Saturday, August 9, 2014
Driving the 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish and Rapide S: Same velvet, more hammer
Patrolling the Scottish Highlands, the $287,820 Vanquish coupe and $207,820, four-door Rapide S blaze a high-velocity trail on some of Europe’s most spectacular roads. They also show Aston at perhaps the most critical juncture in its history. For 2015, these beauties are faster and stronger, soaring beyond 200 mph. A key to unlock that performance is a new, brilliantly tuned ZF eight-speed transmission that amplifies the power and glory of their 5.9-liter V-12 engine.
Aston’s knockout style, heritage and bespoke luxury are a given. But there’s still work to be done. Dragged into the modern age by its former owner Ford, Aston cranked out 4,200 cars last year — a relatively massive number for a company that has sold barely 65,000 cars in total since 1913. (Touring Gaydon, we watch expert craftsmen and women assembling cars that each require 200 hours to build, roughly eight times as long as a typical car).
Yet with Ford out of the picture, Aston badly needed a new technical partner, and found one in Mercedes-Benz. The German automaker – in return for a five-percent stake in Aston -- will supply modern infotainment systems, along with hand-built, biturbo V-8 engines from its AMG high-performance division.
Those engines will help Aston boost fuel economy and reduce its carbon footprint. Mercedes’ electronics will fix another Aston sore thumb – the vexing Volvo-and-Garmin navigation unit that’s as antique and unsightly as the rest of the car is modern and beautiful.
“As a small, independent company, that access to technology is vital to us,” said Marek Reichman, Aston’s director of design.
And two years ago, the Kuwaiti financiers who owned most of Aston Martin Lagonda raised another $246 million by selling a nearly 40-percent stake to Investindustrial – the Italian company that revived Ducati before selling that motorcycle company to Volkswagen Audi. The total result? Roughly $750 million in funding to develop new Astons.
“We’ve got more investment now than at any time in the past 101 years,” Reichman says.
Aston’s 12-cylinder commanders, the Vanquish and Rapide S, will hold down the fort until that next generation of Aston arrives. For 2015, their exteriors and interiors are unchanged, except for some new bespoke options.
Those include hourglass-patterned quilted leather, in cabins that require at least seven full cowhides and 1 million hand stitches to create. New interior trims include the orange-hued California Poppy, and a Fandango Pink which – in tasteful quantities, as in some contrasting seat trim – looks surprisingly attractive on a Vanquish Volante convertible in new Diavalo Red paint.
Both cars’ perfectly proportioned bodies, including the all-carbon-fiber masterwork that is the Vanquish, remain guaranteed to stop traffic and spark envy in commoners. For 2015, key changes are entirely under the skin.
“We spent all our money on how the cars perform, handle and feel,” Reichman says, guiding us around glistening chassis cutaways of the Rapide and Vanquish at Aldourie Castle, a grand Scottish Baronial estate — first recorded as a mansion house in 1626 — on the deep, chilly and fabled waters of Loch Ness.
Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, doesn’t make an appearance.
But the naked chassis reveal Aston’s own deeply buried mysteries: Its extruded-and-bonded aluminum platform; and a one-piece carbon-fiber torque tube that transmits power from the V-12 to the transmission, the first-ever rear-mounted application for the ZF eight-speed. A modified chassis subframe boosts rigidity to allow more precise suspension tuning.
For the Vanquish, major suspension upgrades include springs and dampers stiffened by 15 percent up front and 35 percent in the rear. Both models get 20 percent firmer bushings in the rear.
The latest Bosch engine management system boosts the V-12 to 568 horses and 565 pound-feet of torque, up fractionally from before. New, optional 10-spoke, 20-inch forged alloy wheels with unique tire compounds save nearly 15 pounds versus the standard wheel package.
Those welcome changes turn the Rapide and Vanquish into more lusty, engaging performers, without sacrificing the long-distance GT comfort that’s integral to Aston. But it’s the transmission that really turns the trick. The new paddle-shifted eight-speed may lack the dual-clutch bragging rights of Ferrari, but it’s a model of poise and precision, firing off shifts in as little as 130 milliseconds. A wider gear ratio spread not only boosts fuel economy, but maximizes both off-the-line acceleration and top speed.
The Rapide S escorts us on our first day’s journey through the Scottish countryside. With 552 horses, the Rapide takes 4.2 seconds to dash to 60 mph, a half second quicker than before. Top speed soars to 203 mph, a big leap from 192 mph. Front brakes with six-piston calipers are larger and thicker, helping haul down this four-passenger, nearly 4,400-pound grand tourer. As in the Vanquish, a reprogrammed brake booster is welcome, delivering firmer pedal feel and more initial bite.
Both models also benefit from a reprogrammed adaptive suspension with a noticeably wider range of sensation and control between Comfort and Sport settings.
On our second day’s drive in the Vanquish, the changes all come together on an epic run to the North Sea, through secluded coastal villages with names like Dundonnell, Poolewe and Gairloch. The Vanquish’s previous six-speed transmission never felt up to the rest of the car; forever lagging the pace when the rest of the car was begging to be turned loose. As in the Rapide, the new eight-speed turns that literal weak link into a strength — as owners should demand at such master-of-the-universe prices.
Hold the downshift paddle while braking hard into turns, and the transmission automatically selects just the right gear, dropping as many as four speeds to prepare for the next giddy rush of V-12 acceleration.
Girded with the eight-speed, the Vanquish rips to 60 mph in a stunning 3.6 seconds, versus 4.1 seconds for last year’s model, and keeps charging to 201 mph. Top speed for both models arrives in sixth or seventh gear, with eighth a fuel-saving overdrive.
Here in the Scottish Highlands, so far north that the summer sun doesn’t flag until well after 10 p.m., we find a fantastical landscape of craggy green mountains, rocky fishing streams and two-laners that curl and beckon as far as the eye can see.
There’s not a cop for three counties, and no sense resisting: Again and again, I spank the gears and thrill to the V-12’s bark and roar, feeling the Vanquish surge through turns at 110, 120 mph and more. All the while, the Aston barely seems to exert itself, or its besotted pilot.
It’s still a comfortable, road-tripping Grand Tourer when you want it. But the Vanquish also eliminates any remaining vestige of softness from its DB9 stablemate. Steering is near-perfect in heft and quickness, so good that this Yank manages – after some practice – to confidently rock this right-hand-drive supercar on the left side of slender, tricky United Kingdom roads.
And there you have it: Beauty, breeding and a welcome dose of new engineering. As ever, the only bummer is the price. The Vanquish and Rapide S are even more deserving of hero worship. But save for the chosen few, these Aston Martins can only be worshipped from afar.