Test Drive: 2019 Aston Martin Vantage

Today I am on the hunt for Mercedes-AMG built 4.0L twin-turbo V8s. And I’ve found one in the Aston Martin Vantage stuffed as far behind the front axle as the firewall will allow.

I’m at an Aston Martin customer event in Carmel. The Aston Martin marketing team is talking my ear off about the company’s racing heritage. They tell me that Aston Martin cut its teeth at the race track, that the company had a decade of racing history before it minted its first street car, and that the “Martin” in Aston Martin references a famous British hill climb. I’m also told that the Aston Martin Vantage—new for 2019—is a direct competitor to the Porsche 911 GT3, the car that’s the archetypal track day rocket.

I don’t believe the marketing. While the base prices for the Aston Martin Vantage and Porsche 911 GT3 both hover around $150,000, the Aston Martin I know is a purveyor of speed and sex: Spies, Bond girls, and mountain chases, that’s Aston to me. Paddocks, pit walls and podiums are Porsche’s domain; I can count the number of Aston Martins I’ve seen at the track on one hand.

But Mr. Marketing Man is offering me a test drive to prove his point. Okay, Mr. Man, make me a believer too.

Credit: Aston Martin

As I approach my test drive car, I reflect on how well the Vantage wears its new body. The 2019 Vantage still has the traditional Aston Martin proportions, but it has been reskinned in a style that fits an evil empire from a galaxy a long, long time ago. The old car’s gentle creases and wrinkles gave it a warmth like smile lines around wise old eyes. The new car’s skin is smooth and cold, with a demeanor that suggests it will be as friendly and as accurate as a laser blaster.

I settle into the interior, finding a comfortable position in the low bucket seats. Good smelling leather abounds. Mr. Marketing Man tells me about the hand-built quality that differentiates Aston from other marques. His example is how one seamstress is dedicated to sew the entire interior for a car. His example falls flat: Lexus and Porsche do this too, and I suspect the practice is standard for luxury cars in this price bracket.

Although the interior buttons and infotainment screen are Mercedes sourced, they aren’t glaringly out of place in Aston’s cabin. I’ll admit I’m seeing them for the first time here; I don’t have hours of experience in Mercedes-AMG GTs.

Credit: Aston Martin

I hunt around for the start button and find it at the head of a flying V of crystal buttons. The start button might as well be wired to an electronic detonator; when it is pressed, the Vantage’s 4.0L V8 explodes to life with a raucous rumble that shakes the car, the steering wheel, and my tympanic membranes. This is going to be fun.

I back out of my parking spot—giving a silent thanks for the backup camera—and try to creep out of bucolic Carmel by the Sea. I discover that the Vantage isn’t fit for her majesty’s secret service; secret agents have no chance of sneaking up on anyone with this rowdy engine turning revs.

It’s also immediately apparent that the Vantage is not fit for my daily commute. The suspension is very stiff—and we’re still in normal mode!—and I’d immediately tire of crashing over bumps and potholes. The cabin is also incredibly loud, filled with engine and tire noise.

Credit: Aston Martin

I’ve been thinking of Aston Martins as luxurious continental cruisers, but I’d no more like to abuse my spine and ears on a long highway drive in the Vantage than I would in a GT3. So far, Mr. Man’s comparison seems apt as both cars are overkill for everyday use.

Soon I’m driving Highway 1, heading south for Big Sur. I switch into a more aggressive drive mode, and the engine’s growl heightens into an angry snarl. The car wants to run, but there is no space in the Monterey Car Week traffic. South of town, along a beautiful white sand beach, I pause on the road’s shoulder to let traffic clear. After saying a silent apology to every walker and beachgoer in earshot—in the Vantage that covers a half-mile radius—I embrace my inner douche, and I wood the throttle.

With military-grade shock and awe, the Vantage leaps down the highway. My speed-tightened face curls into a petrol-fueled smile as I pound through gear after gear. The 503 hp Aston Martin Vantage may not be objectively as fast as an Acura NSX or a McLaren 570 GT—my personal benchmarks for fast cars—but my butt-dyno thinks it’s as fast as a rocket sled.

(Aston Martin has a curious, if thoughtful, programming of its ZF 8-speed automatic gearbox. When driven in manual mode with the aggressive transmission mapping, the gearbox will upshift from first without a manual paddle pull but bang the rev limiter in all other gears. The thinking goes that the Vantage is so quick through first gear that the driver will want the computer’s assistance, but that in second gear and up, the driver can react quickly enough. I like the logic.)

Credit: Aston Martin

Through Carmel Highlands, Highway 1 tightens. Aston Martin uses an electronically-assisted steering rack in the Vantage, but it is one of the best EPAS wheels I’ve felt. It has as much communication as my 2011 BMW M3’s wheel, it uses a slightly quicker ratio than the autobahn crew for more eager turn-in, and it avoids the rubbery return of BMW’s EPAS.

As we whip past cypress trees and rock walls, I savor the fine feedback and handling from the Vantage’s short wheelbase. The chassis communication is topnotch; has Aston eschewed rubber bushings for a solidly mounted subframe? Through the turns, the Vantage is hunkered down, brimming with road vibrations, and completely ready to blitz corners and test rear-axle traction. When I encounter a big bump before Wildcat Creek bridge, the Vantage vaults the heave then sticks the landing like a pro gymnast. Here is a true-blood sports car.

But Mr. Marketing Man promised me a full-blown track weapon like the Porsche GT3. Is it? I can say that the engine and gearbox feel ready to race, and the suspension is firm enough to handle huge lateral loads. My guess is that the Vantage is an absolute thrill on the track, especially when driving for style (ahem, drifting) rather than lap times. I’d also gander that the Vantage lacks some of the GT3’s pinpoint accuracy.

Credit: Aston Martin

Do I care? Not one iota. The 2019 Aston Martin Vantage is one of the most emotionally engaging sports cars I’ve ever driven. Its dynamic balance and driving feedback feel Lotus inspired, and its fury and thrust evoke the meanest Corvettes. It’s way more fun than a GT3 on public roads, even if it might fall behind on the race track.

(The 2015 911 GT3 I drove felt over-hardened for street use. Its super high limits made the car feel bored in the canyons, and its sticky tires and stripped-out chassis had me wincing at the constant sound of rocks pinging in the bare wheel wells.)   

The Vantage lives to pound pavement—and eardrums—to smithereens. Aston Martin has used the century-old formula of shoehorning a honking engine into a svelte swift-footed coupe, then gussied it up with the classy sheet metal and luxurious linings that are the mainstay of the brand. The resulting 2019 Vantage has all of the Bond-powered sex appeal of prior Astons, plus a raucous kick and crisp handling that just might make it a circuit star too.

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