Road test: 2015 Aston Martin V8 Vantage N430

The new baby Aston is undone by its transmission.
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage N430’s striking colour scheme can’t save its driving problems. Newspress
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage N430’s striking colour scheme can’t save its driving problems. Newspress

For many years now, I’ve been fighting Aston Martin’s corner. A truly great British company with a proud heritage and rich racing history; a company that has battled against seemingly impossible odds over the years and is still here, producing beautiful, handmade sports cars that turn the heads of anyone with an eye for class and distinction. I’ve been guilty of cutting the cars too much slack, for forgiving them things others might not get away with, simply because my heart can’t help but influence my head with Astons.

Not that I’ve always had to, mind. Some modern Astons have been utterly brilliant – the DBS still ranks as one of my very favourite cars. I’ve covered tens of thousands of kilometres in them, with both manual and automatic gearboxes, and not once have I ever regretted sitting behind the wheel. The same can be said of the V8 Vantage, the DB9 and the Rapide – all charming and brilliant in their own ways – but the latest baby Aston, the Vantage N430, is one I’ll never hanker to be inside ever again.

On paper, it should be one of the very best. As a more focused, aggressive and sporting version of Aston Martin’s most playful model, it should all come together to form a car that I’d look for any excuse to drive. Instead, I find myself looking for any excuse to get out of it. And that’s never happened to me before with an Aston Martin.

You might be reading this with horror and disgust. “Yes, but it’s an ASTON MARTIN,” I hear you silently shouting. “What’s there to complain about?” Ordinarily I’d agree with you, but – and it’s a great big but – the N430’s “Sportshift” transmission is its ruination. Given a traditional six-speed manual, I might be singing its praises, but with this agricultural self-shifter, praise is the farthest thing from my mind.

Forget the colour schemes (they tie in with Aston’s racing history) – although the battleship grey of the leather interior with my test car is fairly off-putting – as these are irrelevant when it comes to saying whether a car is good or not. There’s nothing wrong with the fit or finish of the cabin’s materials, although the instrumentation and infotainment system controls are now hopelessly outdated, but the panel gaps where my car’s rear hatch meets the rest of the body are questionable. This could be down to spacers that require adjustment, so I’ll let it off.

There’s little wrong with its performance, either, although I can’t help feeling that the examples we get here are lacking compared to the ones I’ve tested in Europe. Maybe that’s a fuel issue? And without proper timing equipment, I can’t say with any degree of certainty that it’s slower than official figures say it should be. But this N430 doesn’t feel particularly ballistic, despite the nomenclature being the same number as its engine’s imperial horsepower figure.

But it looks as gorgeous as ever and sounds utterly glorious when given its steam. Pressing the “Sport” button on its upper dash makes it more rapid, too. It corners well, thanks to retuned dampers and stiffer springing, feeling planted and composed at all times, deploying all 436 of its horses without giving its driver a coronary. In the city and over speed humps it’s just about bearable, too, but it’s the urban environment that first causes concern. It’s the gearbox – a ­robotised manual that’s so jerky it makes even an ancient tram seem like the embodiment of smooth progress.

I’ve driven many cars with these transmissions, including other Aston Martins and Lamborghinis, and had similar problems – but the N430 is easily the worst of the lot. My passengers over the few days I spend trying to get to grips with the Vantage all say the same thing: it’s horrid.

Aston Martin claims that the “Sportshift II” tranny gives the N430 an extremely dynamic, sporting character; that it involves the driver more than any before it. This is patently nonsense; all it does is ruin every single drive. A manual would allow the driver actual involvement, obviously, and the ability to match clutch inputs to gear changes so that smoothness could be maintained at all times. But the feel and noise of this thing makes it seem that the car is never far away from disintegration of its drivetrain.

Soon, there will be an entirely new range of Aston Martins, and with them, proper dual-clutch transmissions. Perhaps then the V8 Vantage, or whatever its successor will be called, will actually become the Porsche 911 rival it’s always had the potential to be. With Mercedes’ AMG division developing the oily bits for them, what could possibly go wrong? So long as Aston Martin keeps making cars that are beautiful to look at, this new engineering could well be the making of the company. More than most, I still live in hope that my faith will be repaid.

khackett@thenational.ae

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Published: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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