“No more Russian dolls.” It may sound like the New Year’s resolution of a certain frisky president, but it’s actually the new design watchword of Aston Martin, and of the second-generation Vantage that we’re driving in the Portuguese playground known as the Algarve region. No company, not even Ferrari, has enjoyed such a critical consensus—from buyers and auto scribes to broke teenagers—for the unimpeachable beauty of its cars. Yet from chief executive Andy Palmer to chief creative officer Marek Reichmann, the company knew it was time to shatter the mold. That Russian-doll template has pressed every recent Aston—the largest Rapide sedan, midsize Vanquish, and two-seat Vantage—into the admittedly glorious image of the DB7 and subsequent DB9 (designed by Ian Callum before he departed for Jaguar).
Not surprisingly, each of those models' style drew the usual petal-shower of adjectives from critics. Yet as Reichmann suggests, it’s not a great thing when no one can tell the difference between your $100,000 sports car and your $300,000 flagship from 50 yards away.
So give Reichmann, Palmer, and Co. credit: Instead of taking the easy path, they’re taking risks. Calculated risks, including three smart plays that culminated in the triumphantly-redesigned 2019 Aston Martin Vantage I drove in Portugal.
First is the company’s lineup expansion, an ambitious-yet-focused strategy that should help Aston better harpoon the wealthy whales that gobble six-figure luxury cars. Secondly, there’s the 5-percent company stake given to Mercedes-Benz in return for the German crown jewels: Mercedes’s Comand infotainment system isn’t the most intuitive, but it whips the old ones, a series of Volvo/Ford torture devices that only amplified the Dark Age state of Aston technology. That alliance also brings what Palmer argues is the world’s best current production V8: Mercedes-AMG’s hand-assembled, 4.0-liter biturbo engine, which belts out 503 horsepower and 505 pound-feet of torque in the 2019 Vantage.
The third dice toss is Reichmann’s department, and he’s coming up sevens: This Vantage may go down as his masterpiece, just as the DB7 is forever associated with Callum. Like any automotive masterwork, the Vantage's design builds on the past, portends the future, yet lives entirely in and for this moment. Sure, a Porsche 911 is as classic as sports cars come. But when a common 911 pulls up alongside this exclusive Vantage, both the German car and its owner will be rendered invisible. Even the Mercedes-AMG GT and Audi R8—both damn fine sports cars—look like yesterday’s news next to this hyper-modern-yet-still-elegant Aston.
We’re in the paddock area at the Portimao track (officially, Algarve International Circuit) where even jaded car journalists are draping themselves over the Vantage, like so many Vargas girls. Sure, the last Vantage was picture-pretty as well. But for all its British charm and feisty spirit, it took Aston many years to get the car properly sorted. By the time it did—the departing Vantage is a withered crone, at 13 years old—buyers had moved on to fresher, faster, more-advanced machines.
Remarkably, this new Vantage isn’t just a looker, but a sensational performer straight out of the box. It's a two-seat sports car that will satisfy purists, tech-savvy newbies, and everyone in between. How pure? A seven-speed manual transmission will be available (within 12–18 months)—something you can’t have with the Audi, some 911s, or the Mercedes-AMG that shares a version of its engine with this Vantage and the DB11 V8. Aston engineers used the Porsche Cayman as an ideal benchmark for the manual shifter’s control ergonomics, looking to eliminate the alligator-arm positioning of the previous Vantage stick. That stick shift will eliminate the Vantage’s console cupholders, but even caffeine addicts are unlikely to complain, considering the bonus adrenaline in their bloodstreams.
Flanked by one Vantage in searing, yellow-green “Lime Essence” paint (not for me, thank you), and another cutaway-chassis model, Reichmann makes his design-and-performance case. If the DB11 gran turismo wears a Saville Row suit, the Vantage’s has been ripped away, revealing a ripped bod in the equivalent of a muscle tee. Steel, aluminum and composite body panels (with optional carbon fiber pieces) wrap the Vantage so tightly that “the wheels look like they’re forcing themselves from the skin,” Reichmann says, riffing as only a designer can.
Answering rhetorical critics who’ve questioned tiny headlamps and the elimination of the classic Aston grille, Reichmann wedges his hand into a wheel arch below the clamshell hood, by way of functional riposte: “The lights are incredibly small because there’s an incredibly small space to work with,” he says, gripping the slender curl of metal and glass. As for that missing grille, “Why put 15 or 20 kilos of weight on the nose of a car, in the worst possible spot” for handling balance?
Either way, only the most obstinate observer would argue with the overall visual fantasy. When we guide our million-dollar convoy onto Portuguese roads the next day, just seeing these lovely Vantages in the green countryside, emerging from fog like international assassins, makes me chuckle with delight.
“This is not a DB11,” Reichmann says firmly. “This is our sports car. It’s a hunter, the predator in our pack, that’s going to chase down and pass a 911.”
Key to that chase is an all-aluminum tub with fewer extrusions and more pressings and castings, which helps trim dry weight to a showroom-minimum 3,366 pounds. That includes gorgeous optional forged alloy wheels that trim 22 pounds, and a 53-pound subtraction from ceramic composite brakes. The Vantage largely adopts the suspension layout of the DB11, including double wishbones up front and a multi-link, coil-spring rear. But torsional rigidity is an epic 35 kilonewtons per degree—about 10 percent stiffer than the new DB11 and 30 percent beyond the original Vantage.
The final drive ratio is 2.93, versus the DB11’s 2.7, for zestier launches and low-range response. Weight balance is 50/50 front to rear, the steering ratio a snappy 13.1:1. Now, drop in that insane, quad-cam Mercedes V8, connect an eight-speed, paddle-shifted ZF transmission (with a carbon-fiber prop shaft and alloy torque tube), and you’ve got a sports car whose acceleration should match the top-shelf Mercedes-AMG GT R—despite the Benz’s 577 horses, which number 74 more than the Aston. Read ‘em and weep: A 3.5-second catapult to 60 mph, and a 195-mph top speed. James Bond might wet his Brioni tuxedo.
Speaking of wet, the Algarve is getting a dose of badly-needed rain after some six months without a drop. But there are no rain checks at this Aston Martin drive, so I grab a helmet and head onto the track. And after an awkward, tiptoeing reintroduction to this sinister circuit, the driving gods relent, halting a steady drizzle for just long enough to sneak in a somewhat-drier session. Portimao is already a ridiculous technical challenge, including multiple blind corners and crests that a driver takes either flat-out or hard on the brakes, usually into another stomach-dropping plummet. Yet even on this already-dicey circuit, where I’m now forced to sniff out some semblance of a dry line or endure a roostertail spin, the Vantage turns out to be an absolute blast. Driver interaction and engagement were the driving mantras of Vantage development, and every engineer deserves a gold star. I remember Reichmann’s promise to me, made over dinner and a lineup of tremendous indigenous Portuguese wines: “What you feel through the wheel, you feel through your backside,” he said.
He’s right. The rear-drive Aston does have electronic helpers, including the brand’s first electronic rear differential that can go from full open to full lock in milliseconds. That GKN-built unit, combined with additional brake-based torque vectoring, delivers spectacular traction coming out of Portimao’s corners—even in the wet and on Pirelli PZeros instead of track-spec PZero Corsas. Bilstein dampers offer three settings, and the softest compliance is clearly best for this rain-slicked track.
Yet road or track, the Aston’s systems never get in your way: This car is both physically connected to the road and emotionally connected to its driver. Within a lap or two, I’m pushing hard enough to pass slower drivers; unwinding the asymmetrical, Alcantara-lined steering wheel—fancy leather being too slippery for this Type-A performer of a car—and thrilling to the Aston’s big-money howl. Mercedes-AMG models with this barrel-chested engine are among the best-sounding cars on the planet, but Aston still didn’t want anyone confusing their car with a Mercedes. Like the tuners of some grand cathedral organ in London rather than Stuttgart or Cologne, Aston engineers teased out more midrange and high-frequency engine orders for a throatier, tenor pitch.
The next day brings this Aston Martin to public roads, where the Vantage feels virtually as fast as the AMG GT R—but more comfortable, easier to sit in and see out of, and with more luggage space to boot (no pun intended) then that claustrophobic car. Trust me, I adore the Mercedes-AMG GT. But this car is better.
Like the Mercedes, the Aston will bring a convertible version for extra see-and-be-seen. A selectable three-mode drive system adjusts the throttle map, transmission, stability control and exhaust. Those modes further underline the Vantage’s intent: There’s “Sport,” “Sport Plus,” and “Track,” with no GT-like “Comfort” mode. Even in Track mode, the Vantage feels right at home on southern Portugal’s roads—some of the most gloriously scenic and knotted in all of Europe—where it’s planted and fully pliable. I’m driving in an all-day rain, the sky stuffed with gray-wool clouds, yet the Aston is determined to not let the weather spoil the fun. Once again, I find myself pushing harder than I’d ever expect in these conditions. The car fairly begs me to speed up, rather than sit back and enjoy the intimate cabin and killer audio system.
Interior materials that were my main point of contention on the far-pricier DB11 seem perfectly acceptable on the Vantage (and in some instances even improved), because this is a purposeful sports car, not a decadent GT. Aston's dinky console-mounted seat controls are still annoying, but once they're set, owners won't care. Brakes feel secure and progressive in the all-day slop, even when I’m relying on them to save my ass on steep mountain descents: Two-piece ventilated front discs feature six-piston calipers and enormous 15.7-inch rotors.
After slicing through fog to reach a rustic lunch stop in a centuries-old villa, I have time to sip a meia de leite—half coffee, half milk—and mull over a sports car that turned two potentially dreary days into something that seemed like brilliant sunshine. Feeling a bit swept away, I figured that Aston's notoriously sky-high pricing might force my feet back onto the ground. Nope: This Aston starts at a not-insignificant $153,081, but judged on style and exclusivity, it's as effectively stunning as most supercars that cost double the price.
And in 180-degree contrast with the original, deeply flawed Vantage, its performance is not merely competitive, but on par with the best in its class. Let’s also underline that this is only Aston’s opening gambit with the Vantage—essentially its base-model version. A Porsche 911 Carrera may start from just $92,000, but that's the lowest-priced of an incredible 24 variants, rising to $220,000 for a GT3 RS Weissach Package. Aston's opening Vantage lands smack in the center of 911 pricing, $10,000 less than a 911 Turbo. It also sits below a Mercedes-AMG GT R Coupe, at $157,995, and the Audi R8 at $166,150. Let's state the obvious: To some people, an Aston Martin will always seem more exotic and desirable than a Mercedes or Audi, irrespective of price or performance. The mid-engine McLaren 570GT comes to mind as a car that's every bit as exclusive (and quicker to boot) but it does cost $35,000 more than the Vantage, priced from $188,600 and easily hitting $225,000 with options.
It sounds silly to call a $150,000 sports car “reasonably priced,” or even a relative bargain, but that’s what we have here. That assessment, obviously, has as much to do with the status and aesthetic of the Aston Martin brand as it does with performance. Sure, you could buy another sports car that’s as fast, maybe even a few clicks faster, for equal or less money. But that car will not look like this Aston Martin, or make crowds swoon like this Aston Martin. For the first time in my lifetime, I’ll say that a like-priced rival won’t even perform quite like this Aston Martin. Hurry, rich people, and pick out a gift for your local Aston dealer—a bottle of Krug would be nice—because this athletic beauty won’t be sitting on showroom floors for long. If that's not rare and special enough, wait and order up a 2020 model with a manual transmission. Can you even imagine this baby with a stick? My right hand, and left foot, are already trembling in anticipation.
Lawrence Ulrich,The Autance’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at [email protected].