Where better to test Aston's new sports car than in the Atlas Mountains
Famous last words. The ferry has disgorged the new Aston Martin Vantage onto African soil bang on time, and as it rolls into Tangier harbour, something to the effect of “We’ll probably get dinner at the hotel by eight” wanders casually from my lips. Idiot. It takes two hours to pass through customs.
Words: Ollie Kew
Photography: Lee Brimble
This feature originally appeared in issue 308 of Top Gear magazine
Still, plenty of time to ogle the first new Aston sports car in 13 years, before we (hopefully) spend three days exploring strange and wonderful roads in the depths of Morocco. This wasn’t Aston’s plan. Aston had laid on a extravagant road and track press launch for the new Vantage in and around Portimão, Portugal, but that was all a bit straightforward. If you really want to get under a car’s skin, nothing exposes its fortes and flaws quite like an adventure into the unknown, which is why, within an hour of collecting a car in Gibraltar, we were on a boat to Tangier, wondering what on earth we’d got ourselves into.
The Vantage is no longer a steady Porsche 911 Carrera rival – it’s now a £121k, 503bhp super-sports car that’s extrovert and unleashed because the DB11 (from which it borrows its shortened aluminium platform) is more relaxed. Too early for a Bond analogy? OK: the DB11 is not-a-hair-out-of-place Pierce Brosnan, so the Vantage can morph into being a muscle-ripped, Daniel Craig brawler, wearing a scowl rather than a winning smile.
We must discuss the Vantage’s most divisive feature right away. Not the twin turbochargers, nor the 4.0-litre AMG V8 they nestle within. It’s that Vulcan-esque whaleshark gob, outlined in fluorescent yellow lippy, pinging violently in the sunset. Not as pretty as the old Vantage, is it? But it’s meaner. Ruder. That glare sucks the car’s superbly squat stance into the ground. Just like the diffuser’s hi-vis fangs, picked out in highlighter ink. It’s a stunning shape, and daringly detailed. Good job I could stare at it for hours.
Three smartly uniformed border guards remain unimpressed with the Vantage’s paperwork. Through slow Eng-er-lish, broken French and embarrassing Spanglish, we glean they want proof of ownership. They’ve not heard of ‘Eshtun Merteen’. A copy of the magazine I’ve got handy to show it’s my job to be travelling with a car I can’t afford isn’t met with enthusiasm. More through exasperation than resolution, the Aston is eventually allowed to pass the checkpoint – once one of our video cameras has been pettily confiscated.
Still naively optimistic about the evening, we mosey into Tangier’s twilight. Tonight’s destination is Casablanca, 208 miles southwest. Quite excited about that. Never seen the film, but I’m confident it’s frozen in wartime glamour. Not like Tangier. Tangier is crackers.
Tangier slots alongside Paris and Rome as the gnarliest urban driving I’ve plunged into. Traffic behaves like a Russian Olympian: aggressively quick and dangerously rule-averse. We’re also map-blind. This Vantage only has European navigation loaded, and the data costs for my smartphone now we’re on a new continent would’ve consumed my bank balance at approximately twice the rate the Aston’s docile V8 is chewing it.
Thank the gods the Vantage is friendly. Panicked requests for throttle are answered crisply, the brake pedal has been nerdily positioned for left-foot operation, and the gearbox is awake (though the creep is more of a scuttle and makes nosing through sticky gridlock head-noddingly staccato). Rugby-ball-sized door mirrors are useful until the lane-splitting local moped bandits start Snapchatting our presence.
Time to put some distance between us and the coast, with the Vantage’s first experience of Morocco’s quite sublime motorway network. Beverly Hills surgeons fantasise over building surfaces this flawless. Everyone’s lane discipline is immaculate, though, as snapper Lee correctly observes “Well, you’d jump out of the way too if a UFO came haring up behind you”. And there are no speed cameras. Cool and quiet now too, and settled into a cruise with the aircon off, the Vantage reckons on 27mpg. Its appetites are frugal. Mine, after this evening, are not.
Fresh from swallowing another 250 dirhams of super unleaded (about £19’s-worth – not bad for 50 litres), the Aston is inhaling the miles. Fresh from inhaling another delicious dish of Moroccan service station tagine, I’m marvelling at how content the Vantage is here. The seat is still cosseting, the economy is fantastic, there’s less tyre roar than a 911 and it’s beautifully stable at speed, despite shedding a chunk of wheelbase and the intricate aerodynamics of the DB11. We might be in Casablanca by midnight.
The dark side of Morocco’s sublime motorways are its corrupt toll booths. They see and hear you coming, in a V8 Aston Martin on British plates. And it’s payday. My debit card’s suddenly not of interest. Grinning guards entrap the Vantage with cones and barriers until they’ve been compensated for their greed. Never did get a receipt.
Still, it’ll be alright when we ooze into Casablanca, right? No, as it turns out. It’s a dump. The 2am run downtown is spent dodging lunar potholes and learning that red lights are optional, largely for your own safety. No one stays stationary. It’s like entering a collapsed Soviet state, and the fact that only four hours of sleep are on the cards by the time the Vantage is parked for the night, behind gate and guard dog, isn’t a concern. We just need to put this crumbling eyesore behind us. Of all the towns in all the world, don’t walk into this one.
A fresh tank of petrol, and the chance to quit Casablanca for one of the real reasons we came to Morocco – the Tizi n’Tichka Pass across the Atlas Mountains – pep up morale the following morning. And the fact I’m loving the Vantage, before it’s even been properly unleashed.
Immediately, it’s firm. Far stiffer than the DB11, but expertly damped. The Vantage’s tense, taut ride puts clear daylight between the two-seat sports car and the 2+2 GT, sorting something we’ve been bemoaning for years – that all Astons look too similar and do the same job. This thing is much better sorted out of the box. Proper 911 GT3 quality to the suspension, and an efficiency to handling big compressions in the road. It’s dealt with quietly, in one swift movement.
With little but sheer distance to trouble us before looping around Marrakech at lunchtime (I’m sure that’ll be a doddle), there’s time to appreciate where I’m sat. Comfortably, for one thing. The driving position is spot-on, the seat a triumphant marriage of back-cradling support and everyday comfort. It faces a lovely cockpit – cool, modern, and technical – if not quite an unqualified success. There’s no glovebox. The DB11’s virtual instruments return, free of the Playmobil bezel that cheapens the big GT, but still suffering from grainy resolution. Come on, guys – this is the age of OLED Retina screens, not pixels.
As you might’ve heard from a lightly hyped motion picture called Spectre, Daniel Craig’s latest ride was a Vantage design proposal spotted by director Sam Mendes and nabbed for Her Majesty’s Secret Service. For my money, the production Vantage is prettier than 007’s DB10, but the temptation to Q Branch-ify the cabin has made it a bit… buttony. Now, I like buttons. Buttons are tactile, easier to operate on the move than touchscreens, and aren’t afflicted by mucky fingerprints. But do we need two separate clicky toggles for working the central locking? Does the whoops-I-appear-to-have-crashed SOS call button need to live right next to the traction control? That fussy nest of buttons could’ve been simplified.
But I’m nitpicking. The fundamentals are bang-on. It literally reeks of quality – no one cures leather of more olfactory delight than Aston Martin – the Mercedes infotainment and stalks are elegantly integrated, plus the whole environment feels more expensive than a 911 or 570S and more bespoke than an R8. Boy, does it need to at this money.
Marrakech passes in a blur of colour, feverish Aston approval, and a standard of driving that makes Tangier’s residents look like road safety campaigners. Unscathed, the Vantage blats south, able to stretch its legs and reveal how Aston has kept the uncanny lag-free reactions of AMG’s world-class bi-turbo V8, but British finishing school has unlocked a richer, more serrated, rumbling bellow that’s half Bullitt soundtrack, half Liam Gallagher soundcheck.
It’s fast enough to annihilate the old Vantage, but not so ruthlessly rapid you can’t revel in flooring it for more than a nanosecond. It’ll do 0–62mph in 3.6 seconds and close in on 200mph. How much quicker do you need to go? The gearbox sometimes struggles to smooth out that crucial first-to-second change, and doesn’t snap through shifts like the best dual-clutchers, but Aston has done a worthy job of enlivening this eight-speed auto for life in the rortier Vantage.
The weather turns as we climb into the mountains. Bleached sun is eclipsed by dense cloud, then dreary mizzle and icy rain as we climb. A short-wheelbase, turbocharged street fighter ought to be a nightmare up here, but the Vantage has two pieces of technical thinking on its side. First off, Aston’s resisted the modern obsession to fit steering so fast, a mistimed twirl of the volume knob can send you into a tailspin. It’s 2.4 turns lock-to-lock – that’s a whole extra half-turn of twirling versus many rivals. Confidence on turn-in is high, and remains steadfast as the front-mid-mounted engine follows obediently into the bend and the electronic diff at the rear – the first for an Aston, integrated into the transaxle gearbox – picks up the slack and finds sensational traction.
The old Vantage’s steering was hydraulic, and for fetishists of feel, there was no equal. The sequel has switched to electric assistance, and there’s no denying it lacks delectable texture and communication, but this is only Aston’s second crack at it – and this is a very early Vantage: chassis number 39. We didn’t think much to EPAS when Porsche first bolted it into the 911. Seven years later, it’s superb. I doubt Aston will take that long to catch up.
Tizi n’Tichka has potential too, to be the world’s greatest driving road… when it’s finished. Time and again, the tightening switchbacks round a rockface and the tarmac simply ceases, replaced by jagged slate and shingle that skitters the Vantage clean into the air. Great place for a hillclimb rally, this, but only at the summit is the road smooth enough for playtime.
What a chassis this thing’s got. We’re in the Track powertrain mode and Sport Plus damper setting now, selected via thumb-friendly steering-wheel buttons. It’s still controlling all its movements expertly, but there’s an extra obedience to every reflex, and on a road as slick as polished laminate, the halfway-off ESP Track setting is game for delicious mini-slides on the exit of each rockface-framed apex. It feels really sorted. Hunkered down, no-nonsense, no histrionics… super-serious. More manageable than an AMG GT. Glorious.
Pity the chances to enjoy it are so fleeting, as the road’s continually yanked from beneath our wheels and the rainclouds we briefly outran have closed in and cloaked the glare from the LED headlights. We descend the rest of the route into darkness, the Vantage settled and schlepping across desolate plains to our overnight lodge, under a million stars in Ouarzazate. This is the southern tip of our journey, about 500 miles from Tangier. The odometer will click over 2,000km (1,243 miles) by the time we return to the camera-arresting madness up north.
Between us and that ferry back to Europe, there’s one last chance for Morocco to bless the Vantage with the road it truly deserves. And it delivers, in the winding, terracotta orange shape of the Dadès Gorge. The towering canyons of sandstone were once coral reefs teeming with life below the sea. Millions of years of tectonic argey-bargey later, they bask in the African sun while the Dadès River diligently carves a path through the mountains. A quite sensational road has been draped upon the ridges and twists it’s left in its wake.
The Vantage devours it. Crackles and snarls ricochet off the valley walls as it flits from the tight corners, sears around the sweepers, inspiring confidence with every turn. Locals spill from the hamlets that pepper the route, waving feverishly like Group B fanatics to watch this white bullet streak past, cackling thunder, rounding the bend and disappearing forever.
The great thing about needing to get photos and footage of a drive like this is the necessity of completing the best sections of the Dadès Gorge road three or four times before the lensmen are satisfied with their shots. The odour of sizzling (but unfazed) brakes, hot seals and warm rubber tries to overwhelm the aroma of leather, but the Vantage loves to suck up this kind of punishment. After three days together, I’m besotted with its easy-going breadth, and the ability in its locker to be this absorbing and approachable when caned. Often, new Astons take a few years before they’re properly sorted. Usually, they’re not quite on the money fresh out the box. But the Vantage is different. It’s fundamentally right. Wonder what it’ll be like with a canvas foldaway roof, or a V12, or with some weight stripped out of it…
We savour the majesty of Dadès together, conscious that more than 600 miles of barren rockscape, wallet-emptying motorways and urban warfare lie between us and that ferry back to Europe. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road has there been a scarier U-turn. But the Vantage feels ready for it. It has a brutish invincibility running through it. So we’ll get home just fine. And for once, I won’t have to eat optimistic last words.
Time enough for one final curveball. The daunting matter of that return leg though Errachidia and north to Meknès before blatting to the coast and Tangier is… a doddle. Polite péage attendants. No traffic. Glorious weather. It’s as if the Aston has won over this corner of Africa, and leaves it a better place than we found it. Except Casablanca. Passage onto the ferry is merely fraught, not a nightmare, and while my colleague dashes off to be extravagantly seasick, I leave the Vantage for a rest below decks and watch the Gibraltarian coast sail over the horizon. Job done? For Aston Martin, emphatically so. For us and the Vantage, it’s just the final few miles across British territory to the airport to worry about. Easy? I’d never dream of speaking so soon.