Audi badges, Airbus tech. Can you imagine commuting in this?
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Oh look, a car attempting to replicate a jaundiced zebra!
Not even you can have failed to notice that behind the disguise lurks the all-new Aston Martin Vantage.
Of course not. But why the disguise?
It’s not ready yet. But Aston was good enough to let us borrow a prototype for our ice lake extravaganza. A quick reminder first. This is the DB11’s little brother: two seats, more sporting focus, uses AMG’s 4.0-litre twin turbo V8, developing 503bhp and 505lb ft of torque. Once marshaled in the right direction by an eight speed automatic gearbox, those numbers all trot along to the back axle where they produce either colossal amounts of wheelspin or a stability system in meltdown.
When not driving on ice it’ll hit 62mph in 3.6secs and carry on accelerating up to 196mph. But first we have to get it started.
Surely you just press a button?
In normal circumstances, yes. But it turns out that if you leave a prototype Aston Martin in a trailer for three days while driving it to the middle of Sweden through temperatures that drop as low as minus 25, you have… issues. A frozen starter motor currently being the most pressing.
Neither a hot pan of water, nor a blowtorch does the trick. It’s only once it has been rolled inside the barn at our Kall’s woodyard and left for an hour that we can coax life into it. This is the life of a prototype. And this is why you do winter testing.
Hang on, is Top Gear doing Aston’s job for them?
No. But driving the Vantage in Sweden allows us to understand why it is that car firms spend so much time cold weather testing. It also allows us to slide around in a cool new car for hours on end without toasting a set of tyres. But that’s of no interest to us. Whatsoever. None. Promise.
Is this the point where you quickly change the subject?
It is. There are three main reasons why all manufacturers go winter testing. “From an analytical point of view there are two things we have to achieve, ESP calibration and winter tyre development” says Matt Becker, Chief Vehicle Attribute Engineer, “but the third is more subjective – we drive a car around and report on any issues it has”. Top Gear knows nothing about ESP and tyre development, but it is quite good at driving stuff around until it breaks.
Aston conducts its winter testing in Finland using a single car. It takes six weeks and covers 20,000km (over 12,000 miles). The car is driven over a set route in shifts by a team of drivers. “Everything that happens to the car is logged and reported back”, continues Becker, “and we then make a judgement call on whether it’s something that needs to be sorted, or something an owner would be so unlikely to replicate that we let it pass”.
Right, all clear. Now what’s the Vantage like?
The V8 spins into life with less drama and noise than the similarly-equipped Mercedes-AMG C63, but inside the cabin looks and feels better organised than the DB11’s, more intimate, and although the steering wheel is a peculiar shape, it’s lovely to hold.
Signs it’s a prototype are there, but you have to go looking for them. The left-hand thumb button that selects the suspension settings isn’t functioning properly – no clean click. I’ll feed that back to Aston.
Now for the good news. We had a lot of other cars out on our ice lake. And the Vantage very quickly proves itself much friendlier and more flattering than every other rear driver. The McLaren 570S is snatchy, the 911 GT3 is cheating as it’s wearing studs, but still requires more careful penduluming. Not even the switchable E63 and M5 slide around as gracefully. The Aston is balletic, controllable and moves with such sinuous ease that it carries good speed through corners, linking sections, never straight, always intuitive.
Even using more revs, the engine isn’t as vocal here as in the various AMGs it lives in, but it’s responsive, sharp and eager. No surprise there – we already appreciate Merc’s ability to give turbo engines sharp reactions and real character. Driving on ice tells you a lot about balance and traction, how the differential works, how wheels cope with torque and so on, but even so this balance and controllability bodes well for its dry tarmac behaviour.
Let me guess, then you slung it into a snowbank?
And then I slung it into a snowbank. I meant to of course, so I could check that all the underbody protection was properly attached. Turns out it wasn’t – the rear undertray became detached. I’ll feed that back to Aston as well.
The off-ice excursion had the added effect of packing snow into the front wheels. When we get back to the pits this melts into the gap between brake pads and discs, where it freezes, rendering the Aston immovable for the second time today. I can put it in drive, and get out and watch the rear wheels spin uselessly on the ice. Something else to feed back.
Unsticking it requires firstly, a hammer to tap the caliper and secondly, when that fails, a blowtorch. However, the Aston is not the only car so afflicted: 570S, 911 GT3, NSX, Huracan, GT-R – all the super sports stuff that runs pads close to discs to improve response in other words, suffers the same fate. In the end we have to make sure they’re moved every five minutes.
Bet there was no shortage of volunteers to do that…
Of course not – it’s an issue that quickly takes care of itself. And as I continue to drive the Vantage I discover that the ESP’s Sport setting is beautifully judged, that when you’re wearing many layers it’s impossible to adjust the electric seat, that the camo makes several onlookers believe they’re looking at the next gen Subaru BRZ, and that it’s just as well the prototype’s emergency cut-out button isn’t a feature on customer cars because it’s far too easy to catch with a flailing elbow. It’s all stuff to feed back to Aston. And I’ll also be letting them know that the chassis balance appears to be spot on, and that I’m happy to verify this by driving it on tarmac.
Photography: Mark Riccioni