they weren't giving that engine the odd blast just to hear it. And while Aston Martin prides itself on this "ultimate GT" and its ability to be quite happy idling around town, it is blasting around roads like those the Scottish Highlands have to offer that makes it truly happy.

This 8-speed and new limited-slip differential give it the ability to waft off the line when discretion is required, and fly off it screaming all the way to a 323km/h top speed when not governed by the law of the land.

To fit this new transmission the whole rear subframe has been redesigned, altering the geometry of the independent double wishbone suspension, as well as slipping in some even sportier three-stage adaptive Bilstein dampers. This has tightened up the rear end which is now 31 per cent stiffer, say Gaydon's engineers, while the front gets a 12 per cent increase. Tucked in under the 20-inch rims are 398mm carbon ceramic rotors at the front and 360mm at the rear. Special order Pirelli P Zeros (255/30 front, 305/30 rear) stick the 1800kg machine to the ground - they're big feet, but the Vanquish does need a whopping amount of rubber on the road.

This has its advantages and disadvantages - especially on roads with poor surfaces - but if you want to play with the launch control system, or to check on the 3.6-second 0-100km/h time, it's pretty vital. As in New Zealand, the road surface in Scotland cuts up ugly occasionally. It did that a bit on a comprehensive 320km drive that took us from "base camp" at the lavishly restored Castle Aldourie on Loch Ness along fast and open roads up to Dundonell in the north, across to Gairloch and back to the castle via Achanalt and the Muir of Ord. After expecting a couple of cold and rainy days - and the unavoidable depression that comes from having a rear-driving GT monster to play with but weather than won't let the game get past level one - the sun shone non-stop and the temperature sat in the high 20s. Beautiful scenery that could, in parts, have been mistaken for the South Island unfolded around every bend. Ancient buildings were either crumbling back into the landscape or standing strong through hard work or expensive restoration. The haggis was excellent, just like cottage pie until you thought about what is actually in it; every dram of whisky made you feel a bit more local; and the bagpipes banging out Scotland the Brave proved far more bearable than they seem to be in New Zealand.

Scotland is a lot like Aotearoa - probably attributable to the weather on our visit as anything else - and aside from being populated by extremely friendly people who like a laugh as much as a belt of 25-year-old single malt, its roads are stunning but flawed.

On the coarser chip surfaces, often with contours that owe as much to an unyielding landscape as they do to ever-decreasing roading budgets, the relatively weighty Vanquish tracked under heavy braking with the carbon ceramics providing their almost unbelievable stopping power.

There's not much in the way of electronic intervention in this car - but dynamic stability control, ABS, EBD and hydraulic brake assist are as welcome when scrubbing off speed as the traction control and positive torque control are when you're putting it all back on again. It can require a bit of a fight occasionally, especially when the full host of fun buttons are pushed - the adaptive damping system is stiffened up, paddle shifters take over the 8-speed and and the pair of new Bosch ECUs let their very best rows of 1s and 0s out. The changes to the engine's calibration have given it only a small power boost but have pushed up the torque to 630Nm and flattened the torque curve out to a nicely linear serving that helps keep the car in perfect balance. It's pretty good there already, with just a 1 per cent bias to the front, courtesy of the heavy V12 living under such a long bonnet and being mounted as far back as possible.

This makes it surprisingly nimble around the tight and twisty stuff - the changes have let it turn in more sharply and give far more lateral grip, even when it's getting up towards maximum grunt at its 6650rpm redline.

It's balanced enough that when you shove the accelerator into the carpet a moment too soon the potential of snap oversteer that the last version could sometimes surprise with is all but gone. But the Vanquish is insanely easy to correct, with anything nearing disastrous levels of slip quickly mitigated by however much intervention has been dialled in by the fun buttons.

After seeing the Vanquish production line at work in the Gaydon factory, the appreciation for just how much work goes into these machines is vastly increased. It's easy to be wowed by a perfect interior when the leather is cut by a laser and sewed by a machine, or a paintjob that's been completed by a robot and polished by another.

But when you've seen the perfect leather being carefully hand cut, sewn by machinists and put into place by hand, it's another thing entirely. Every corner of a console, the long curve of the dash and even the colour-coded leather inserts on the flappy paddles are done by hand.

That is why an Aston Martin Vanquish takes 225 hours to build, and 25 of that is polishing the paintwork so it picks up the sun on every little curve and line on the car.

If you're spending anything like the expected pricetag of $430,000 on a machine, it's those moments when you catch the perfect angle and the perfect light that the value of handbuilding makes itself known.

The level of pride exhibited by those workers on the production line, responsible for 4000 cars a year, is amazing.

Compared with the dwindling numbers of actual humans in the heavily automated factories at almost all vehicle manufacturers, it is a real blast from the past. The skill sets developed over Aston Martin's 101 years making its legendary sportscars and GTs are alive and well here. And that's mainly because those who work at Gaydon don't really want to go anywhere else. A few days before our arrival there was a retirement party for a worker who started there with his apprenticeship 50 years ago - so the traditional tricks of the trade remain, and the Aston Martin winged badge stays as exclusive as it's ever been.

- NZ Herald

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