Let’s be clear about this: buying the new Aston Martin Vantage Sportshift won’t make you James Bond. You won’t have a licence to kill, you won’t take Eva Green to bed and you’ll look like a plonker when you order a dry Martini, shaken not stirred, in your local boozer. But it might just make you feel like an all-action hero. The V8 Vantage is one of those cars about which it is difficult to be rational. So perfect are its proportions and so exquisite is its detailing that it conjures feelings of wanton lust, even before you reach for one its designer door handles. This, the baby Aston Martin, is arguably even better looking than its larger, more expensive siblings, the DB9 and Vanquish.
Aston Martin is currently up for sale and, as I write, a number of potential bidders are carrying out due diligence. It is a time of some instability, but that hasn’t stopped the company pushing ahead with a series of new models and derivatives. In March, we’ll be driving the new V8 Vantage Roadster, but as a prelude we were invited to the Gulf State of Bahrain for a sneak preview of another new Vantage, the Sportshift. While the DB9 employs a standard ZF automatic transmission with a sequential shift facility, the Sportshift employs a clutchless manual system, similar to that used in the Vanquish.
This allows for faster shift speeds and Aston’s marketing boffins reckon it reflects the Vantage’s more youthful, sporting demeanour. This is an off-the-peg solution from Magneti Marelli, who also supply Ferrari and Lamborghini, among others. The Italian specialists have even developed bespoke software that has allowed Aston’s engineers to tune its characteristics to suit the Vantage’s 4.3-litre V8. Gears are selected using steering-column-mounted paddles, which are carved from aluminium and wrapped in leather.
There are three different shift modes to choose from, selected by buttons on the centre console. Prod the crystalline starter button and the gearbox defaults to ‘Sport’, the most aggressive option (see sidebar). Comfort is designed to offer slower, smoother shifts and there’s also a fully automatic option. In all three modes, Aston has incorporated some creep into the transmission to make the Vantage easier to manoeuvre at low speeds. In first gear, the car will creep forwards at up to 4mph, even if no throttle pressure is applied. It’s a useful aid for city folk, but other aspects of the ’box’s behaviour still need work. In automatic mode, the shift from 1-2 and from 2-3 is accompanied by an awkward jolt. Automated downshifts – such as when the car approaches a junction – are also accompanied by an uncomfortable shunting motion. The latest Ferrari systems are much better resolved, and Aston’s engineers are promising changes to the gearbox’s calibration before the Sportshift goes on sale in the Spring. They are also considering adjusting the software to prevent the system automatically changing up at 7,000rpm, even in Sport. This feature could prove an irritation to enthusiastic drivers, especially those who like to venture onto a test track.
Sadly, the transmission also does nothing to alleviate this car’s biggest problem – a lack of low- to mid-range torque. This is an engine that needs to be thrashed to deliver its best and it never feels as rapid as the raw figures – 380bhp/409Nm and 0-100km in 4.8 seconds – suggest. The key to the problem is the car’s mass. It might look like the automotive equivalent of Kate Moss, but it has more in common with Oprah Winfrey. At 1,630kg, it’s 166kg heavier than a Porsche 911 Carrera S Tiptronic. The chassis setup is unchanged, which is no bad thing. A 911 is more tactile, but the Vantage is fail-safe and nicely balanced. The steering in particular deserves praise, delivering a fine blend of assistance and chitter-chatter.
The Vantage might lack the V12 grunt of the DB9 or Vanquish, but it’s ultimately the more satisfying car to drive hard. A few laps of the Bahrain grand prix circuit also confirmed that the stability control system is well judged. It could properly be described as a driving aid, instead of an electronic hindrance, and those of us who aren’t called Schumacher will probably find they’ll drive faster with the system switched on. The gearbox also feels better on the road than the track, where its lack of refinement is less of an issue. Some detail improvements have been introduced across the Vantage range. The seats have been redesigned to accommodate Aston’s wider-bodied (i.e. American) customers. They look better, but those who prefer sushi to a Big Mac will now find they want for side support. Aston could do worse than offer sports seats as an option. A new cubby nestles where the gear stick once lived and there’s a neat mobile phone holder, but that’s about the extent of the changes.
The exquisite, chronograph-style instruments remain and the Vantage’s cabin still has a sense of theatre, even if some of the ergonomics are eccentric. If the promised revisions to the Sportshift’s calibration prove a success, then it will be a welcome addition to the range, but we’d still question whether it’s worth a hefty premium over the excellent manual gearbox. There can also be no denying that the Sportshift looks expensive when compared with the more technically accomplished 911 Carrera S Tiptronic, but the Aston is much more exclusive and, thanks to the exploits of Mr J Bond, has an enviable image. And of course, it makes a great ornament.
Aston Martin V8 Vantage Sportshift
Engine 4,280cc 8-cyl, 380bhp, 409Nm torque
Boot Capacity 300 litres
Acceleration 0-100km/h 4.8 seconds
Top speed 281 km/h
Transmission: 6-speed clutchless manual, rear-wheel drive
Economy 15 litres/100km