"No more Russian dolls," Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer told me after I'd spent a day behind the wheel of the new 2019 Aston Martin Vantage, the company's first new model to hit the market since the release of the all-new DB11 last year.
With that simple statement, Palmer is making a few things clear. First, he's acknowledging one of the main criticisms levied against the old Aston Martin: that its cars were just a little too samey. And second? He's saying Aston went out of its way to make the new Vantage a decidely different beast from the DB11.
That's not an easy task, considering the two models share parts of the same chassis, suspension and even a motor. The foundation is the same, but for the Vantage, Andy Palmer and his team have created something quite different indeed. More importantly, they've created something quite good.
A different path
You only have to look at the new Vantage once to realize that this is meant to be an edgier option than the iconic DB series. Where the DB11 has some subtlety to its lines and a strong nod to its predecessors, the Vantage shape is new and aggressive, starting with its color you see here: Lime Essence.
What may sound like a light, citrusy drink is actually a bright shade of yellow that's gone on a neon-green acid trip, picking up a hint of metallic along the way. It looks absolutely spectacular -- and especially did in the unusually drab conditions during our testing in Portugal. Aston's Palmer said the color was intentionally meant to "shock," perhaps a final push for someone on the fence between this and the DB11.
Where the DB11 is meant to be a 2+2 grand tourer, delivering a comfortable enough ride, plenty of storage and a set of rear seats for small children (or adults you don't like too much), the Vantage is a more purposeful sports car. Those token rear seats are gone, the suspension (though the same configuration) is stiffer and the exhaust is noticeably louder.
But really, it's that exterior that might be the biggest departure. Up front you'll find not the trademark Aston grille, but instead an assertive lip set to scrape downforce from the road ahead. At the rear, the Vantage sports a pronounced duck-bill spoiler along with a massive rear diffuser lurking beneath the bumper.
The result is a far more purposeful look than the DB11's, a look that's matched by the drive.
Behind the wheel
My two days with the Vantage were marred by some of the worst rains seen in Portugal in months, strong enough to flood roads, instigate rock slides and make the locals shrug apologetically. Not ideal testing conditions for sampling the best that Aston's best has to offer, but still plenty of opportunity to discover what sets this car apart.
My brief affair started on the epic circuit at Portimao, a place with enough blind, off-camber corners to induce driver fear on the best of days. In the wet it's a proper handful, and so is the Vantage. With 503 horsepower delivered to the rear wheels through the same eight-speed automatic as in the DB11, the traction control was working hard.
If I heard you groan a bit at the mention of an automatic with a torque-converter in a car like this, know that I tend toward the same reaction. In this case, though, the smooth shifts of the automatic were actually a help. I was able to grab another gear mid-corner in the wet without fear that a rifle-like upshift might unsettle the car. While a DCT would be quicker, it would be harsher, and this automatic is hardly lethargic.
Besides, while Aston representatives fell short of confirming that there will be a Vantage with a proper manual transmission, they wasted no opportunity explaining how the center console would be reconfigured to make room for a shifter when one is added. So, there you have it: if you really hate autos, there's (almost certainly) a manual coming for you.
Meanwhile, it's almost impossible to find fault with the motor. Say what you will about a Mercedes-sourced German heart in a British body, the AMG 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8 is still epic. While it doesn't sing like a V12, neither does it have the same snort here as it does in Mercedes guise, giving its own, distinctive, evocative sound. If you're hard of hearing you can option a louder sport exhaust, but the stock unit is plenty randy. Lag is minimal and torque is sublime, more than enough to overpower the Pirelli P-Zero tires at the rear.
Though I needed to be gentle on the right pedal, the Vantage's brake feel is a huge improvement over the soft, long-throw in the initial DB11. The shift paddles, too, feel far more positive than other car's flappier ones.
Out on the narrow and sinuous roads surrounding Portimao, which were even more damp, I was able to get a better feel for the front end of the car, which reacts with more bite and eagerness than the DB11. However, torrential rains and claustrophobic visibility limited the feedback -- and my confidence.
Wet or dry, the difference in suspension tuning is clear. Even on its most comfortable setting of "Sport" the Vantage is a bit of a harsh mistress, informing you of every road imperfection. Crank up the suspension to Track mode and it's positively unbearable on the street. I don't mind, but where the adaptive suspension on many supercars can swing from properly comfortable to outright racy, the Vantage stops well short of that first benchmark, pushing it yet further from its more touring-friendly sibling, the DB11.
And that's a bit of a shame because the interior is a perfectly fine place to cover miles. The seats, though more supportive than those in DB11, are quite comfortable and there's plenty of leg, shoulder and headroom for most, even while wearing with a helmet. There's even a trunk big enough for the standard two bags of clubs, plus a fair few storage cubbies and even cupholders. No glove box, though.
When it comes to technology, the Vantage offers the same infotainment system as found in the new DB11. That, like the motor, was borrowed more or less wholesale from Mercedes-Benz, where it's called COMAND. It's not the latest flavor of that system, nor indeed the most comprehensive on the road with a lack of support for Android Auto, but it's still miles ahead of what was found in the last Vantage iteration.
Though I confess I had hopes for some more significant chassis dimension changes between the Vantage and the DB11, Aston's first two new models really do stand further apart than the DB9 did from its various derivatives over the years. The Vantage drives as aggressively as it looks, and while many will see it as a bit too harsh in either of those aspects, that's kind of the idea. And if it's too aggressive for you, Andy Palmer has a DB11 he'd love to get you into.