The crazy and the cool were never so damn good
It's the choice that dreams are made of. Before us are two cars that inspire shaky hands and moist palms. They each represent the pinnacle of performance from two world class brands, both offering a masterclass in horsepower and excess. They're priced most definitely in the 'serious' category, both hovering around the £150K mark with options. And, oddly enough, there's a very clear 'winner' too.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Day one is all about the Porsche 911 Turbo S. This silver car is wearing the legendary (amongst fellow Porsche nerds) 911 HUL number plate. An ode to the original 911 Turbo press cars, back when the turbocharged beetle really did inspire the term 'widow maker'. Generations of Turbos have worn this private plate, gracing the front covers of magazines for decades.
Porsche 911 Turbo S
Pootling out of PH Towers, leaving the Aston behind, there's a zig-zagging route via Silverstone to Yorkshire ahead, starting with the London suburbs. The PDK excels in town, the auto-stop-start irritates only for the first couple of red lights, then becomes part of the experience. And the suspension and steering in the urban environment? Faultless. Seriously, this thing just floats down the high street in pure comfort with utter discretion. The 20-inch wheels travel freely and with comfortable damping. Only the wide hips might force an extra mirror glance or two to check position. The occasional more knowledgeable bystander might turn around for a double-take. But that's all the attention you'll get. Velvet glove, and all that.
Inside, the myriad controls and buttons soon become second nature, despite their overwhelming first impressions. The touchscreen-driven nav and media centre is simple enough to use. It's easy to laugh at how far behind the auto industry is in the field of media, interface and software design, but at least the latest Porsche system is in the same decade as your iPhone or Android phone.
Route planned (with traffic avoidance), the potholes and traffic lights of London town are dispatched with ease, and then Turbo S begins to show its true colours. The first time you hit full throttle, just... wow! It's a surge of acceleration, not a hint of traction control, and yet the fat 305/30 tyres MUST be at their limits, surely? Do it again, just to check. Insert expletives.
Leaning over the table, you can try and tell your mates how it feels to have 560 horses under your foot. But it's the way that they're delivered that will impress the most. Unlike the previous generation, described by the boss as "appliance-like", the 991 really does have an 'edge' absent in 997 models.
There's the familiar flat-six growl, a whoosh of turbine blades and compressors in action, and a soft psssst from the recirculating blow-off valve on every gear change. And there will be gearchanges aplenty, as the PDK is happy to keep changing as long as you keep accelerating. All of this is just a little bit more audible than before. Especially the exhaust pops on the over-run in Sport Plus mode. Ah yes, the 'modes'. Play with those buttons and it gets even more breathtaking. There's Sport mode and Sport plus. The Plus is similar to turning the Spinal Tap amp to eleven.
It pops up the rear spoiler, pushes down the rubbery chin spoiler and whacks in a bit of overboost for good measure. The fantastic multi-function display will even show you a map of the torque curve (peaking normally at 516 imperial torques or 700 metric) with an EXTRA light blue area on top of the already tabletop 'curve'. This is representing 553 ft lb or 750 Nm. The manual says this is available for short periods, but declines to offer any accurate timings.
Don't worry. It'd be enough to put your face on the front cover of the Daily Mail and your arse behind bars for a very long time indeed. Because it's rapid in a way that your local magistrate would never understand. Along with more torque, a little more noise and some insanely quick gearshifts, the Sport Plus button also re-tunes the active damping and re-jigs the steering wheel feel.
While it will never be, and was never intended to be, the razor-sharp tool that is the new GT3, the Turbo S is still mightily impressive through the corners thanks to rear-wheel steering that actually works (take that, late 90s HICAS-equipped Nissans!). It might be a little blunt if pushed too hard into a corner, understeer being the Turbo's first response to any over-ambitious entry. But by all things that are holy and good, it is utterly mental on the way out.
And the launch control is insanely simple to use. If you're in Sport Plus, then just put your left foot firmly on the brake and your right foot down to the floor. The engine revs to peak torque.... Brap-bap-bap-bap... like an overgrown rally car. Then release the brake BANG. It's so simple, so childish and so perfectly executed. And when used at a redlight it's plain ridiculous.
That watercooled front gearbox works some real magic, dishing out power in a way that's almost impossible to decipher from the drivers seat. Technologically, it's not too hard to grasp. Power is made and distributed to the front axle before it overwhelms the rear via a computer-controlled multi-plate clutch.
But does it feel artificial and too easy? Well, not really. It just feels immense. Short-cutting from M1 to A1 via Corby, Oakham and some stunning Lincolnshire roads, the Turbo's ability to take the road in front of you and put it into the rear view mirror is simply stunning.
And then wafting back again the next day, the discreet silver Porsche cruises in comfort and safety at 34mpg. Music from your phone, or from the 'jukebox' storage system, played through a very healthy sound system. Is this the most complete performance car for our roads? The rush of an Atom, the comfort of a Mercedes and the build quality of a Panzer. It's hard to beat.
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S
But the next day it's time to start the new Aston Martin V12 Vantage S. The Porsche is almost immediately forgotten. Fickle!
And yet, to stand in front of these two cars and NOT gawp at the Vantage is impossible. Just look at it! The flat 'China Grey' exudes military menace. The carbon chin and vents hint at racetrack prowess. The Turbo S just fades into the background.
The V12 S is utterly ridiculous on paper, and yet the guys from Gaydon have done it anyway. And it's pretty intimidating. Rolling out through another town heads turn in a way they just don't for the Porsche.
Why fight it? Windows down, S-button pushed, and that V12 reverberates back from every surface. Hints of Spitfire are evident between 1,500 and 2,500rpm, and over those speeds the sound only gets better. It's another new exhaust system for the re-worked AM28 engine, with this one drawing inspiration from the only car on Aston's fleet that's actually quicker. The million-pound One-77.
Yes, the Vantage is stupidly, obscenely quick. On paper, the V12 aboasts a higher output figure than the Porsche. But the reality is that even on a perfectly dry launch the Turbo S will always win on traction. In the mid-range the Porsche hammers the Aston with epic torque figures. And at top speed? The spec sheet suggests the Aston could edge it. But isn't that just a little Top Trumps?
The Aston loses again the moment you want to drive fast on any public road. There's little movement in the wheels, and the active damping still feels quite harsh no matter which mode you select. Our car is fitted with the optional Pirelli Pzero Corsa tyres, far stickier and noiser than the regular Pirellis fitted to the Porsche. But they're struggling to cope, even when the harsh Sport or Track damping profiles allow them to stay planted for more than a second.
Steering wise, there's no surprises. The nose always points the way you intend it and you really can push the car into a corner. It's full of feedback. But the V12 Vantage S is closest thing you can buy to a widowmaker in 2014. If you don't respect the power, if you disable the stability and traction, if you even think of driving above and beyond your abilities, the Aston will not flatter you. It will flatten you.
Over two days in all weathers there were plenty of moments of unexpected stability control intervention. By comparison the Porsche only blinked once or twice. And where the Porsche re-vectors the torque without slowing your pace the Aston simply pulls the rug out and kills wheelspin before it happens.
That's not to say the Vantage S is any less enjoyable. But it demands control and good reactions to find your flow. By comparison the Porsche will both flatter the idiots and still reward the wheelsmiths.
The gearbox in the British car is actually Italian. The seven-speed Graziano Sportshift single-clutch automated manual is now in its third generation, completely replacing the manual six-speed for a 25kg weight saving. It's good, it's functional. But it's really not PDK. Sportshift needs grace, a lift from the gas pedal to allow the smoothest shift. Driving it at normal speeds it just feels a little like the good old SMG BMWs.
So the Aston takes a beating! Maybe the cockpit can reclaim lost ground? Yes and no. The infuriatingly downward-facing Garmin nav is frightfully complicated to use. Touchscreen disabled (why, oh why?!), you're forced to use one joystick to navigate all of the decidedly 2004 onboard technology. As mentioned in a million Aston Martin reviews, the leather and stitching is an acquired taste. But at least it's more eventful than the Porsche Turbo S, which doesn't feel decidedly different to any well-specced Carrera or even Caymen.
And it's hard not love the carbon-shelled seats of the Vantage. To wheel out a very 90s adjective; they're lush. It's also got a chunkier suede covered wheel. The Porsche wheel is just a little harder to love, especially with the visible moulding lines poking out behind the metal shell.
So four days and 1,000 miles later there's a very clear winner here. By every objective measure the Porsche 911 Turbo S is a far superior automotive product. It's not just the fastest car you might ever drive in your life, it's refined, it's inspiring and it's very hard to give back. The engineering is almost unquestionable in every aspect.
Only stupid emotions could possibly steer you into the seat of the Aston. An illogical love of that V12 engine, or a sense of awe and beauty surrounding the carbon-fibre-clad trim and hand-finished coachwork. No way would a sound mind, led by objective fact, trade the Aston's out of control power for the Porsche's carefully metered ballistic tendencies.
And yet, if ever you find yourself lucky enough to be faced with this decision. To have four days of testing split between two cars. To actually be asked "which one will you drive home in?"
Then we challenge you to ignore the Aston and take the Porsche. It really will be harder than you think.
PORSCHE 911 TURBO S
Engine: 3,800cc, flat-6, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed PDK, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 560hp@6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 553lb ft@2,200rpm
Top speed: 198mph
MPG: 29.0mpg (claimed)
Price: £142,120 (before options)
ASTON MARTIN V12 VANTAGE S
Engine: 5,935cc V12
Transmission: 7-speed automated manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 573@6,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 457@5,750rpm
0-62mph : 3.7sec
Top speed: 205mph
Weight: 1,685kg (with driver)
MPG: 19.2mpg (NEDC combined)
Price: £138,000 (before options)
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