05/21/06 Went up to Seattle to test drive the Aston V8 Vantage. I've been on the list for a long time and saw the car in person a while back but this is the first time I actually got to drive one. David came along out of curiosity and because he, as all M Coupe owners, loves the looks of the thing. On the way there we were discussing what kind of a nut it takes to drive 300 miles roundtrip to test-drive a car for 10 minutes. On the way back, a friend called and upon being informed of what we were doing wondered the same thing. I need only to look in the mirror to answer that.
Anyway, the test drive. I had pretty low expectations - I know the car looks great but spec-wise it looked to be about the performance equal of an M Coupe and considering the target market it was probably going to be 'softer' than that. So essentially I went up there to confirm my guesses, holding out some irrational hope that maybe I'm wrong... Well, the car does look as stunning as I remember it, definitely from the outside and even the interior is great although neither of the demo cars had what would be my choice in interior color.
I think the interior looks much better like this:
We showed up well ahead of our appointment but were able to get into the two demo cars right away. David took the dark blue one and I took the silver one. The drive itself took place on public roads with 30 mph limits although the salespeople riding along not only didn't mind some exhuberance but in fact indulged in a bit of it themselves on the way out of the lot (standard test drive fare, they drive off the lot, the customer drives back). First immediate impression - the power is only 'eeehhh...'. Probably around 5 sec 0-60 which is nothing too special these days. There is no great torquey rush off the line so as the revs build I was hoping for at least the top-end punch that made the M5 so exciting when pushed. Nope. Just a loooong pull to redline, adequate but not overwhelming, accompanied by a soundtrack that is both a bit tinny and somehow artificial at the same time. It seems disconnected from what's actually going on. In fact that's how the whole car feels, as if your inputs are just queueing requests to some microprocessor that's going to execute them on your behalf, on its own terms and at its own pace. Same was true of the handling. I found a spot to take a sharp right hander followed by a rapid left-right transition. Brake feel is excellent going into the corner but it's way too easy to get into ABS at which point the car is not really slowing down all that fast, maybe 3/4g tops (by contrast the Mini can readily pull 1g but the pedal feel is awful compared to the Aston). The real unpleasant surprise came in the left-right transition. The V8 starts by wallowing from side to side, then it seems the electronics decide to do something about it and react fast enough to keep it under control. We made it through the turns with barely a squeak (and even that was more from the salesman than the tires) but it was obvious that I had little to do with it - the car just dealt with the situation the way it saw fit. Later, in a longish curve I tried feeding the throttle in to see if it could be steered with the right foot like the M5. Nope, just neutral grip (with a good deal of lean), eventually dissolving into understeer. The Bimmer by contrast would hang the tail out quite readily even at 4K rpm in 3rd, at 3/4 throttle. So basically this is no monster.
Overall, my impression of the Vantage is like getting an expensive watch that has all the appearances of a precision mechanism and realizing it's really run electronically underneath the pretty faceplate. Still looks great, is probably more accurate and reliable than the real thing, but that's not why I'd want it. I know I'll probably catch as much flak for this as for my Ford GT comments, but I find the Mini a more satisfying drive. Yeah, it's a couple seconds slower 0-60 but it sounds and feels much more real getting there and I bet would match the Vantage around PIR - both are 1:36-ish cars on street tires (an M Coupe is 1:35 and I'm certain it's marginally faster than the Aston)... I even made David drive DarkHelmet through the same set of curves he took in the V8. He started showing me where the Aston was understeering, expecting the Mini to do the same but as he got further into the gas my car just shrugged it off and tracked the arc while building g load. 'OK, maybe not...' he mumbled. I'd love to have taken the Aston factory people out in the Mini to show them how involving a car can be. But they probably wouldn't care. As I see it, the Vantage is targeted at people who buy 911s to drive to valet-attended restaurants and who wouldn't know how, or care to, use Porsche's performance. In the Aston they'll look a lot better and will be more comfortable too. Don't get me wrong, the Vantage does perform reasonably well. It's just that performance is not so much a focus for the car as it is a checkmark on a list of bragging rights. I think it will be a sales success in Newport Beach - it's a perfect car to be seen in. But I don't see myself in one. Maybe if they came out with an 'R' version that was REAL... The chassis is certainly solid, all the ingredients are there, they just need to be mixed right (I know, 'right' is subjective). But as it is, on the way back home in the Mini I knew I was driving the car I'd prefer to be in. That alone is worth the 300 mile roundtrip to me. Go ahead, call me a nut. You wouldn't be the first.