THE D_TRB REVIEW: Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Manual
With a manual 'box, naturally aspirated engine and even hydraulic steering, is Aston's V12 Vantage S an ageing dinosaur or an old-school inspiration?
Fishermen and returning Arctic explorers must have been bemused to find themselves in the vanguard of fashion a few years ago. They probably weren’t aware of course, but male models everywhere were suddenly struggling to culture chins as hirsute as these men of the sea and ice. Scilly is some way from Shoreditch, but had one of these fine isles’ bearded boatmen wandered into a hipster coffee shop in London they would have become instant (not that sort of instant, please, no. Who said Nescafe? Blaspheming swine) icons. Equally I imagine someone like Ben Saunders, returning from months in a frozen wilderness devoid of handy newsagents, would have been surprised to find the advertising pages of glossy magazines filled with men sporting jaw jumpers just like his.
And a similar feeling of being unexpectedly on-point must have swept over the Aston Martin factory last year. Porsche was being lauded for going against the grain, fighting back and giving the driving enthusiasts what they wanted by producing a sports car with a manual gearbox and a naturally aspirated engine. The 911 R was a back-to-basics beacon of hope, putting control in the hands and feet of the driver. Except at the same time Gaydon was launching something every bit as anti-tech trendy – the 565bhp V12 Vantage S Manual.
Of course Aston had sort of lucked into the movement by not really moving with the times. The Vantage had been out for well over a decade and whether V8 or V12 it remained naturally aspirated and rear wheel drive. Some (pretty poor) paddle shift options had been introduced over the years, but manuals remained stalwart parts of the armoury. Even better, and something that even Stuttgart couldn’t offer, the power assistance for the steering had stayed hydraulic rather than moving to electric like the rest of the industry. The result was that while Vantages had perhaps started to look old-fashioned in group tests against PDK, DCT and S-tronic rivals, now they were being viewed in a different light.
This, I have to say, pleased me. I’d long been a fan of the ever improving and resolutely old-school Vantage. The N430 in particular really appealed to me and I’d gone against popular opinion to put it at the head of a couple of group tests. It wasn’t particularly quick, but it was fast enough for the road and completely, wonderfully transparent in the chassis department. A beautiful road car that felt better balanced than a ballerina. A car I could really imagine owning.
It was, then, no surprise to find myself falling for this formula all over again when I finally got to drive the V12 Vantage S Manual earlier this year. It looked small and felt only just on the right side of cramped when I got in. The seat was too high (spec the buckets) and there was no danger of Apple CarPlay flashing up on the screen when I found a USB to charge my phone from (the first iPhone was still two years away when Aston launched the Vantage in 2005).
However, as the electronics fired up, so the beautiful analogue dials came to life with their cool white light illuminating the gunmetal background. It’s noticeable that Porsche has also stuck resolutely to analogue rev counters. They work. After an instinctive glance at the transmission tunnel I found the old-fashioned fly-off handbrake positioned between seat and sill, which would no-doubt conveniently inhibit the getaway of any car-jacker. If they got past that then the dog-leg first in the seven-speed ‘box might confuse them further still, although pulling away in second isn’t a problem with 457lb ft of torque.
It was a lighter shift than I’d imagined and you need to get used to the shift from first up-and-over to second and then the shift from fourth back-and-across to third because the gate feels quite narrow. However, contrary to some reports I’ve read, it’s perfectly intuitive and after a day with it I can’t see how you wouldn’t adapt to its layout. Pulling out of the car park onto the damp Dales tarmac it was immediately obvious how wieldy the Vantage is. Although, like all modern Astons, the Vantage feels like it has quite a narrow aperture of windscreen to look through, the size of the car makes you feel instantly happy threading it down narrow roads close to drystone walls. The simple round steering wheel, devoid of buttons, is intuitive and comfortable, the pedals are well laid out and it all just encourages you to start leaning on the tyres.
If you test the traction with the throttle pedal then you’ll find that it’s easily overcome, yet the naturally aspirated engine doesn’t give you any worrying spikes of torque to deal with so it’s easy to play the rear tyres on the limit of adhesion. It’s worth mentioning that the DSC Track mode is also very good at letting you play while retaining a safety net. Not that you need it most of the time because the front-engined, rear-drive balance feels instinctive in the way it behaves. In the first iteration of the V12 Vantage (which had a six-speed manual) you could feel the weight of the big 5.9-litre engine in the front and it had a handling balance that reflected this with a slight reluctance to turn in and then a rather snappy breakaway when it began to oversteer. With the S, however, Aston has somehow reined in the nose-heavy feeling and although it’s not quite as light on its feet as the V8 version it is remarkably close.
Over the bumpy, testing Buttertubs Pass it felt faithful and you could attack crests, safe in the knowledge that although the rear wheels would spin up with a commensurate snarl of flaring revs you could happily deal with the over-rotating wheels when they hit the tarmac again. It is involving and communicative and challenging in all the ways that you want an interactive ‘old-school’ car to be.
Although its anachronisms have become curiously contemporary once more I suspect we won’t see any of them in the new Vantage when it is released. We know that will have a (very good) turbocharged engine from Mercedes and I can’t see hydraulically power assisted steering and a manual ‘box surviving into the next generation, but I’ll be delighted if Aston proves me wrong. The world needs cars like the V12 Vantage S manual. Probably more than it needs beards.
Watch our video of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, together with the new Aston Martin DB11, here: bit.ly/V12VantageS_DB11