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Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Manual (2017) First Drive

2016-05-20 Read: 175x

It's not a new car. And that makes it a better car.

The 565 hp V12 isn't new. The body looks the same. There aren't changes in the suspension, steering, brakes, wheels, or tires. Even the gearbox is the same, except it's also very different.

Aston Martin has only ever offered the V12 Vantage S with a seven-speed single clutch automated manual from Graziano. The 2017 V12 Vantage S has that same gearbox, but with a very obvious change. The paddles are gone, replaced by a shift lever and a third pedal. It took a lot of work for it to happen since this may be the first time that an automated manual has been made into a true manual.

It's worth it.

While every other automaker ditches the manual gearbox for a definitively faster, easier, and ultimately less involving automatic, Aston Martin has gone the opposite direction, putting a manual in the V12 Vantage for the first time since 2013. 

Aston's boss Andy Palmer is all about manual gearboxes and the driving experience. He's said that he wants his company to be the last to offer a manual in its road cars and has already confirmed that the replacement for the Vantage, which will have AMG V8 power, will also be available with a manual transmission.

"I'm not going to be the boss nor is this going to be the company that kills off the manual transmission," Palmer says. "We all have to move with the times but I still think there's scope within that for the true enthusiast sports car and I'd like to think there will always be home for those customers at Aston Martin."

As a sendoff for the Vantage, Aston has gone truly old-school with this manual and given it a dogleg first gear. For those who don't know, that means that first gear is all the way to the left and back, out of the way of the other gears. That puts the gears you use most on the road and track in straight lines from each other, making your shifts faster. It's also just cool.

Aston will import just 100 of the $199,995 V12 Vantage S to America, and they've already sold every one of them. So if you wanted a naturally aspirated V12 in a Vantage, you're already too late. But this does give you a hint of what the next Vantage will have to offer, so don't despair.

But what we have here is the only new V12 car with a manual gearbox and the only new car with a dogleg transmission layout. And it is, as the kids say, a thing.

Malibu's Mulholland Highway and Encinal Canyon are the roads I chose to get a feel for the V12 Vantage S. It's a combination of tight, technical turns, fast sweepers with good sightlines, long straights, V12-amplifying tunnels, and a dearth of traffic on a Monday morning. Perfect.

 

On these roads, the Vantage S is sublime. The carbon ceramic brakes are easy to modulate with great pedal feel and don't have a tendency to be grabby. The steering, which is still hydraulically assisted, is well weighted and communicative. It's not perfect, but compared to the electric assisted steering systems that are now prevalent in the market, this makes you wish no engineers ever figured out that you could use electric assist.

But the best part of this car is the drivetrain. The 5.9 liter V12 is the last of its kind, no turbos, start-stop, cylinder deactivation, or other fuel saving tech here. This is just pure gas guzzling feel goodery that ascends to the rev range heavens with absolutely no issue. It also feels totally different than a V12 from Ferrari or Lamborghini. Those engines can be manic, shouty, ferocious. The Aston's power delivery is smoother and feels more dignified, more baritone than hyper soprano. But it still makes 565 hp, which, if you were thinking otherwise, is a considerable amount of power. 

And that's linked to the aforementioned seven-speed manual. When it was automated, it was a let down. As a real manual, it's anything but. Instead of a sort of jerky hell at low speeds, it's suddenly smooth because you're operating the clutch and you're better than a machine. Throws are direct and the gates are well defined, but the new shifting pattern will throw you for a loop (Don't shift into reverse by accident. Don't). You will "downshift" from 4th to 5th instead of 3rd a few times, until you get used to it. Making it into a manual hasn't impacted performance either. The Vantage will hit 60 in 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 205, the same as its paddle shifted brother.

A dogleg pattern makes the most sense on a race track, like Buttonwillow Raceway Park.

Buttonwillow isn't the most photogenic location; the entrance looks more like a recycling plant than a track. But that doesn't matter. Buttonwillow has blind crests and fast challenging corners combined with acres upon acres of runoff, that makes it the perfect place to push a car with few consequences, other than a run through dirt and dust.

And that's a good thing, because the V12 Vantage S is rather quick around the track. There's a hint of push on turn in, but that's easily adjusted with the right foot. The short wheelbase makes it eager to change direction quickly, but when you get it loose it's actually surprisingly stable and easy to hold a lurid slide. The best part is how communicative the steering and suspension are. You feel connected, you know what's going on with the tires and the suspension. Instead of the endlessly dull experience offered by so many cars, the Aston feels endlessly talkative, but you never tire of hearing what it has to say.

And then we have the gearbox. Oh that glorious gearbox. This is what a dogleg layout was made for. Putting the gears you use in straight lines just makes so much sense, you have to wonder why every gearbox isn't designed this way. You never risk putting the car into first by accident. Shifts are faster, more accurate. The Aston also has something called AM Shift, which is a rev-matching feature for smoother downshifts. If you don't know how to heel-toe, it works surprisingly well. It also allows for full throttle upshifts.

Even so, I left the system off. 

Without it, the Vantage is a reminder of how we used to connect with cars. Now, there's so much tech that you don't actually know how good or bad of a driver you are. It doesn't compensate for you. Turn everything off, and the only safety net is yourself. A lot of new cars blunt that connection in a pursuit of perceived excellence, and while you may look like a hero, you know it's the car doing the work. The Vantage S was never a car that would be called digital; of the cars in this class, it was the analog choice. Aston has now made it even more analog.

This V12 Vantage S doesn't feel like a new car, and that's because it isn't one. We're better off for it.

2017 Aston Martin V12 Vantage S

  • Powertrain: 5.9 liter V12, 565 horsepower, 457 lb-ft, RWD, 7-speed manual
  • Weight: 3670 pounds
  • 0 - 60: 3.9 seconds
  • Top Speed: 205 mph
  • Price: $199,995

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