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Wheels: Power Packed

Basem Wasef

Aston Martin’s concept was simple, and deliciously mischievous: Take the largest, most powerful engine in its lineup and shoehorn it into its smallest car.

That powerplant is the 510 hp, 6-liter V-12, which is normally housed under the hood of the hulking DBS. Its new home is the engine bay of the Vantage, a smaller, nimbler sports car usually powered by a V-8. The pairing of the V-12 engine with the Vantage began as a low-volume, Europe-only experiment. But surprisingly robust sales greeted the car’s release last year and prompted Aston Martin to bring the V12 Vantage to the North American market this year. The car has a price tag of $180,000, and the worldwide supply is limited to no more than 1,000 examples.

Earlier this year, I found myself staring through a racing-helmet visor at the wheel of a 2011 Aston Martin V12 Vantage as I prepared to test-drive the car on Germany’s Nürburgring Nordschleife, a 12.93-mile, 100-?plus-turn roller coaster. An Aston executive had just called the V12 Vantage a "proper driver’s car" in reference to the gear shifter that sits between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat. He wanted to emphasize that the V12 Vantage’s transmission is a good old-fashioned 6-speed manual that puts gear engagement, clutch slippage, and all decision-making and rev-matching in the presumably capable hands of the driver. But the gearbox is not exactly old-fashioned; a carbon-fiber prop shaft set within an alloy torque tube connects the engine to the rear-mid-mounted transmission. Incidentally, though the V-12 is front-mid-mounted, its mass shifts the Van­tage’s weight balance from 49 percent front and 51 percent rear to a 51/49 front-rear split.

The engine sizes and transmissions are not the only differences between the V12 Vantage and V8 Vantage, the latter of which was introduced five years ago to garner a broader audience for the brand. Aston Martin had to incorporate numerous alterations to make the V8 car capable of physically and safely accommodating a V-12 engine. The first of these changes involved tipping the radiator forward to make room for the larger engine. U.S. safety rules then demanded the addition of a pair of so-called "pushers," aluminum billets intended to divert the power train away from the passenger compartment in the event of a crash.

Because the more powerful V12 Van­tage requires greater downforce than does the V-8 version, Aston Martin added a new, upturned rear spoiler and a lower bumper with a carbon-fiber splitter that reduces lift and diverts airflow to the carbon-ceramic brakes. Side sills also help keep the car planted by preventing airflow from sneaking beneath the car. Carbon-fiber engine vents were added atop the bonnet to cool the larger engine more efficiently, and rear vents feed the transmission’s beefed-up oil cooler.

Aston Martin also stiffened and lowered the car’s suspension and added lighter forged-aluminum wheels, which are wrapped in Pirelli tires made specifically for the car.

The cabin is finished with touches of soft leather and bits of magnesium and matte carbon fiber. The instrumentation was plucked from the DBS, and the steering wheel is swathed in soft Alcantara.

The V-12 engine fired up with a raspy snarl, which seemed at odds with the cockpit’s refinement but was perfectly appropriate for the merciless Nürbur­gring and its off-camber turns, minimal runoff, and long history of turning hubris into humility.

As I eased out of the paddock, the clutch take-up felt light but crisp, and the V-12 responded with surprising sharpness for an engine of its displacement. The car’s Sport setting enhanced that eagerness; it improved the throttle response and made the exhaust valve turn more readily. In this mode, the car felt more lively and ready to tackle one of the world’s most challenging tracks.

The first lap around the Nürburgring was a relatively slow-speed exploration of the seemingly endless ribbons of tarmac—with enough elevation changes to lodge my stomach into my throat, even at mild velocity—and the Flugplatz, or Airport, the section of the track named for its tendency to launch cars into the air.

Though Aston Martin describes the V12 Vantage as its edgiest ride, the car felt surprisingly stable during a second, more briskly paced lap. This muscle-bound machine proved less flighty or twitchy than I had expected; the V12 Vantage lacks some of the DBS’s carbon-fiber bodywork, so despite its considerably smaller size, it weighs only 33 pounds less than its big-bodied stablemate.

The Vantage’s tenacious grip and stiff chassis enabled the car to go exactly where I wanted it to go on the track. Applying extra throttle sent the tail wagging when the stability control was in Track mode, but the automobile remained manageable in spite of abrupt corners, suspension-compressing elevation changes, and challenging surface irregularities, such as the roughly joined concrete slabs on the Carousel corner. The carbon-ceramic brakes felt equally adept at their task of scrubbing off hastily accumulated speeds, and with a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.1 seconds, the V12 Vantage can gain speed quickly.

Next it was time to test the V12 Vantage in an entirely different setting, on the public roads that undulate through the Eifel region of Germany. There, the car, as brilliant a performer as it may be, showed some shortcomings. The archaic navigation system proved ill-suited to the open road; it required too much attention and frequently had me second-guessing its instructions. And, as with the V8 Vantage, the controls for the audio, air conditioning, and other systems proved less than straightforward; the center stack contains a lot of little buttons that all look the same.

As for the ride, the Bilstein dampers were stiff enough to transmit even the slightest road irregularities with jarring clarity, which the car’s lightweight, carbon-fiber-backed driver’s seat did not help to soften. (That style of seat is an option not available on V12s sold in the United States.) I later swapped the car for one with a standard, more cushioned seat, and although it did not completely offset the bumpy ride, it did offer a more comfortable way to tackle long periods of driving.

While I generally prefer touring comfort to racing pretensions, I did enjoy pushing the V12 Vantage to 182 mph—nearly reaching the car’s top speed of 190 mph—on an unrestricted stretch of the autobahn. At that speed, the Aston displayed handling that was exceptionally secure. But then, the car did undergo 5,000 miles of suspension tuning on the Nürburgring, a daunting place where the V12 felt right at home.

 

Aston Martin, www.astonmartin.com

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