First drive: Aston Martin Vanquish
Just ahead of the new Bond film, it's a brand new Aston...
The latest Bond film, Skyfall, opens next week, and the word is that it's right up there in the Bond movie pantheon. An all-time classic, in fact. It also features a lustrously shot, Scottish highlands-set climax in which the Aston Martin DB5 features prominently. It's the Bond car to end all Bond cars.
No brand gets to bask in a halo more effulgent and celestial than the one 007 casts over Aston Martin, and it is impossible - perhaps even borderline illegal - not to love this company and all its little foibles. But after a day thrashing about on one of the UK's best B roads in the new Vanquish, I'm sorry to report that I can't say the same thing about this new car.
It's a conclusion that causes me almost physical pain. I loved, and still love, the original Vanquish, flawed as it was. The DBS that Daniel Craig debuted in Casino Royale was a bit quixotic too, and needed to be manhandled down the road in a way that was more of an extraordinary rendition than a drive in a car. But what both cars had was incredible, almost tangible charisma. You would congratulate yourself on your excellent good fortune every time you stepped out of the house and into either one. The new one has to mix it with the McLaren 12C, Ferraris 458 Italia and F12, Bentley Conti GT Speed, and AMG SLS. All of which are insanely good.
Talk to Aston's brilliant boss Dr Bez about where the company is at right now, specifically how it can continue without a deep-pocketed OEM in harness to boost its restricted R&D spend, and his irritation is thinly veiled. Yes, he and his team, including the world-class likes of design director Marek Reichman and engineering man Chris Porritt, have done an amazing job of reworking the visuals and underpinnings. Yes, Aston has sold umpteen more cars in the past decade than it managed in the previous nine put together. His achievements are legion. But the bar is constantly being raised, and it's hideously competitive out there.
The Vanquish's refreshed interior is stunning, and the main controls on the centre console are now touch sensitive, emitting a little ‘haptic' buzz as you run your fingers across them. It's cool and unexpected. Fit and finish is generally exemplary, although it seems that almost everything really sexy inside this car is a rather costly option. Still, no-one in the business can match Aston for interior atmosphere and ambience, though the One-77 style ‘quartic' steering wheel and frowning air vents are both an acquired taste (literally in the wheel's case: it's another option).
Driving fast cars comes down to the same set of basic interactions: when it all gels, you feel as though you're at one with the car, flowing along harmoniously, even if you have, as the Vanquish does, 565 shouty horsepowers at your command and a 5.9-litre V12 thundering away in front of you.
For some reason, I can't quite get to grips with this big Aston. It rides pretty well, and doesn't try to dump you unceremoniously into the hedge or off the road if you over-cook it. It's also quite obviously fast as hell, although the latest breed of super sports cars are faster still. But the ZF six-speed auto is off the pace now, compared to the latest ultra-fast systems fitted by the likes of McLaren or Ferrari. Nor is it as muscle-car outrageous as the AMG SLS. That sense of one-ness and harmony fails to materialise, and even with all that lovely carbon fibre in its body and chassis, it doesn't move with the sort of Olympian poise I'd expected. Maybe it was me having an off day, but I just couldn't ‘think' this thing down the road the way the best fast cars do. There was always a hint of dynamic lag about it.
Honestly, it's difficult to be objective about Aston Martin. Its cars remain totems of the low-volume British car business, I love what they do, and long may they continue to do it even as the forces of economic evil gather like Tolkienesque orcs on the horizon. But the new Vanquish is bloody expensive and up against such brutally good opposition that it's now on the rev limiter in sixth and running to standstill.