FARO, Portugal — Torrential rain is pounding the Algarve, which shouldn’t happen. This part of southern Portugal is supposed to be sunny with blue skies for 360 days per year, but it’s been raining buckets for weeks.
High in the hills fog is settling in, smothering these sinewy roads and killing any hope of making rapid progress in Aston Martin’s newest sports car.
The V8 engine never gets a chance to roar; the traction control light blinks a hopeless Morse code. The steering goes light for a split second as the fat Pirellis skate over another puddle.
Emerging from the fog, the Aston looks like a shark swimming out of the murky deep.
The all-new 2019 Vantage is a direct shot at Porsche, at the venerable 911 Turbo, a machine which the German company has been steadily honing for 43 years.
By contrast, the Vantage has had a very different upbringing. The previous model languished in showrooms for 13 years, nearly double the normal lifespan of a vehicle, because the company didn’t have the money to develop a replacement.
Aston Martin’s dirty secret is that, for much of its 104-year history, its cars simply weren’t that good. Perhaps you’ve always lusted after one because you saw James Bond drive it, or maybe because you appreciate the brand’s rich racing history, or maybe it’s just that you’re shallow and you think Aston makes beautiful cars, which it usually has.
Even its worst cars were pretty — the Lagonda, the parts-bin Virage of the late ’80s, and the 1969 V8, which received only minor updates over its 20-year lifespan. (The Toyota-based Cygnet city car, however, is irredeemable.)
Aston Martin has gone bankrupt seven times.
“I’m aware of proper profits being made in only two of those (104) years. There were some break-even years, but no more than four,” says CEO Andy Palmer, who joined the company in 2014. In 2017, Aston Martin’s bottom-line profit was US$87-million, by far its most ever. “If you add it all together, we made more money that year than in the cumulated best years.”
Not only is the company now turning a profit, it’s doing it while investing heavily in research and development of new models, like the upcoming DBX crossover, electric Lagonda sedan, and a Ferrari 488-rivalling mid-engine car. None of this surprises Palmer. Soon after joining the company he laid out this master-plan and piece-by-piece it’s coming to fruition.
“The business model works, assuming of course that each car is successful,” he says.
The stakes are always high. The old Vantage was the best-selling model in the company’s history, but the design of this new one raised some eyebrows. The bright green paint on the launch cars signals Aston’s intent to go after younger buyers, design boss Marek Reichman explained.
The Vantage is the entry-point to Aston ownership, with a base price of $172,495 it will hope to attract buyers from the Porsche 911, Audi R8 and AMG GT — the car from which the Vantage’s V8 engine is sourced, due to a partnership with Mercedes.
Unlike the $254,195 flagship DB11 V-12 grand tourer, the Vantage is a straight-up sports car.
In the drizzling rain, the speedometer indicates 245 km/h on the main straight of the Portimao racetrack. Easing into the Vantage’s (optional) carbon-ceramic brakes there’s an unnerving lack of slowing-down going on as the first turn approaches. Standing on the brake pedal, they suddenly work like driving into a tar pit. In these cold, rainy conditions ceramic brakes struggle to get up to operating temperature.
The whole day is like this. The car is unable to operate at its best, to show off its full range of ability, but that makes it all the more impressive.
Turning into a double-apex right at over 140 km/h there’s a reassuring amount of feel. The car communicates clearly — through the steering wheel and seat — that it’s not about to spin off like a dreidel into the tire wall.
The steering doesn’t have the instant response of more track-focused machinery, but then it won’t re-arrange all your internal organs over a rough road either.
If you’re gentle with the throttle the rear wheels step out progressively, usably, just enough that you can wind off some steering lock. With the traction control halfway off, allowing more slip and yaw, the car remains progressive and highly controllable at the limit, proving it’s not just clever electronics saving the day. This is a well sorted chassis.
Even in the rain this V8-powered wedge is not a white-knuckle ride like, say, the twitchier AMG GT or the outgoing Vantage would be.
Aston has come from nowhere and made a credible rival to Porsche’s legendary 911 Turbo. The Vantage may not be quite as fast, but it’s more fun, more exciting and more beautiful.
A new electronically-controlled differential — a first for Aston — works in concert with torque vectoring to make this car’s performance so accessible. On the track’s penultimate corner, a long off-camber right, you can use more and more throttle without fear as the diff manages the power.
In a millisecond, the differential can go from open, to 1,800 lbs. of locking force. Open, it allows the rear wheels to spin independently, which aids agility. Fully locked, the wheels rotate at the same speed, aiding stability. Tuning when the diff opens and locks is a dark art, perfected here by Matt Becker, formerly of Lotus Cars.
The Vantage is not without issue. It’s not quite as quick as the all-wheel drive 911 Turbo from 0-100 km/h (3.6 seconds versus 3.0 for the German). The Brit is slightly down on power: 503 ponies versus 540. The Aston weighs roughly 1,640 kg with all lightweight options compared to 1,595 for the Turbo. And, the Mercedes-sourced infotainment and nav-system is not that company’s latest or greatest. But numbers never tell the whole story.
Craig Jamieson, the senior vehicle-engineering manager, explained the goal was to make a true driver’s car. It’s worth noting that Jamieson was the person responsible for the old V-12 Vantage S, a flawed but riotously fun Aston.
“A true driver’s car is all about engagement, communication,” he says. Attention has been paid to the details: like the longer shift paddles to control the ZF eight-speed automatic, getting 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, stiffening the chassis, lowering the seating position, and getting the cup holders just so.
“I know they’re quite important to Americans,” he says.
And, purists rejoice, the Vantage will eventually be available with a three-pedal stick-shift manual. There will be other Vantage variants too: a drop-top and a more track-focused AMR model too. There is technically room for a V-12 engine under the hood, says Andy Palmer, should Aston choose to make such a monster again. (Please do!)
First impressions of the new Vantage are that they’ve done it. Aston has come from nowhere and made a credible rival to Porsche’s legendary 911 Turbo. The Vantage may not be quite as fast, but it’s more fun, more exciting and more beautiful.
Pulling into the parking lot of a little restaurant in the hills above the town of Monchique, the rain is pounding harder than ever. It’s unusual, agrees the restaurant’s owner as he tends to a sizzling pan of chorizo.
For so many years, Aston Martin made, charitably, beautiful messes. The cars were occasionally brilliant but only because of their peculiar flaws. But the Vantage doesn’t need to make any excuses.
Finally, here is a car that lives up to the fantasy promised by the winged badge of Aston Martin.
The forecast is calling for more days of rain and thunder in the Algarve. Equally unusually, and perhaps for the first time, the forecast for Aston Martin is looking sunny.
Base Price: $172,495
Engine: 4.0-litre, twin-turbo V8
Transmissions: 8-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): TBD
Drive: Rear-wheel drive
Alternatives: Porsche 911 Turbo, Audi R8 RWS, McLaren 540C, Mercedes-AMG GT