I didn’t expect to like the new Aston Martin Vantage as much as I did.
The car got off to a bad start with me when the first shots were released back in 2017; the all-new car's aggressive looks didn't quite gel for me in photographs and videos, especially in the glaring yellow launch color more evocative of office supplies like highlighters and Post-It Notes than exotic street metal. The rear overhang looked painfully short, the headlights looked two sizes too small, and the front grille looked like a whale shark diving in for a krill meal. It seemed a drastic departure from the looks of Astons past; even the more brutal ones of old, like the old V8 Vantages of the Eighties and Nineties, had a certain elegance to their angry appearance.
But even after I'd made my peace with the looks, I was still lukewarm on it. Normally, Astons are compared to the sort of esteemed company against whom, to be frank, they can’t compare. The DB11 against the Bentley Continental GT, the DBS Superleggera against the Ferrari 812 Superfast, the Rapide S against the Porsche Panamera Turbo: gorgeous as they (usually) are, the cars made by the gang from Gaydon always seemed to come up short against such exotic, well-crafted machines. Astons often seem a beat too slow, a bit too rough-hewn to justify choosing over other gran turismos and super sports cars that manage to be both thrilling and well-made. (I can still remember noticing the disparity in panel gaps on a DB9 tester’s trunk from 50 feet away, and I'm hardly the only auto writer with such a memory.)
But the Vantage has benefits past Astons lacked. "If you want something done right, do it yourself" is an axiom that doesn't always work for small, independent automakers, where budgets wind up stretched in a way mighty conglomerates like FCA and VAG's economies of scales protect them from. The compact new two-seater leverages the company's partnership with Daimler to great effect; not only is the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 sourced from AMG (connected to a ZF-made automatic, speaking of other great parts sourced elsewhere), but the infotainment system as well.
And not only is it among the newest Astons—only Mike Spinelli's beloved Superleggera is a fresher face in the lineup—but it's also the cheapest car the company makes. The Vantage starts at "just" $149,995; admittedly, that's 2.44 times the yearly American median household income, but by the standards of the exotic car game, that's practically a Kmart Bluelight Special.
Compared to other sports cars in its price range, the Aston stands apart. It feels—and perhaps more importantly, looks—more exotic than any Porsche 911 or Mercedes-AMG GT or anything else for the price. The R8 might the most exotic of the bunch....if it didn’t share a logo with the likes of the A3 and Q5. The GT3 is no doubt better to drive, but the catfish-whisker mouth and Paul Walker wing —unless you choose the more restrained GT3 Touring, in which case it looks the same as every fourth Beverly Hills dentist's car. Only the Vantage makes you feel like James Bond. Granted, most of the time, you feel like Bond at his most proletarian, commuting home on the highway or running to the grocery store—but still, undeniably Bondian.
It helped that the test car Aston sent our way was coated in slippery flat gray paint, the spiritual opposite of that toxic phlegm green. Combined with black accents and powder-black wheels, it transforms the car into something sharklike, menacing, subtle yet attention-grabbing. The hips are impossibly wide—somebody stopped me to say they thought it was a Jag until they saw the hips, no Jag would have hips like that—to both make room for the tires and to give it an incredible stance. Indeed, the car's width makes it seem smaller than it is; its wheelbase is longer than a Corvette's, but its proportions make it look almost Miata-sized when seen on its own. It has the proportions AMG's GT should possess, if it didn't need to evoke its ancestors with that John Holmes hood.
If the looks were enough to set the hook, though, it didn't take more than a couple minutes behind the wheel to reel me in. The Vantage drives unlike any Aston Martin in recent memory: lithe, nimble, agile, and responsive in a way I've never known any of the brand's cars to act—and more fun than them by a country mile. The steering is fast, if a little artificially heavy, especially in Sport mode. It’s quick, though, with the sort of there’s a teeny numb spot at the center where it feels a little loose—call it the Nebraska highway zone—but past a degree or two in either direction and it stiffens and livens up.
AMG's familiar M177 engine is put to good use here, if not with overwhelming force; at 503 horsepower and 505 pound-feet, the Aston Martin version's output is well below what the engine cranks out in the likes of the S63 and E63 S, among other places. There’s plenty of torque, but it’s still necessary to drop a gear or two on the highway if you really wanna whiz past traffic the way a supercar should. The ZF automatic pairs nicely with the AMG V8; I'd even go so far as to argue that it's better-suited to this powerplant than AMG's own seven-speed gearbox found in the likes of the AMG GT R and its lesser siblings, cracking off shifts just as quickly under fire but slipping between gear far more smoothly around town.
Where most vehicles serve up preset driving modes for the whole car, the Vantage splits up "turn" and "go," offering three settings for the suspension and powertrain separately. They're dubbed Sport, Sport Plus, and Track—a trio that makes sense for the car’s purpose, though it’s kind of like the movie theatre selling sodas in sizes M, L, and XL. None of them are too aggressive; you could live with the dampers in Track mode all the time, but being able to shift to a softer setup on rough surfaces is nice. Likewise, the powertrain's version of Track isn’t as wild as, say, Sport Plus on a Porsche PDK, where the gearbox tries to keep the motor within easy reach of the redline at all times; it'll keep the car a gear higher than you might expect around town, but unless you hammer it, it won't leave the V8 to hum at 5,000 rpm. (It's still not likely to match the EPA fuel economy numbers of 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway in Track mode, though.)
Start to probe the car's limits, and you quickly realize the Vantage is a car that wants to play: as in, wild-eyed, manic-voiced, clinking-three-beer-bottles-on-its fingers plaaaaaaaaaaaay. It’s a ball of energy, ready to rotate at a whim, thanks to all that power being pushed to wheels at the very ass end of the chassis. You can feel the rear tires fitting for grip with the stability and traction control well through second gear, even at revs well below where the eight-pot hits its power peak. Far better, then, to hold down the slippery tire button we all know and love until it kicks into ESC Track mode. It turns you into a power-sliding hero, giving just enough slip and spin to let the rear end swing wide before helping ease you back onto your line. If I owned a Vantage, I'd make the traction control button my finger's second stop every time I climbed inside, right after the start button.
Find some long, fast open roads, and the Aston Martin Vantage is in heaven. It’s so stable and planted, so quick to react, that it’s easy to wind up doing double—hell, even close to triple—the speed limit without feeling like you’re near the edge of the car’s capabilities. Like the best sports cars, it makes fast feel slow. I figured the Vantage would feel as fast as any car with a similar power-to-weight ratio; I didn't expect it to feel as good as it did while doing so.
But in spite of its angry, hooligan instincts, the Vantage still has plenty of grand touring DNA woven throughout its genome. The cabin is surprisingly roomy, given the tidy exterior proportions. (Surprisingly, it seems airier and more open than the DB11, which can feel like an Abrams redecorated by Ralph Lauren.) The headliner is a little low, especially for anyone who’s torso-tall; it cuts down on the light in there and makes it a bit dark, even on sunny days. I’d actually love to have some sort of opaque-to-clear glass panel there. But my six-four frame had room to stretch out, which was unexpected. The squared-off steering wheel feels great in the hands, pushing your mitts towards 9 and 3; it feels like an aircraft yoke swaddled in leather. The giant shift paddles are so large, you can grab them no matter how far your hands have turned the wheel.
Blessedly, the instrument panel does away with the godawful counter-clockwise-rotating tachometer of old Astons for a giant central one, a digital replication of an analog one that twists based on drive mode (rotating so that the heart of the power band is near the top in Sport Plus and Track), with a crystal-clear digital speedometer in the middle. It’s the sort of modern design that every car company should aspire to; easy to judge speed at a glance, easy to see how fast the engine is winding up or where in the power band it is, taking the best from both past and future to make a better present. On either side are digital screen wings, the left for fuel and temp, the right reconfigurable. The displays are blessedly clear and large, but the layout does include an awful lot of blank space. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either good design or a wasted opportunity.
The rest of the interior controls are elegant and well-designed, as well. There are hard buttons on the dashboard and center console for most controls—except for the awkward digital touch pads for the heated and ventilated seats that click, but offer no haptic feedback. Those other buttons, however, work wonderfully well, being inututive to command and falling right to hand. Benz’s Comand infotainment is welcome here, as in the DB11; unlike that car, though, its integration no longer looks like a graft from a different species of car. The leather trim looks extraordinary, and is appropriately soft to the touch. My tester's otherwise-dark interior came with yellow accents which were…well, not unappreciated, but definitely not my cup of tea. Still, they show off the flexibility of the interior—as well as the many, many options to fiddle with on Aston Martin's online configurator.
And again, surprisingly for (what feels like) such a small car, there are plenty of cargo cubbies and other such places to through what the inimitable George Carlin would describe as "your stuff." There are two little shelves behind the seats—a lower, shorter one close by, and a wider, higher one further back. The latter, I found, was perfect for tossing my jacket; the former was great for all the assorted cabin crap that usually floats around. The trunk isn’t too large, but it’s enough room for a couple soft overnight bags, or maybe one hard suitcase and a few loose items you pack around it. It's not roomy enough to make most people consider trading in their daily-driver M5s, but it's enough for the car's purposes.
There are plenty of cars that cycle through The Drive office that I wish I could grab some more time with—or at least, more quality time, a few extra miles of back roads or sweeping parkways. The good ones, I've learned, are the ones in which you actually do log hours upon hours of ideal wheel time...and you still don't want to give it up. Even after knocking out 200-plus miles over the course of a weekend with the Aston Martin Vantage, there was a distinct pang of regret when the fleet service representative came to pick it up. I picked it up thinking it would be a nice car. I came away knowing it's a great one.