To wander into the Aston Martin headquarters in Gaydon, Oxfordshire, is to witness a specialist car manufacturer at the cutting edge. There are dedicated customer booths, complete with plasma screens and leather sofas, and a vast atrium showcasing the company's finest hour, the DB9. It is a vision quite at odds with the received image of a company that in 1993 built just 43 cars and which has, famously, never made a profit.
And yet remnants of the old Aston still exist and so does one of its most potent legacies, the Vanquish supercar. While Gaydon gears up to produce the new baby Aston, the AMV8 Vantage, the company's old plant at Newport Pagnell will continue to handcraft around 350 Vanquishes each year, to the exacting specification of an exclusive band of customers. It is the bridging point between old and new, a reminder of what once was, and a pointer to what will be.
It is a mark of Aston's recent progress that a flagship model launched in 2001 is already the subject of a makeover. Ostensibly, the facelift consists of no more than the introduction of a new Sports Dynamic Pack, but in reality, this is a heavily revised suspension setup that will be de rigueur for the Vanquish owner. Expect Aston to quietly forget about the "standard" car, just as it quickly forgot about the six-cylinder DB7 once the V12 came on stream.
The new package is both a response to criticisms of the original car and a deliberate attempt to shift the focus of the flagship model. With the DB9 posing as the consummate GT, Aston is keen to position the Vanquish as an overtly sporting supercar. Hence Aston's CEO, Dr. Ulrich Bez's description of the new car as boasting "a slightly sportier, more focused approach."
Aesthetically speaking, the only revision is the introduction of nine-spoke wheels in place of the 12-spoke alloys found on the original car. The rest of Ian Callum's masterpiece has been left untouched, which is just as well. While the DB9 has been, understandably, hailed as a work of extraordinary beauty, it's the Vanquish that continues to boast the greater presence. The sheer extravagance of the flared wings is almost pornographic, and yet the Vanquish also manages an easy elegance. Three years on, it shows little sign of aging.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the cabin. Detail changes, such as the introduction of a crystal starter button, a platinum paint finish and new front seats with enhanced shoulder support, cannot disguise its basic inadequacies. The Vanquish was designed in the days when Aston still relied on parts-bin switchgear and although the controls are sourced from Jaguar and Volvo rather than Ford, they still look horribly out of place in a ,166,000 motorcar. And the upright, awkwardly armed driving position is still as eccentric as ever. To describe the DB9 cabin as a quantum leap forward would be an understatement.
But not even the DB9 can match the Vanquish's soundtrack. In fact, show me any road car, anywhere in the world that sounds as good as the Aston and I'll call you a liar. From the first prod of the starter button to the sonorous wail at redline, the Vanquish sounds never less than magnificent. The product of exquisite attention to detail and a hugely expensive rear muffler, it boasts a rich, deep, cultured, natural timbre that makes Ferrari's V12 sound tame and insipid.
It is Ferrari, and in particular the 575M, that is the target of the suspension changes. Stronger front uprights, shorter springs and firmer dampers join forces with a new front suspension wheel bearing assembly. This results in a 5mm reduction in the ride height, while the steering arms have been shortened to speed up the helm by 20%-the Vanquish now requires just 2.73 turns from lock-to-lock.
No less significant are the changes to the brakes. The original car's stoppers, which were susceptible to fade, were arguably its weakest link and Aston's engineers have worked hard to effect a solution. The front discs are larger-378mm versus 355mm- and they work with six-, rather than four-piston calipers. At the rear, the diameter (330mm) is unchanged, but the discs are 2mm thicker to provide a 21% increase in thermal capacity and reduce their susceptibility to fade. New, competition-derived brake pads are employed front and rear.
On the road, the change in attitude is immediately apparent. The ride is now discernably stiff-it's certainly a less cosseting companion than a 575-but it also changes direction with greater alacrity. The quicker steering represents a huge improvement and the feedback is terrific. On the UK's tight and twisting lanes, where Astons of old would have felt uncomfortably clumsy, the Vanquish displays a poise and delicacy that belies its 1,835kg (4,045 lb) mass.
The paddle-shift, clutchless manual gearbox also proves to be something of a revelation. Early examples of this Magneti Marelli unit were both unreliable and crude. The jerky downchanges were unbefitting of 007's motor and parking could be a nightmare. But somebody, somewhere has been working on the software and the latest cars are dramatically better. You still need to learn how to drive with it (Aston has introduced a Performance Driving Course to that end-see sidebar) but once mastered, it's a pleasing companion.
Later this year, Aston will be bringing out an engine tweak for the Vanquish which will increase the peak power output from the current 460 bhp to around 520 bhp. It's to keep it one step ahead of the 575M (515 bhp) and to move the Vanquish comfortably ahead of the 450-bhp DB9, which currently has a better power-to-weight ratio. The extra power will be welcome (it generally always is) but it will also be largely academic-the current car is already extraordinarily rapid as figures of 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 sec. and 0 to 100 mph in 10.5 sec. attest.
At least when the power boost does come, the brakes will be ready. The new setup now inspires greater confidence and the brakes feel as if they are genuinely suited to a 196-mph supercar, rather than a 100-mph hatchback. It's now possible to lean on them on corner entry and even to use them to quell initial understeer. But while they're better, they still lack the ultimate bite and feedback afforded by the Porsche 911's anchors.
There are also clearly defined limits to the Aston's chassis. The Vanquish, for all it's trick carbon and aluminum structure, is still a big, heavy car and that weight is still focused on the front. Attempt to drive it like a whipper-snapper Japanese road racer and you'll be greeted with grumbling understeer. Slow-in, fast-out is still the way forwards for this British bulldog, and care is required in the wet.
It would be quite wrong to describe the Vanquish as a better than the DB9, despite these impressive revisions. Even if we leave aside the 62,000 price differential and judge them purely on their merits, the new car would still win a twin test. It feels as if it was designed in a different age and, in a sense, it was.
But for all its faults, the Vanquish boasts a charisma even its swotty little brother cannot match. It is the last bastion of the enigmatic world of the old Aston Martin, a world in which men beat panels into shape with hammers and where engines were hand built by a single bloke. To drive it is to drink in the nostalgia of a world that will not be seen again.
Likes*Glorious engine note*Styling*Linn hi-fi*Image
Dislikes*Parts-bin switchgear*Small boot*No manual gearbox
Wow Factor*No production engine sounds better
Aston Martin Vanquish Specs
EngineType: 5925cc V12Power Output (bhp): 460 @ 6500 rpmTorque (lb-ft): 500 @ 5000 rpm
Transmission Six-speed semi-automatic with Automatic Shift Manual
DimensionsL/W/H (in.): 183.7/75.7/51.9Curb weight (lb): 4,133
ChassisBrakes: Ventilated discs, 14.9-in. (378mm) (f), 13.0 in. (330mm) (f),Wheels: Alloy, 19-in. diameterTires: Yokohama, 255/40ZR19 (f), 285/40ZR19 (r)
Performance0 to 60 mph (sec.): 4.4Top speed (mph): 196