Road Test: the little Aston Martin Vantage S holds its own

Aston Martin, the gentlemanly marque, brings out its inner brute with the diminutive Vantage S.

Let's forget all this sporting (rather than sports) car nonsense, the GT condescension or the backhanded Gentleman's Express compliment that people try to foist on Aston Martin. All are meant to be mildly disparaging; to diminish the Aston's appeal as somehow lesser than, say, a "pur sang" Porsche or Ferrari. The implication is that an Aston, any Aston, is an old man's car.

Bull patooties!

That may indeed have been true back when the DB9 was new and the Vantage boasted but 4.3L from its Jaguar-inspired V8. But, as anyone who's spent even five minutes in a DBS can attest, the days of "soft" Astons is long past.

That's a sentiment never more true than with the hoary old English marque's 2011 Vantage S. As with all of Gaydon's cars, the new S version is built on Aston's VH platform but massaged within an inch of its life for maximum performance.

For instance, director of product development, Ian Minards, says that, to eke the S's 430hp (up from the base car's 420hp), the 4.7L V8 has had its ignition timing advanced to within a smidgen of piston-destroying detonation. Not only that, Aston spins the V8 to a semi-stratospheric 7,300rpm, the very limit for piston reliability (when the rev limiter cuts in) and proper oil flow.

It's a good thing, since Aston's V8 definitely likes to be spun high. The Vantage S's 489Nm of torque only arrives at 5,000rpm and, though Aston claims that 76 per cent of that figure is available as low as 1,500rpm, maximum motivation still requires high revs and frequent rowing of the new seven-speed sequential automated manual gearbox. Flip the paddles fast enough, however and the Vantage S will scoot to 100kph in about 4.5 seconds. That may not sound exactly Porsche-crushing, but remember the Vantage benefits from neither the tractive abilities of all-wheel-drive nor the 911 Turbo's computer-controlled "Launch" mode. Make no mistake about it; the Vantage S feels fast.

It will also hurtle the smallest Aston around Spain's famed Ascari circuit with something beyond polite alacrity. Spin the big V8 to seven grand and those eight pistons will push the Vantage close to the S's reported 305kph top speed. Combine that with delicate throttle control and precise shifting from the new transmission and you have a power train worthy of the Aston Martin nameplate.

The Vantage S's chassis is second to none in the Aston line-up, at least for hooning around hairpins. Unlike the more expensive Virage and DBS, which sport five-position adaptive suspensions, the Vantage has non-adjustable shock absorbers. But, true to its more aggressive intent, said suspension is calibrated sportingly firm.

The bolstered suspension makes for minimal body roll even when hustling around Ascari's 26 turns at a pace that would make even Porsches sweat. Though it wears the same 19-inch rims as the rest of the Vantage range, Aston has widened the tyres - ultra-sticky Bridgestone Potenza RE050 - to 245/50 front and 285/35 rear for increased traction. Even better is that the new-found grip, along with the quicker power-steering box (15.0:1 ratio rather than the standard Vantage's 17.0:1), allows controlled drifting of both front and rear tyres, at least when the traction nanny is switched off. The Vantage's natural tendency is to understeer, but, at Ascari at least, the S can only be forced to push the front end in off-camber hairpins. In most other corners - from long sweepers to seriously high-speed kinks - the Vantage S steers quite linearly. In sum, this is one Astzon that is as competent on the track as its German competitors. It shouldn't be a surprise, since Aston has twice won its class at Le Mans with its DBR9.

The S's one track-orientated weakness - and it's hardly a real-life weakness - is that the brakes, despite upgrading to six-piston callipers and 380mm front discs, will fade under severe torture. And torture the poor things we did, as Ascari is truly a high-speed circuit with frequent prolonged heavy braking. Minards notes that Aston could have installed the DBS's carbon-ceramic discs but felt that the Vantage's relatively light weight - 1,610kg - didn't warrant the upgrade. For all but the most severe duty, he's right.

The Vantage's S's more significant fault, however, is the aforementioned seven-speed electronically-controlled manual transmission. Unlike most such automated manuals that feature twin clutches, the Graziano (of Turin, Italy who also build the new McLaren MP4-12C's transmission) gearbox uses but a single clutch. On the racetrack its shifts are sufficiently speedy, at least when it's in "sport" mode. But on the road, like other such single clutch manumatics (like the BMW M5 and the Audi R8), there's a noticeable hesitation when shifting. It's better than the six-speed it replaces, but in "automatic" mode, it remains somewhat balky. In normal driving, I almost always used the paddle-shifters, the automatic set-up simply being too distracting. According to Minards, Aston chose this particular transaxle (mounted in the rear) because the dual-clutch version was too heavy - 50kg more, says Minards - and too large to fit into the Vantage's chassis. Unfortunately, if you're looking for more sophisticated transmission performance, you have to move up to the larger DB9, Virage or DBS, which all feature a smooth-shifting ZF six-speed automatic. It's also worth noting that that the Mclaren's seven-speeder is also a transaxle and features smoother-shifting dual clutches.

One other possible drawback - at least for lumbar-challenged cripples like me - is the sport seats that will be offered exclusively on the Vantage S. Although they are well-bolstered and save 10kg (of the 40 kilos that Minards claims the S package reduces over the standard Vantage) of dead weight, they are not adjustable for tilt. You either fit them or (as in my case) you don't. Vantage S's will come standard with Aston's power-adjustable buckets and for those looking for long-distance comfort they will be well worth the 10 kilogram penalty.

From a US pricing standpoint, the Vantage S is something of a bargain in Aston's line-up, costing only US$13,250 more than the standard (with Sportshift transmission) Vantage's US$124,750 (the coupe retails for US$138,000 while the Roadster convertible starts at US$151,000; the price for the Vantage S coupe here will be Dh554,615). Indeed, that small price hike makes me think than most shopping a Vantage will opt for the S version. By Aston standards, the upgrades are well worth it.

How does your favourite sports car handle? Read more Road Tests.

Sign up to:

* Please select one