Testing the 2018 Aston Martin Vantage at Test World in Finland
Ivalo airport, Finland’s northernmost landing strip has something almost no other airport has: charm. Make that two things: charm, and a winter-weather proving ground literally a snowball’s throw away. Called Test World, it was snapped up by the Millbrook Group in 2015 to be an almost permanently snowy adjunct to its Bedfordshire-based facility, mainly specialising in tyre testing where grip is lower than Ant Man’s instep at this crunchy, deeply sub-zero time of year. Delivering a comparable system jolt is the acid yellow and black disruptor camouflage clinging to (and successfully disrupting) the sharky shape of this year’s Aston Martin Vantage. It’s being prepped for the morning’s slither ‘n’ roll around Test World’s solid-white handling circuit on bespoke cold-weather Pirelli Sottozeros, and as it’s still in the large, echoey on-site garage facility, its Mercedes-AMG-sourced twin-turbo 4-litre V8 is burbling a deeply guttural and reverberant, but assiduously Aston-adjusted, burble.
Over 19,000 kilometres of testing
By the end of its six-week stint at Test World, this final Aston Martin Vantage prototype will have covered over 19,000 kilometres on set test routes, mainly in shifts by teams of local drivers chaperoned by a couple of engineers and a technician. A diary is kept in which any untoward occurences are noted and accompanying data logged, to be reported back to Aston HQ, where, if necessary, it can be acted upon. Severe cold has a way of targeting things we in Blighty would never even think of. Frozen starter motors, for instance. But then that’s the whole point.
Unleashing the 503 horses and 684.6Nm on snowy Arctic roads
Half an hour later it’s out into -18° C on Pirelli-polished snow and, counter to expectations, I’m minded to steal a slightly ungrammatical lyric from the great Bruno Mars. Yeah, we drippin’ in finesse. It’s freaky, borderline balletic, the Aston Martin’s artfully confused curves slowly vanishing altogether under a claggy coating of air-flung snow. And no – given the potency of the AMG motor’s 503bhp and 684.6Nm of torque, the rear-wheel drive and the modest length of the wheelbase – it don’t make no sense. Then again, it kind of does. What with the honed drifting chops of Aston’s (ex-Lotus) dynamics chief Matt Becker and this being the first Aston Martin chassis he’s developed from scratch – and, moreover, in close collaboration with the powertrain team. His silky metering of drift via steering, throttle, transmission and electronic differential is a palpable, kinetic manifestation of engineering integration and cohesion, at least some of which should survive when we swap seats and I get a taste of Test World, and some of Finland’s equally testing roads, in arguably the first Aston that will really take the fight to Porsche’s 911.
The joy of finding a seat and driving position that intuitively click – unlike in the old Vantage – is massaged by cabin architecture, materials, switchgear ergonomics and dials even bolder and sexier than the DB11’s. Longer and easier-to-use paddles, too, and an uncommonly lovely steering wheel, blighted only by its flat bottom. Overall, though, I can’t recall an Aston with interior style and substance so seamlessly fused. Becker suggests I dial myself in with a few laps of the handling circuit, and quickly runs through the cumulative linked benefits of the driving modes, adaptive damper settings, eight-speed ZF auto, a rear axle sub assembly fixed directly to the body without the cushioning intervention of rubber bushes and, particularly, the e-diff, which he describes as the chassis’ ‘most powerful tool’.
The driving modes
There are three powertrain and damper modes apiece – Sport, Sport+ and Track – which can be paired-up any way you want. ‘We’ve shifted everything one to the right compared with the DB11,’ says Becker. So the ‘soft’ GT mode is forgotten and Track is added, which itself is more focused and aggressive than Sport+. The nature of the progression from one to the next is much the same, though: precisely calibrated incremental stiffening of the damping, quickening of the throttle response, weighting of the steering and ballooning volume of pops and bangs from the exhaust. The commensurate slackening off of the traction control is implemented by the ESP-controlled e-diff. Unlike a purely mechanical LSD, this can go from fully open to 100 per cent locked in a blink and works hand-in-hand with the braked torque-vectoring. Or you can turn it all off and trust SBA (Snow Bank Assist) should driver talent part company with what Becker assures me is the chassis’ benign natural balance.
0-100kmph in 3.6 seconds and a top speed of 314kmph
Naturally, there’s no opportunity up here to get a true feel for the Aston Martin Vantage’s AMG-nourished performance – 0-100kmph in 3.6 seconds and 314kmph V-max for the record – but the way the V8 and ZF auto do subtle, smooth and gentle at lower speeds, and measure their contribution to the balance and traction of the chassis, is just as important. And if your smart electronic differential is tasked with so much, the ultra-low-mu surface provided by Test World’s compressed snow certainly gives it plenty to think about.
“The Vantage is the Christian Bale of method on snow and ice, a car that transcends the script with flattering levels of grace, flow and control”
To start, I stick with the gently buffered slip angles of Sport+ and more right pedal circumspection than Gordon Lightfoot could summon. Not sliding, however, isn’t a realistic option and, indeed, an insult to Test World. Besides, even with the Becker factor sidelined and electronic aids stood down, the Aston Martin Vantage is the Christian Bale of method on snow and ice, a car that transcends the script with flattering levels of grace, flow and control, able to parlay even the most tentative stabs at sustained arcs of drift into something approximating a Ken Block tribute act. Perhaps just as importantly, its direct and beautifully weighted steering has bags of lock, so seriously sideways is usually recoverable. If not, there’s always SBA. And before we break for a snack and resumption of business on the road, it comes in handy. Let’s call it a helpful nudge in the right direction at the optimum moment.
The quality of the powertrain is more evident on the road to… well, to be frank, who knows? On the Merc-sourced satnav the smattering of names like Nellim, Alajärvi and, my favourite, Lemmenjoki, seem promisingly diverse but, in reality, everything looks the same: uniformly off-white-smeared ribbons of tarmac scything a mostly straight, gently undulating course through endless, almost unimaginably pretty pine forests. There isn’t a breath of wind. The Vantage is finding its voice, and it’s a glorious sound. ‘We haven’t gone as aggressive as AMG,’ says Becker. ‘We didn’t want to make it sound as if someone’s shooting a gun at you on downshifts. This is crisper and more refined, more Aston.’
Fitted with a shallower, Aston Martin-designed wet sump so it can sit as low and far back in the chassis as possible, the V8, as it arrives from Affalterbach, also has a new induction and exhaust system and bespoke engine management software. Such is the extraordinary flexibility of the motor, effort levels are almost vanishingly low on these roads, with little need, other than gratuitously, to dip down into the ZF transmission’s lower ratios. So I do. The shifts are all but imperceptible, yet seem as swift as any double-clutch system’s, striking just the right balance between sporty urgency and refinement. It’s an idea that informs the spirit of the car – any Becker-developed car, to be fair.
Development metrics set the dynamic agenda
‘One of my clear briefs when I arrived at Gaydon was to dynamically separate the cars,’ he says. ‘To make sure DB11 is the GT car and Vantage is the sports car. The key differentiation is a metric called roll-per-G: how much roll do you get for 1G of lateral acceleration. DB11 is around 3 degrees per G and Vantage is just over 2.’ But, as Becker proved at Lotus, pin-sharp handling and comfort aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s as clear as the rising sun here in Finland. The new Vantage steers so precisely and rides so smoothly it can be guided with finger and thumb. There are no rough edges, irregularities, or hidden surprises. In short, it’s got the cold down cold, and in some style. But I have a feeling it’s the prospect of swapping snow and ice for tarmac and pitlanes, that’s giving executives in Zuffenhausen the shivers.