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Aston Martin V12 ZAGATO

2014-04-21 Read: 428x

When you combine the brands of Aston Martin and Zagato you're setting the scene for some fairly major expectations.

You might think back to that original collaboration from the early 1960s, the DB4 GT Zagato, a superb concoction of style and menace wrapping thoroughbred British engineering; Jim Clark sublimely drifting '2 VEV' at Goodwood. Then there's the V8 Zagato of 1985: I've not driven one, but the idea of a shorter, lighter, V8 Vantage (in the original sense of the badge) on massive Webers, and with a bit of an attitude problem, holds massive appeal I think.

 Both companies tried again in 2003 with a creation based on the DB7 Vantage, and followed it up with some American market roadsters too. Now, fifty years after the original they're at it again. Aston Martin is a long way removed from its cottage industry past, and Zagato is these days in Russian hands as part of the Coventry-based CPP (Coventry Prototype Panels) group, but the idea is roughly the same.

As I'm sure you know by now, the V12 Zagato is essentially a more ferocious incarnation of the V12 Vantage, its hand-formed aluminium body produced by CPP's craftsmen in Coventry. From the middle of next year there will be a V12 Zagato road car costing around £330,000, but to test and develop the prototypes Aston Martin decided upon a demanding and very public schedule.

 They built two cars - the much referred to 'Zig and Zag'. Green Zig has always been a racing car, taking to the Nurburgring circuit for the VLN series and then the Nurburgring 24 hour race at the end of June. Red Zag would begin life as a show car, initially without the aerokit, and winning the Concepts and Prototypes Design award at the Villa D'Este concours at Lake Como. Trophy netted, Zag was then brought up to full race spec for the N24 race alongside Zig, and then converted back to a road car for the recent Frankfurt motor show.

Zig in particular had an impressive showing at the N24, demonstrating excellent speed until an unfortunate pitlane altercation marred its race. Now, with incredible good fortune, I'm getting to drive it.

 But first it's into a V8. So that we can re-familiarise ourselves with the Nurburgring Grand Prix track (we're not using the Nordschleife for this test, sadly!) there's a pair of V8 Vantage GT4 cars ready in the pits. I pick the angrier-looking orange one, which turns out to be a sort of GT4+ spec, suitable for VLN customers wanting to increase their on-track performance. Unlike the standard GT4 it features a large rear wing, the latest seven-speed paddle shift gearbox and an unsilenced exhaust.

Then it's on to the main event, lurking in the pitlane. Wow. Up close and personal Zig is a monster, something pictures can't really communicate; the ornate folds of its terrifyingly expensive aluminium panels, the massive rear wing and the even more aggressive rear diffuser that sprouts from the rear of the car.

Climbing in requires an equal amount of contortion as the V8, but once you're in the view is fairly familiar although most of the controls are now on a bespoke panel in the middle of the centre console. One of these is the ignition switch, and with that primed the V12 catches in the usual theatrical manner, albeit, much, much louder.

 It's so invigorating to think that racing cars can still sound like this. When that 6-litre V12 kicks into life with a BLAM! and then settles to its intimidating idle something deep inside of you can't fail to rejoice. Electric racing cars? Diesel racing cars? No thanks.

Once the window net has been attached to my left the cockpit becomes dark and almost turret-like in the view out it offers, providing a strong contrast with the most unusually sunny weather at the 'Ring.

Moving off is simply a case of selecting first in the six-speed paddle shift gearbox and applying the throttle, and as soon as you're rolling it's clear that this mighty engine dominates the whole car - it's harmonics and vibrations reverberate around you. It pulls from low revs with easy-going elasticity, and then sings towards the rev limiter: it's very, very quick, if not quite 'uncomfortable', although some of that is because you feel so secure and confident strapped in tight and with a great driving position. The claims are 0-60mph in under 4sec and around 190mph, which feels about right.

 Given only three flying laps in the car it would be daft to start making too many judgements on how it drives, but the family Aston 'feel' is still inherently present, albeit with everything that much more immediate and more precise. Weighing considerably less than other models on this platform (at 1,350kg) but with a mildly tuned engine (now 530hp and 440lb ft of torque) it's no surprise that the V12 makes light work of hauling this car out of tight turns - you can use third gear for the final corner onto the straight and then enjoy a great seam of acceleration along it. Stopping at the other end is convincing too, certainly by road-car standards, thanks to Brembo six-pot callipers with massive grooved discs, and as you flick down the quick-shifting 'box you're treated to an extravagant series of pops and bangs from the V12 (sorry, must stop talking about the noise it makes).

With fully adjustable Multimatic DSSV dampers, rose-jointed suspension and slicks, the V12 Zagato is clearly going to be in a different dimension to something like a V12 Vantage road car. In one sense it's obvious that there's a considerable weight of engine up front, but the classic front-engine/rear-wheel drive layout seems to create a straightforward series of messages, and although the steering is a bit lighter than you might expect that doesn't dent your confidence. You'd love the way it steers - wonderfully direct - and after the easy-going nature of the GT4 it feels a lot more alert, responding to some braking into the corners and benefiting from a much more aggressive gear shift. When you factor in the performance and the noise (sorry...) it makes for the kind of absorbing experience that so nearly leads to pit board blindness.

It might not be quite at GT3 class level, but if Aston Martin wanted to create a charismatic road-race sports car that, as has been demonstrated, is also quick in serious competition, they've succeeded. £330,000 for a road version? Big money, but on the strength of this you're unlikely to be disappointed.

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