To manual or not to manual in a sports car? Is that even a question worth asking?
Over the last couple of decades, many auto manufacturers have decided to make the choice for us, racing to develop the fastest-shifting dual-clutch transmissions. Then ZF hit back with their 8-speed torque converter, which seems to do 90% of what the best DCT gearboxes offer, but at a far lower cost, making them an obvious choice for use in premium vehicles. Through all this, manufacturers like BMW and Porsche have put their customers first with the option of proper manual gearboxes. You can even get them in the M3, M4 and new 992 GT3.
But today it’s another manufacturer that I want to talk about. Up until a few months ago, Aston Martin was a brand that I didn’t really associate with. Sure, I knew they still existed and also acknowledge and respect what they stand for, but there was some disconnect. Why? I don’t think I can even answer that. I’ve ridden in and tried a few Astons in the past, but they’ve never really captured my interest.
They have certainly always spoken to me with their elegant design, but that’s about it. Once upon a time, I only thought of Astons as cars either for older gentleman, or for masochists who like to drop substantial sums of money into something that they know will have reliability issues.
But over the last few years I’ve had the chance to meet and spend time with various Aston Martin models.
My fondest memory was borrowing the four-door Rapide for a special feature we worked on. I remember loving the car as much as particularly not loving it. Aston created something fresh and incredibly beautiful in the Rapide, but at the same time so many aspects of it felt frustratingly dated.
I remember thinking what a pity that was, especially because the car really made you feel special, whether looking at it over your shoulder when you walked away or sat behind the wheel. It just needed that bit extra; a little sprinkle of newness that would allow it to truly shine and feel current.
It’s taken Aston Martin a few more years to get to that point, and for me the 2020 V8 Vantage is a big wake-up call. This year, it’s even offered with a manual transmission option.
This Aston has truly mesmerized me. The V8 Vantage is a true brute of a car; a hooligan dressed in a finely-tailored tuxedo ready to party at any time, but at the same time able to be a luxury GT that can be easily used every day. The reason behind this is the Mercedes-Benz partnership.
All V8 cars in the Aston Martin range now sport AMG-sourced engines, and integrate previous-generation Mercedes-Benz infotainment setups within their cabins.
The notion of a revered manufacturer dropping its identity for a parts-sharing program won’t sit well with everyone, but I’m of the opinion that it’s worked out rather well for Aston Martin. Hear me out…
Would it have been better for Aston to evolve its old V8 motor or develop a whole new unit? Sure, an original powerplant would guarantee pedigree and a tangible character that would make it stand out against other V8s, but in the real world, a massive investment is needed for a manufacturer to embark on a new engine project, not to mention the time involved.
Simply, it’s prohibitive for small manufacturers to do this sort of thing now, which is why Aston Martin collaborating with Mercedes-Benz was a very good idea. At least they picked their best V8 to drop into the Vantage, and even if it sounds like any AMG 63-badged Benz out there, who really cares?
If it’s good enough for Pagani, I’m pretty sure it will suit Aston just fine.
Not one time firing up the 4.0L ‘hot-vee’ twin-turbo V8 did I complain that it sounded like an AMG GT or a G63. No, I smiled, or rather grinned evilly knowing the sheer thrust this motor is able to deliver.
The way it’s presented under the hood is very dramatic too. The entire front cowl lifts up exposing the compact motor nestled deep against the firewall for that true front-midship layout. If I really had to be picky, it could be a tad more curated in this respect. A more pleasantly-designed engine cover and a splash of color to lift some of the details would do wonders. Currently, you can only have this if you opt for the pricey optional carbon fiber pack.
What annoyed me the most was the unequal length and shaped rubber hoses that connect the turbo intakes to the two air boxes. Would symmetry have been so difficult?
And then, to bring it back around to my intro, there’s the transmission – or rather the choice of two. One is the ZF8 8-speed fast-shifting auto gearbox, as fitted to my test car, and the other a 7-speed manual that is available as an option.
I’m a big fan of traditional manual transmissions, so if the option is there I don’t need to consider anything else. After all, there is nothing that offers that direct link to a car like rowing through an H-pattern ‘box to upshift and downshift to and from whatever gear you feel like.
Out on the road, the Vantage is one of the best cars I have driven in the last couple of years. The interior is a special place, but the performance is what truly shines. This car has an instant bark of torque as soon as you step on it. Play around with it too aggressively before the tires are up to temperature and it’ll slither up the road like a well-prepped and tuned drift car. But even when the rubber is at optimal temp, you still need to be careful unleashing the 503hp on tap.
The handling via active dampers is sharp when you want it to be, but comfortable and refined enough when you just want to cruise. It’s rewarding to drive as it just feels so well-sized; it shrinks around you and there’s plenty of feedback through its controls.
I really have nothing bad to say about the 2020 V8 Vantage – other than that it deserves an even more antisocial-sounding exhaust – and that’s rare.
Let me show you that cabin, which you access by pivoting out the door handle. This allows the door to smoothly swing open but also rise up vertically in proper Aston Martin fashion.
This press car is finished in a subtle metallic silver, but there was a far more exciting color inside.
Small cabins with high belt lines and thus pretty short windows really do need a pop of color to make them feel less claustrophobic, and the orange trim highlights do a good job of that here.
Well-selected materials are a tactile delight, and you can tell that these cars are still, for the most part, built by hand.
There is plenty of space in here for two occupants, including ample shoulder room as the Vantage is a pretty wide car.
Thankfully, Aston has ditched the ugly steering wheels they used a generation back. This is how you expect a modern car to look and feel.
The main dash instrumentation is all digital, distributed through three specific displays. In the center you have the tachometer, while the side screens giving you a few different parameters along with indicators for the damper setting and driving mode you have selected.
The wide center console houses all the switches and dials to control both the infotainment and some car-related settings.
If the shiny touch panel with the scroll wheel underneath it looks familiar, it’s because this is what Mercedes cars used one generation back. It’s not the greatest unit, but it still feels modern and far more reliable than anything Aston could have developed in-house.
They even added a knee pad on each side of the transmission tunnel, which means you don’t exit with bruised limbs after a spirited drive through some twisty backroads, something that happens to me with a lot of cars.
Lift the tailgate and you’ll be surprised at the amount of space you have. The trunk easily swallows a couple of camera bags and a tripod, meaning it’s perfectly sized for a weekend getaway.
Design is subjective, so I don’t want to spend long talking about looks, but it’s hard not to fall for this car. It’s simple and elegant yet incorporates aggressive touches, my favorite being the rear light setup that swings up along the trunk line.
This creates an instantly recognizable shape. You know it’s an Aston Martin from a mile away, and I think that’s half of the job done right there – penning a recognizable shape as a signature for your brand. This is something Aston has always done well and their new crop of cars are no different.
The reason why I got to drive this car for a few days – and decided to take the gearbox angle for this story – is that when chatting to Aston Martin’s representative in Japan was told that the manual version of the Vantage V8 would be arriving in the country this year.
I’m sure it will represent the ultimate interpretation of this chassis, but while waiting for the manual test car to arrive Aston Martin Japan suggested I first try the 8-speed ZF automatic-equipped V8 Vantage, and here we are.
Having been pleasantly surprised at the capability and everyday usability of this thing, I’m hoping the 7-speed Graziano manual 2020 V8 Vantage will be even more special, and then the question I’ve posed in the title can be definitively answered.
A manual always allows the driver to feel more connected to the car, more involved, and therefore offers up a far more satisfying driving experience. In 2020, finding manual cars with this sort of performance pedigree only leaves you with a handful of manufacturers, but hopefully that will change.
So I’ll end this story here; call it part one of my Vantage V8 experience. Now, I better hit up Aston Martin Japan and see if that manual has arrived…
Dino Dalle Carbonare