What would you do if you had a billion bucks? Well I for one have thought about that a billion times coincidentally, and it involves resurrecting the Moskvitch brand and launching three world-class vehicle models; the Communist, the Comrade, and the Kremlin. The Communist would be your entry-level budget model, the Comrade a helpful pick-up, naturally, and the Kremlin would be a no-holds-barred supercar to ruthlessly rule them all. It would be powered by an air-cooled flat-three positioned mid-ships (but slightly to the left to offset the odd cylinder) and it would run on potatoes. I've got more brilliant money-burning schemes of course, but ever since I've just come back from Spain I'm feeling a bit overshadowed. Dutchman Klaas Zwart is to blame. He had other (possibly better) ideas, so he built himself a private race resort in southern Spain, started his own car brand, and did a bunch of other stuff too. He's actually got a billion bucks.
And he's very kindly let Aston Martin and a bunch of motoring hacks use his private paradise for a month of Vantage S hooning. He didn't even ask for an exorbitant amount of money, according to Aston accountants.
Ball's in your court
I still can't decide whether I'm more smitten by the circuit or the Vantage S. The Ascari Race Resort looks like nothing from the Spanish B-road which flies past its inconspicuous gates. I tackled this road in a Vantage S and scared myself silly.
Part billiard table and part ploughed field, the curves throw at you every trick in the book; blind crests, sleepy truck drivers, the stereotypical English caravans, and a particular Spanish policeman who happened to be taking his siesta at the exact spot I decided to cool the Aston's big steel brakes. Growling to a stop, I immediately woke him up and feared the worst. A smoke bomb behind the 19in wheels is more proof of irresponsible driving than you'd ever need, but he just eyed the car up and down and lazily lifted his thumb. I suspect he had wonderful dreams after that. I really like this place… So the 380mm front discs and 330mm rears don't work after 50km of punishing public service, but I was then ushered into the Ascari valley and away from the prying eyes of road-goers. They must've thought I'd gone silly as I went from Vantage S to Vantage S on all fours inspecting the wheels. I was looking for carbon ceramics, but none had them fitted.
I thought it was quite strange of Aston to be cheap at a worldwide launch, but in fact you simply can't get carbon ceramics, not even as a cost option. That would defeat the purpose of this car, and that is to be a mildly affordable sportscar you can also abuse on the track. There are other things Aston Martin does include for the price though, and it turns out the gearbox is one of the neatest. As for the engine, the familiar 4.7-litre V8 now delivers 430bhp at an ear-piercing 7,300rpm and 490Nm at 5,000rpm. Both are only marginal increases over the standard car's 420bhp and 470Nm, but it's how that new-found power reaches the rear wheels that matters. That job is handed over to a new Graziano seven-speed Sportshift II automated manual transmission, positioned on the transaxle.
Weight balance is therefore 49:51 as the V8 sits mostly behind the front axle too. More importantly, the tranny saves 15kg over similar double-clutch units, and contributes generously to a total weight saving of 30kg. Might not sound like much, but where it comes from makes the difference. So, less weight, more power and better delivery, just the stuff I need to provide laughs at Ascari. The place has 26 corners, 13 lefts and 13 rights, and more ups and downs than a lift in the Burj Khalifa. It's a sublime track, by far the best I've ever driven in my modest tally of six… 12 if I include karting tracks.
As I waited for the green flag, I realised what a luxurious environment the Vantage S provides, even with carbon-backed buckets and loud contrasting stitching on the leather. The driving position is perfect, with the gigantic truck mirrors on the sides showing everything you've left behind, and you do leave behind a lot in the Vantage S. Getting comfortable is a bit of a mission with the stubborn electric seats, but once you're in with the steering wheel adjusted, the view out is great for a modern car with fat pillars. You can see the wheel arches and the end of the bonnet slope, and you feel satisfied that you could place this car on a fil.
The first corner is a dipping bowl that opens left, and I immediately understeer towards the trees. Amateur stuff really, as the insatiable high-revving V8 yowl made me forget about warming up the road tyres. They'd need more than a lap I reckoned, but after a couple of lefts and rights the Vantage S was up to speed.
Without a proper wing I was wary of two super high-speed right kinks, the second with a devious braking zone for a hairpin. Yet, the little Gurney flap that Aston added to the boot lid proved more than capable of providing the smidgen of downforce necessary for ‘gentleman' driving. With a vastly improved steering ratio of 15:1 instead of 17:1, the Aston tucks into bends with the eagerness of a mid-engined machine, but unlike those beasts, the Vantage takes a set immediately and only starts pulling out once you run out of steering lock. The steering accuracy and immediacy (lock-to-lock is down from 3.04 to 2.62) helps wrap the car around you even better than the superb visibility, and complements its already compact dimensions. It's a wonderful steer for sure, and the back end follows just as willingly. Even in track mode with the traction control half off (you hold it down longer to take the shackles off completely) the rear never swings out of shape. It just sways gently over the chosen line and if you can't catch it with merely a hint of opposite lock, then frankly you have the reflexes of a dead sloth. Great handling. The power is all right too, if not at all overwhelming. The Aston's 430bhp today is what 130bhp used to be in an eighties' hatchback, what with all the supercars pushing upwards of six, seven hundred lately… This just means that the shove of the torque is always there to thrust on towards the next curve, yet never in danger of totally overpowering the rear 285/30 R19 Bridgestone Potenzas. These tyres, I must just add, are superb, with minimal protesting squeals and oodles of grip even with ludicrous slip angles through rubbish driving when you totally mess up a line. Boy are they stiff though. On the road the Vantage S is more skittish than Woody Allen. On our roads, I suspect, they'll be just fine but we'll have to wait and see until well into summer. There is another great thing about track work in the Vantage S, and here I have to come back to the seven-speed 'box. With aggressive paddle shifters the car lurches into the next gear and takes off with most of the torque available from almost idle speed. It's a real race feel and on the downshifts you might even want to try blipping the throttle yourself for added fun. The closer ratios mean you accelerate quicker (final drive is 4.182:1 as opposed to the standard Vantage's 3.909:1, but then you have an extra gear here) and remain in the power band longer. Luckily the V8's eagerness to rev makes this effect felt even more.
I must also come back to the brakes because after four laps, or about 25km of track duty, the steel system had just about enough. I pulled into the pits to sort out the video camera and another smoke bomb was let off behind the front wheels. Curiously, the brakes do at least half of the promised job once they go, by not completely numbing pedal feel.
Stopping distance still increases, but the pedal loses pressure less consistently, which I'm not so sure is a good thing. The brake pedal tells you before anything else whether you'll make the braking zone or not, and if it's lying, you get false confidence and continue braking late, only to end up mowing the lawn a little bit.
As I did on one occasion. To be fair track work is punishing on 99 per cent of road cars with standard brakes, so this isn't really Aston's fault. And they do have a valid reason for not including the stratospherically expensive carbon ceramics.
I drove the V12 Vantage at the Nürburgring in 2009. Fine, so I didn't exactly drive it around the Nordschleife, just around the village of Nürburg, but that car blew me away with its heavy dose of torque and notchy six-speed manual. Even burdened with a 50kg disadvantage, the V12 demolished switchbacks with one finger and turned autobahns into driveways.
Yet the Vantage S feels nimbler, lighter (that's because it is lighter, by 70kg), more forgiving, quicker on the turn in and less prone to understeer with its much leaner nose. The new transmission also makes it comfortably easier to drive at the limit and more useable in town.
It's a great addition to the wide Aston Martin range (there are nine different Vantages you can now pick from, if you take into account the roadsters too) and having sampled everything except the company's race cars — actually I did sample the GT1 car from the passenger seat — I can safely say it's the best Vantage you can buy.
And seriously, I wouldn't even bother asking for a manual and neither should you, not just because the Graziano gearbox is great, but because they simply don't do one
Now, if only you had a billion bucks, right?
Specs & ratings
Model Vantage S
Engine 4.7-litre V8
Max power 430bhp @ 7,300rpm
Max torque 490Nm @ 5,000rpm
Top speed 305kph