With a manual gearbox and revised chassis, is the AMR the Aston Martin Vantage we’ve been waiting for? A road trip from Gaydon to the Nürburgring holds the answers
rom at least one viewpoint, the next 48 hours are going to break bad. There’s stuff going on in the world that’s hard to ignore, and people who would shout at us, red-faced, for giving it the mildest of swerves, even were we to present them with an affidavit stating we’ll be compliant citizens on our return. The existentialist spasm that is Extinction Rebellion has jammed an ‘End Is Nigh’ sandwich board on the planet and is threatening to shut down our daily lives in protest.
Truth is, a carbon-neutral electric future awaits us all. Nestling in the matrix of petrol-burning Aston-ness here at Gaydon, the fossil fuel-free Rapide E is all but ready to enter showrooms, proving that aged assumptions are crumbling and even the most elegant and experienced exponents of high-performance internal combustion need to have some skin in the new game. For Aston, it begins Q1, 2020.
Photographer Gus Gregory and I have a different vision for the next couple of days. We load our gear into the back of the new Vantage AMR. It has the same AMG-sourced 375kW 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 as in the regular Vantage but teamed with a ‘throwback’, motorsport-inspired dog-leg-gate manual gearbox, a mechanical limited-slip diff and carbon-ceramic brakes. As a result, at 1499kg ‘dry’ it weighs 31kg less than the lightest standard Vantage and, in the fashion of most AMR makeovers, boasts a sportier chassis set-up. The claims made for it are a top speed of 314km/h (a match for the regular car) and 0-100km/h in 4.0sec (quick enough, but 0.4sec slower than the auto Vantage, for which you can thank a gearbox-preserving 60Nm reduction in torque to 625Nm, and the need to change gear the involving way).
It also has something to prove. Despite my almost entirely positive 2018 first drive of a pre-production Vantage at a sub-zero and snow-packed Ivalo proving ground in northern Finland (admittedly, the equivalent of trying to get a grip in an arm-wrestling match on a bouncy castle), its most recent evo encounter with the opposition on bumpy, bone-dry Blighty blacktop didn’t show it to be quite the 911 killer Aston was perhaps hoping. The AMR could change that, but finding out won’t be easy. For starters, it demands a road trip involving high-value petrol receipts, gratuitous exhaust pipe music, a spot of light tyre scorching and unabashed, balls-out acceleration. In fact, everything about aiming to reach our ultimate destination before bedtime – the Aston Martin Racing Performance Centre at Germany’s Nürburgring, via the company’s Wellesbourne logistics and prototypes operation and Silverstone Stowe Circuit facility – smacks of moving in the wrong direction at a wicked lick in a doomed form of transport. But, well, as the Casanovas once sang, how can something so wrong feel so right?
Seduction starts at the front door. Aston Martin’s Gaydon HQ in Warwickshire looks more impressive with every visit, the centrepiece of the reception foyer today a sensationally well-polished Arden Green DBS Superleggera Volante. Gorgeous barely covers it. The ‘hall of fame’ corridor that leads to the factory follows up the initial feel-good hit with deep dive provenance: a condensed key-model, 106-year history lesson in 25 paces, culminating with one of the 10 silver DB10s made for the James Bond film Spectre.
The car that presaged Aston’s ‘new look’ is an apt segue to the build process of the Vantage AMR, which shares the DB10’s preference for a manual gearbox and a good few of the movie star’s distinctive design licks. More fascinating still is to see them coalesce on the factory floor, the exposed viscera of cable looms and vital mechanical organs gradually combined and subsumed by the bonded aluminium structures and smooth surfaces of the finished articles. Car factories? Some are simply sexier than others.
Before we head for Wellesbourne, our recently leathered-down Sabiro Blue Vantage AMR is backed onto the end of the production line for Gus to grab a quick ground zero beauty shot. No question, it looks purposeful, with minimal front and rear overhangs and rear wheels that appear to push to the very edge of their subtly distended arches. It’s savagery civilised, power expressed as whispered threat. Equally briefly, because he’s also on his way to somewhere else, Aston’s dynamics chief, Matt Becker, stops to say hello and impart a few origin insights.
We know Aston CEO Andy Palmer has form when it comes to insisting on manual gearboxes, so it’s no surprise one has ended up in the Vantage. But Becker reveals the project was inevitably shaped by commercial pressures and meant that, as well as losing the standard Vantage’s auto ’box, its clever electronic differential had to go as well. ‘‘The cost of developing an e-diff for a relatively low-volume manual was prohibitively high,’’ he explains. ‘‘Clearly, you get a performance benefit with an e-diff, but we went with a mechanical diff and, arguably, from the customer’s perspective, it’s the purer car.’’
The Graziano ’box, which is essentially the same seven-speed unit used in the old V12 Vantage S, is familiar for a good reason, too: ‘‘The engine’s so torquey it doesn’t really need seven speeds but, again, if we’d wanted to re-engineer for six speeds the cost would have run into the millions. So we went with the Graziano and the powertrain team did some further work on shift quality.’’
And the thinking behind the chassis tweaks? ‘‘We had to change the tune slightly because we didn’t have the benefit of the e-diff where we could make the car super-responsive at low speed. We had to manage that a little more.’’ The upshot of which will hopefully become clear over the next 800 or so kilometres, but right now, it’s time for us to split.
Wellesbourne is a couple of villages and a few country lanes down the road, just right for settling into the Vantage AMR. The cabin remains surprisingly roomy but feels snug and intimate. Partly this is a function of this example’s light-swallowing grey-on-grey Alcantara/leather and carbon colour scheme, but more the low-set driving position and muscular, enveloping architecture flowing into a facia that subtly tilts upwards towards the high window line. If the minor switchgear layout is more pleasingly symmetrical than intuitively ergonomic, the fundamentals are spot on and, naturally, care has been taken to fashion a stitched gearknob that feels good in the palm and, unlike in previous-gen Vantages, is in the right place.
As someone old enough to remember (and occasionally curse) dog-leg gearboxes first time around, the initial awkwardness is quite nostalgic. But even on the short run to Wellesbourne it soon becomes clear the big V8 is so benignly tractable that first gear is seldom required, so you can largely forget about it and treat the remaining double-H shift pattern as a conventional six-speeder. As for the shift quality, it’s reasonably light and only slightly clunky, with a curiously ‘cardboardy’ feel and sound. The across-gate biasing works particularly well on downshifts, and the so-called AMSHIFT will blip the throttle automatically to match revs if it’s switched on. Thankfully, the clutch doesn’t require the thigh muscles of an Olympic weightlifter to operate and has a flatteringly smooth and progressive take up.
Early days. I’ll nearly always choose changing gear with a stubby stick over flappy paddles, but while we’re a long way from the industrial-grade Aston gearshifts of yore, I’m not feeling the love just yet. That said, progress is smooth, measured, refined and, as we pull off Loxley Road and into the Wellesbourne Distribution Park, distinctly un-hairy.
Aston’s prototype vehicle operations moved to a big empty warehouse on the outskirts of Wellesbourne on 17 September, 2017, amalgamating activities previously split between Gaydon, MIRA and a specialist unit in Coventry. The company had new model lines coming on stream and the idea was to improve efficiency. Part Gaydon in microcosm, part press and race car prep, part R&D, the facility prides itself on its flexibility and can build prototypes from scratch, from bare tub to road-test sign-off. There are pre-production lines, a paint shop, and areas for specific component development and proving, including specially treated semi-anechoic rooms for acoustic work. Very little of it is automated – virtually everything is done by hand. But you’d never guess what goes on from the drab, grey exterior.
Things are more fascinating on the inside and Gus and I get our first chance to have a close look at the imminent DBX SUV, of which there are dozens scattered around the facility. It’s easy to discern the F-Pace-rivalling size and presence, but not the styling, as they’re all wrapped in the highly effective, Welsh dragon-themed disrupter disguises referencing the St Athan plant where they’re being built.
Back on the road to Silverstone, the hedgerows are rolling by a little faster and the AMR is starting to unpack some of the traits I liked about the automatic Vantage in Finland. With the adaptive dampers in their default Sport setting – as with the powertrain, there are additional Sport+ and Track modes – the ride nails the sweet spot between taut and supple (a well-known and much appreciated Becker obsession irrespective of recalibrated spring and damper rates), filtering small bumps and road surface scars with surprising ease and tracking larger undulations with no discernible wasted body movement. E-diff or not, there’s plenty of what Becker refers to as ‘‘rear axle connection and feel’’, balanced by a helm that also combines directness with accurate but calm responses and what always seems like just the right amount of weight.
It gets better. Between sandwiches and coffee and a magnificent red $10million continuation DB4 GT Zagato taking a shakedown breather at Silverstone, there’s a chance to dig a little deeper into the chassis’ reserves on the short but technical Stowe Circuit. If it feels perfectly at home here then it should as, along with the Nürburgring, this is where Aston dynamics get sorted by Becker and his team. I want to acquire a feel for the point at which the AMR’s nose starts to run wide but, this side of sheer stupidity, the anticipated understeer never materialises. This builds confidence and allows me to attack the bends with more conviction, reaching deeper into the chassis’ huge levels of grip. In Track mode (seems appropriate) it’s possible to push into mild oversteer, but it’s exploitable rather than lairy. Mostly, the AMR feels on side and relentless. It annihilates one bend then neatly transfers its weight to attack the next one. Deeply impressive.
Then I start to sneeze. On the Eurotunnel, my throat begins to hurt. And by the time we’re bypassing Brussels I’ve got a headache, too. Full house for a cold. Fortunately, Gus takes pity on me at our first fuel stop and offers to plough on through the night into the Netherlands and Germany and, a little to my dozy amazement, by midnight we’re pulling up in front of the Nürburgring’s Dorint hotel. The Vantage, for all its dynamic dexterity, has done what great GTs do best – make the gap between a point in time and space and a beer at the hotel’s famous Cockpit Bar disappear. One’s enough but perhaps never more needed, especially for a dog-tired but very deserving Gus.
Next morning we rise early and I’m back behind the wheel, heading out onto the smooth and sinuous forest roads of the Eifel mountains that cradle the Nordschleife. It starts to rain but, with a little circumspection, the weather has scant effect on the Aston’s benign balance or ability to change direction cleanly without any unwanted surprises. On the nearest stretch of unrestricted autobahn, there’s no way I’m not going to give the Vantage AMR its head, and 270km/h arrives so swiftly that I’m tempted to keep the throttle nailed, but the ball of haze in the distance kicked up by trucks dictates otherwise. I’ll take 314 as read.
A few laps of the Nordschleife would doubtless disperse the remaining fug in my head but a Porsche customer event has booked the track and, given the prevailing conditions, I can’t say I’m too heartbroken. There’s not much activity back at the AMR Performance Centre later in the afternoon when we drop the car off, despite the model’s international launch starting from the venue the next day. But it’s the right car in the right place. Given the part the facility has played in the Vantage AMR’s development and dynamic character, it feels like home.
By DAVID VIVIAN Photography by GUS GREGORY
Aston Martin Vantage AMR
Engine V8, 3982cc, twin-turbo
Power 375kW @ 6000rpm
Torque 625Nm @ 2000‑5000rpm
Weight (dry) 1499kg
Power-to-weight (dry) 250kW/tonne
Top speed 314km/h
Basic price tbc