Cars like the Aston Martin Vanquish S are the reason I do this job. They may not be perfect--it really isn't difficult to pick fault with the Vanquish--but they provoke a very basic, guttural and emotive reaction that's impossible to dispel. As a reader of this magazine, I suspect you know what I mean, but it's the kind of reaction for which no car lover would have me sent to the loony bin.
Take the looks, for example. A few years ago, just as Pininfarina forgot how to style a pretty Ferrari, Ian Callum devised a formula for Aston design that combines muscularity with chic and sensuous elegance. The Vanquish is now almost 4 years-old but its aesthetics are still capable of causing palpitations at 50 paces. The DB9 has been heralded as one of the world's great GTs, but to these eyes at least, the more athletic Vanquish still has the edge.
Aston has meddled with the original shape to create the S, but the addenda are pleasingly subtle. A new front splitter and a redesigned bootlid detract nothing from the overall theme and improve the high-speed aerodynamics, while the new, 19-in. alloy wheels are dramatic without appearing vulgar. This shape is wonderful: It's Anna Kournikova made automotive.
Over dinner once, while he was accepting plaudits for the exterior, Callum let slip that he wasn't "particularly proud of the interior." Whereas the body is all hand-crafted beauty, the cabin is parts-bin-tastic. The #103,000 DB9 has its own switchgear, but this #174,000 Vanquish must make do with bits from Volvos and Jaguars. Only a handful of switches are bespoke.
Aston's current management (Callum is now Jaguar's design boss) are well aware of the problem and they've tried to improve matters in the S by swamping everything in dead cow. The roof is now lined with quilted suede and the aluminum center console now comes shrink-wrapped in soft leather. It's a step forward but the words "silk purse" and "sow's ear" still spring to mind.
New, more aggressive Recaro seats have also done little to improve what remains a flawed driving position. You sit too high--as a 6-ft 3-in. beanpole my head scratches the roof lining--and the steering wheel is cantered away from the driver, truck-style. You get used to an eccentric posture, but it still runs counter to the advice of every driving manual.
It's easy to forget such foibles, though, the moment you extend a digit towards the crystal starter button. No road car engine, not even Knightrider's Kitt, has ever sounded as good as a Vanquish S. Six-liters and 12 cylinders worth of automotive genius conspire with an ultra-expensive exhaust muffler to create a sound so pure, that it's almost virginal. The S retune ensures that it's a little more strident than the standard Vanquish, but it's none the worse for that.
New cylinder heads with fully machined inlet ports, new spark plugs, reprofiled combustion chambers and new fuel injectors, together with a remapped ECU, have increased the power output from the standard Vanquish's 460 bhp to 520 bhp. Torque is also up by 25 lb-ft to 425 lb-ft. For Aston, these figures are far from academic. The power output elevates the S beyond the rival Ferrari 575M, and distances it further from the cheaper, 450-bhp DB9.
Changes to the final drive ratio have also increased mid-range acceleration to the point that Aston claims a 50 to 70 mph in top time of 6.5 sec., which is almost 2 sec. faster than before. For the record, the S will also pass 200 mph, sprint from 0 to 62 mph in 4.2 sec. and top the ton in 9.8 sec.
When it was launched, you may remember, the Vanquish was hailed as a fast GT, but the arrival of the DB9 has occasioned a redefinition. The Vanquish is now officially described as Aston's supercar, a car with slightly rawer edge that will appeal directly to the committed enthusiast. The new Vanquish, due in 2007 will be a much more focussed driver's tool and the S is seen as a stepping stone.
In combination, the increased thrust and the subtly different soundtrack have succeeded in altering the character of Aston's flagship. While it would be wrong to suggest this is a wholly new car, it does exude a greater urgency and spirit. Prod the sport button, keep the throttle buried and the whipcrack, paddle-shift gearchanges are violent to the point of being uncomfortable.
A more sophisticated and ultimately satisfying approach is to feather the throttle on upchanges to smooth the process. The Vanquish's Magneti Marelli gearbox is better than it was on the early models but it's still a couple of generations behind the system fitted to the 575M. It's also far less satisfying overall than the six-speed ZF gearbox found in the DB9.
Last fall, I drove the interim Vanquish, a standard car fitted with a Sports Dynamic Pack consisting of the revised suspension and braking package destined for the S (see ec 03/05). Back then I noted that although the ride quality was marginally firmer than before, the quicker steering and more focused setup resulted in a car that was notably more agile. Better too, were the larger, competition derived brakes, which alleviated the old problems of fade and feedback.
The extra power throws these changes into sharper focus. This is so much more than a point-and-squirt machine and whereas its Vantage predecessor had to be manhandled down the road, the Vanquish can be finessed. The S is an extremely talented drive, which is a supreme achievement when you consider it was designed and developed when Aston was little more than a cottage industry.
A strictly objective analysis, though, would dictate the Ferrari 575M remains a better car. The Ferrari is more agile, has a nicer cabin and is more finely honed than the Vanquish. Nor is it possible to escape the conclusion that the vastly cheaper DB9 is a better expression of Aston Martin here and now.
But in this stratospheric sector of the market, soul and character count for almost as much as raw ability. The Ferrari might be a masterpiece but the styling remains questionable and its V12 is strangely muted--put simply, it doesn't have the Aston's soul. And while the DB9 is bonded together by a robot, the Vanquish is still hand-beaten by a talented craftsman.
The standard Vanquish will remain on the official price lists and it will continue to be offered with the Sports Dynamic Pack. Some customers may prefer its slightly more understated character, but Aston expects almost all its customers to choose the S. Those who do will become the proud owners of one of the most exhilarating, charismatic cars of this or any other generation.
2005 Aston Martin Vanquish S Specs
Type: 5935cc 60* V12
Power Output (bhp): 520 @ 7000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 425 @ 5800 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed semi-automatic with Automatic Shift Manual
L/W/H (in.): 183.7/75.7/51.9
Curb weight (lb): 4,133
Brakes: 378mm ventilated discs, six-piston monobloc calipers (f), 330mm ventilated discs, four-piston monobloc calipers (r)
Wheels: 9J x 19in (f), 10J x 19 (r)
Tires: Yokohama AML (bespoke), 255/40 ZR19 (f), 285/40 ZR19 (r)
0 to 60 mph (sec.): 4.8
Top speed ( mph): "over" 200 mph
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