It’s a short drive through the Warwickshire lanes from Aston Martin’s familiar Gaydon HQ to its new engineering centre at Wellesbourne, but a significant one nonetheless. Not only because the towering structure that greets me on arrival is a visible reminder of the firm’s post-IPO ambition, but also because I’ve really enjoyed the drive here. And for reasons that will become clear, I wasn’t quite expecting that to be the case.
Not long after I eased the broad and sharply creased snout of the Vantage out from Gaydon’s gravel car park was I convinced that this particular example is a much more cohesive and simply downright more desirable car than the blue one that featured in evo Australia 063, and which took part in a four-car group test within – and lost, comprehensively. Hmmm. Curious. This Vantage just feels – better. And having dissected a decent Warwickshire B-road in it I’m torn between two emotions: on one hand, delight, because who doesn’t want a brand such as Aston Martin to be class competitive? But also puzzlement, because just what is going on?
I think it’s fair to say evo’s verdict on the new Vantage in that group test, along with the outcomes of tests in other magazines, went down rather badly within the higher echelons of Aston Martin. Questions were asked. Investigations made. This is what we know.
It transpires that the blue car had incorrect suspension geometry after the replacement of components made in the run-up to it being lent to evo. This caused its handling to be, shall we say, sub-optimal, and led in some part to our criticisms about its steering characteristics and general handling. It doesn’t explain why it failed to match its performance claims with our test gear attached, which remains a mystery, or answer our other concerns over its damping, and the general feel of the car, the latter being hard to define but felt by all present. The invite to the headmaster’s office suggests I’m to learn more about that, along with how Aston’s new engineering approach will make such things much less likely to happen again – and make for better Aston Martins overall.
Wearing the mortar board and a stern face is Aston’s chief engineer – vehicle engineering, Matt Becker. Actually, he’s not stern at all really, and thankfully there are no lines to write repeatedly on the whiteboard. The first thing he says is that the car evo had for our group test was a ‘2PT’ car in the company’s new naming structure, but what does that actually mean? Like all car makers, Aston Martin’s development process is a highly structured programme that progresses through phases; Becker describes it as a pyramid, with the finished car at the pinnacle. In the latter stages the cars are all but indistinguishable from the ones you may go on to buy in the showroom, but they will never be sold and most will be crushed.
The first physical cars are ‘X1’ vehicles, commonly referred to as mules. It’s the kind of thing you see snapped in spy pictures – battered prototypes with odd proportions, cars that started off as familiar machines but that have been cut about to accept new engines, suspensions and suchlike. Aston is shortening this part of the development timeline by adopting computer simulation, and, specifically, driving simulation. This means less time and less expense, because the prototypes are the most expensive of all.
‘M1’ vehicles are next, which feature the correct floorpan and running gear, but with fake upper-body panels reinforced artificially for strength. After this come the ‘production trials’ cars: 1PT, 2PT and 3PT. These are ‘proper’ cars built on a separate line at Gaydon as the manufacturing team gets to grips with building the real thing, refining their processes and the quality of components as they go. They’re also the cars that the engineers then fine-tune to a fever pitch: ‘‘Imagine every bush, every component, has a tolerance,’’ says Becker, ‘‘and those tolerances go through a state of flux, until by the time we reach 2PT stage we can only make very small changes as the bandwidth of tuning gets narrower, and the refining continues until the Job 1 car you’ve driven today.’’ Job 1 cars should be identical in every way to the cars reaching the dealerships – they’re the real deal. ‘‘You’ll notice the quality of the car has improved, too – the sound of it, the interior. The car is more homogenous.’’ It is no accident. ‘‘We can’t use Job 1 cars for press launches, otherwise the cars would be in dealerships before the reviews came out, but we should be using them for comparison tests from now on.’’
The new Wellesbourne centre is like a NASA laboratory compared to the old Gaydon set-up, which had cramped and dated facilities, and restrictive access due to traffic problems on the site. In effect, engineers were restricted to coming and going between 9am and 3pm, unless they wanted to waste time stationary in traffic. Up to 250 engineers and technicians work at the new building, over three floors, with 40 vehicle ramps (twice the number of before). Over the road is another huge green box that’s concerned with the company’s parts and logistics supply, and there’s also a smaller facility for building the Valkyrie hypercar.
For a development engineer it must be heaven; prototypes are now built here rather than in various stages around the Midlands, allowing continuous and close attention from the engineers. There’s also an instrumentation area where all sorts of data-logging devices are wired in; an area for crash-test cars and their analysis; the suspension area for setting geometry; a damper room where suspension components can be adjusted, analysed and so on; an area for thermal and cooling test cars; an NVH quiet room; and a dedicated area for the press fleet. Walking around the facility it’s not hard to spot all sorts of cars here, from competitor vehicles in for examination to things I’ve signed on a dotted line to say I won’t talk about.
However, Aston Martin’s engineering capability is about to take another significant leap forward with the introduction of a dedicated testing circuit in the style of Fiorano or Weissach. As you may have seen, Aston has done a deal with Silverstone to take over the use of the Stowe circuit and associated workshops, with the opportunity to access the larger circuits there as needed.
‘‘Ever since I started here three-and-a-half years ago I’ve been saying we need a track,’’ confides Becker. ‘‘At the moment, when we make changes to the [development] cars we have to travel to the Nürburgring or Nardò to test, and the process takes too long. With the Silverstone facility the car should improve much faster – we’ll be able to run through many more changes, plus quickly get onto local good and less-busy roads. The workshops will have seven ramps along with dedicated technicians. Porsche and Ferrari have this, and to be a main player you need it.’’
We can’t compare this final-spec Vantage back-to-back on the same roads as the blue car, as during the last six months 2PT and 3PT cars have moved to this final Job 1 spec, but the journey to Aston’s new ‘home track’ certainly highlights the positive steps the Vantage has taken. The most obvious change is to the steering, which no longer has a disjointed, hard-to-read response; corners can now be taken with a single, measured input, reliably. And the pitching that we felt back then, from the rear axle when under lateral load and hard acceleration, seems virtually eliminated. You can really hustle this Aston along, and moreover, you’re inclined to do so.
As Becker suggested, there are indeed some very challenging B-roads near Silverstone, and this Vantage deals with them in a way that was inconceivable before. It still feels wide, with the extremities far away and largely hidden from the driver’s seat, and we also know that losing a few kilos would be beneficial, but from its much higher-quality interior to its driving dynamics, this is a much improved car.
Obviously, I can’t say the Vantage as it is now would have won that original group test; road test editor James Disdale’s story was about those actual cars, over those two days, and in those conditions, but I do feel confident in saying that this car would have certainly been much closer to the competition. In short, it feels like the Vantage we were promised all along. It drives like it looks: a meaty, hard-edged, but also very useable sports coupe with a ferocious exhaust note.
There’s nothing more melancholic than a deserted racing circuit, and it feels odd to walk around the Stowe Complex buildings. Aston Martin got the keys on 16 October, and expects to have everything kitted out before Christmas, whereupon the crackle and roar of V8s and V12s should suddenly become a signature tune for this bleak and blowy plain in north Northamptonshire. The Stowe circuit is small at just over 1.5km, and the firm may yet change one end of it to make a properly fast corner, but it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the silver shutter doors on the row of garages whipping up and down all day long, spewing Aston Martins onto the track in droves to realise the firm’s formidable product plan. Adam Towler