Wolf among the sheep

FROM QUEENSTOWN TO NZíS TALLEST PEAK IN ASTONíS REBORN VANTAGE

5 AM, Queenstown, in July. Itís too obvious to say itís cold. Frigid is better. Arctic even closer. Sitting alone in the pre-dawn gloom, thin trails of vapour rising and twisting from its exhaust pipes, the Vantage seems to drink in the darkness. Black, with black and silver wheels and a black leather interior, it oozes an unexpected menace, the lazy, wet baritone of its AMG-sourced V8 a lumpy and unbroken bassline that cuts through the icy, still air.

Strictly speaking, Queenstown at this time of year isnít supercar territory. Aston has flown the Vantage to the Land of the Hobbit so that its customers, and the media, can drive it on ice and snow at a winter proving ground, but weíve concocted a tougher challenge. One with less sideways buffoonery but greater real-world relevance: a day-long run on some of the best roads in the Southern Hemisphere, to the frozen tip of New Zealandís tallest Peak, Mount Cook; a destination some 300km away in the Aoraki National Park.

Thereís a real risk we wonít make it that far. Rear-wheel drive, 375kW and 295-section Pirellis donít mix too well with sub-zero temperatures and black ice, though strangely, that didnít seem so insurmountable when we were planning the route back in balmy Australia. Itís a proper concern now, though, and one hammered home by our Kiwi photographer who looms out of the inky darkness, his brow furrowed.

ďItís going to rain for most of the day,Ē is how he greets us. ďAnd thereíll be snow on the pass I want to go to. Hopefully itís just a light dusting. It could be a little sketchyÖĒ

Treacherous conditions aside, our route isnít going to be short of natural beauty, or, more crucially, of variety. Towering, postcard-worthy mountains are great, but the real magic of New Zealandís south island lies in how quickly the scenery changes. Lush, open fields quickly give way to barren, rocky valleys as the main arterial rises and falls to leave Queenstownís precarious bungyjump bridges and jet-boat canyons behind, grit pinging in the wheel wells on our way towards Cromwell.

Thereís more than a whiff of new beginning about this Vantage. Itís writ large in that gulping (and polarising) front grille, those pinched and sculpted hips, that raked rear diffuser. Aston wants to shift the badge; to transform its entry-level model from a sporty GT car into a genuine, hardnosed alternative to the likes of Porsche, AMG, and, now that its price tag reads $300K, even McLaren.

The result is a newfound sense of intent from the get-go. The default mode is Sport (thereís no Comfort setting to choose) and even in heavy traffic, easing the surprisingly long throttle to a third of its travel sees the big V8 hold gears to 4000rpm before the eight-speed auto slots home a higher cog. Adding to the sense of urgency are its dimensions. Total length and width have grown compared with the old car, but the Vantage is still 34mm shorter than a 911, despite riding on a significantly longer wheelbase (2704mm vs 2450). It feels compact, alert and right-sized, and because you sit smack bang in between the axles (not way out back like in an AMG GT), itís a car that seems to be instantly on your side.

THE VANTAGE SEEMS TO RELISH BEING DRIVEN HARD, LIKE A RACEHORSE RESPONDING TO THE WHIP

BADGEOLOGY

It might have burst back into the public psyche in 2005 with this carís predecessor, but the Vantage moniker has a rich history in Aston Martin folklore. First applied in 1951 on the DB2 to distinguish a highperformance derivative with a ĎVantage engineí, the first standalone Vantage was the short-lived, 4.0-litre six-pot model of 1972. Gradually positioned as AMís flagship with ever beefier V8s, the Vantage introduced Astonís all-new 6.0litre V12 in 2000 with the DB7. The Vantage is now Aston Martinís most popular model.

Next to me, videographer Dwight begins to make strange cooing sounds into his camera as the landscape continues to shift. From open flatlands peppered with wineries near Gibbston, the highway transitions into a rollercoaster of dark, dank tarmac that sweeps and turns as we plunge towards Roaring Meg near Kawarau Gorge. Itís an entertaining stretch of tarmac, heavily treed in on the left with staccato glimpses of an impossibly blue river to our right, but a stricken and abandoned Toyota Camry, its entire left side crumpled like a discarded beer can, is a sobering reminder of how treacherous these roads can be. With the Vantageís dash suggesting the ambient temp is hovering around 1.0 degree and big, hard-to-spot wet patches lurking in the shadows, I wind back the aggression.

Itís an interesting one to drive at five-tenths. The engine is surprisingly quiet, the steering on the weighty side, and thereís a lot to like about the cabin. The seating position is low, the seats themselves a triumph of comfort and support, and thereís decent adjustment from the square steering wheel, which looks odd, but is pleasingly natural to hold. The ambience is great too, with vast expanses of expensive-smelling leather, and thereís a beautiful tactility to the long, blade-like shift paddles. There are some letdowns, however. The sheer number of buttons on the cluttered centre console is confronting at first (do we really need separate buttons to lock and unlock the central locking?), thereís no glovebox, and the graphics on the digital dash arenít quite as crisp as youíd expect in a car of this calibre.

Some of the cabin plastics arenít up to scratch either, most notably the cheap-looking central air vents, and the switches on the steering wheel, which feel more Kia Rio than opulent British supercar.

Thereís also the constant bugbear of tyre roar on these coarse-chip roads, though the Vantage does cruise more quietly than a 911. Still, itís hard to shake the feeling that the longer you spend in the cabin, the more the initial wow factor begins to fade.

At Cromwell we turn left onto Tarras-Cromwell road and instantly the traffic melts away. Weíre the only car on the road as we sweep gently alongside Lake Dunstan, the main highway snaking along the waterís opposite shore, taking its choking mix of pickups and trucks with it. Alone at last, the scenery is breathtaking. Fog rises off clear, glassy water that reflects the snow-covered peaks that line the horizon and finally, Dwight canít take it anymore. He wants to put the drone up to grab some footage in the soft morning light, giving me my first real opportunity to delve deep into the throttle as I drive back and forth. I dial up Sport+ and flatten it.

ITíS A BOMBASTIC ENGINE, ALL EFFORTLESS TORQUE, DEEP EXHAUST BOOM AND POTENT V8 BRAWN

Lifting AMGís M177 4.0-litre V8 rather than Aston building its own may have been a controversial decision, but thereís no arguing with the results. Itís a bombastic engine, all effortless torque, deep exhaust boom and potent V8 brawn, though Astonís engineers have given it a personality all of its own in the Vantage. The ECU has been tweaked, the sump made slimmer and the oil pick-up moved farther back to allow the big unit to be housed well behind the front axle line.

Itís not quite as guttural or as throaty low in the rev range as a C63 or AMG GT, but spin it beyond 4000rpm and the timbre changes, the cabin filling with a rich, luxurious howl as the needle rushes to the soft 7000rpm limiter. Itís addictive to wring out, the surge of muscle propelling you effortlessly, though the experience never feels as endorphin poppingly rapid as a GT3, or as savage as the hard-hitting McLaren 540. Thereís a sense of balance to the Vantage, the realisation that itís a package you can actually press into for more than a few adrenalin-soaked seconds as the rear skips and hunts for grip and your licence quivers.

With Dwight satisfied (he returns slowly shaking his head at the beauty of it all), we leave the turquoise water behind and bolt for Lindis Pass. Almost at once the mountains are on us again, small at first, though gradually building until we sit atop a dirty brown gorge, sweeping hairpins of blacktop just visible as it snakes its way to the bottom.

Vaughan, our photographer, pulls over and unexcitedly indicates he wants to get some shots. ďJust to have some in the bag, you know,Ē he drawls. ďYou wait until we get to Lindis. This is all a bit shit.Ē

I begin to question his judgment. Even this road gazumps what is easily accessible in Oz, not just for its otherworldly juxtaposition of burnt brown earth and pristine snow, but for driving. This is big-consequence motoring. The corners have no guard rails and the temp has only crept to 2.0įC, but the Aston feels wieldy. I run from top to bottom several times, each time faster than the last as I lean further and further on the chassis. Thereís more grip than I expect, the front Pirellis biting hard, not with alarming dartiness, but with a natural agility. The steering is sensibly geared at 2.4 turns lock-to-lock and it feels refreshingly intuitive, neatly sidestepping any front-end nervousness.

Itís a car that comes to you, the Vantage. One that seems to relish being driven hard, like a racehorse responding to the whip. It feels on its toes, but never rushed, grip levels communicated more through the seat of your pants than the steering wheel. Thereís an inherent sense of balance to it, a soft window in the middle of the corner that you sink into as you pick up the throttle earlier and earlier, the e-diff tightening to provide small hints of yaw as I unwind lock and power out.

The road straightens as we rush past the sign that reads ĎLindis Pass summit 9kmí. Itís a gradual climb at first but as the noise of grit increases in the wheel arches so does the elevation and the tightness of the corners. Then suddenly the valley explodes, brilliant, blinding morning light streaming into a scoop in the earthís surface that, if it werenít for the sea of brown tussocks, youíd swear was European. Weíre early enough to be alone, Vaughanís camera the only sound, but before long, the tourists descend. Busses bobble into our vantage point, the only highlight delivered when a B-Double blasts the crowd with its horn, effectively communicating that standing in the middle of the road for a selfie isnít very smart.

For all its heart-stopping natural beauty, Lindis is actually a drag to drive. There are too many trucks, too much salt grit to go quickly, too many erratic RVs, their progress haphazard and windows fogged as excited passengers barrage the driver to stop for a picture.

Over a lamb pie at the Wrinkly Ram in the sleepy town of Omarama, we take stock of the roads so far. Theyíve been good, with flashes of brilliance, and mercifully the weather has held, but we need more room to play with. Less traffic. More corners. ďI know a place,Ē says Vaughan. ďOhau road, just before the salmon farms.Ē

ITS COLOUR SUDDENLY BECOMES LIQUID, LINES AND CREASES EMBELLISHING A SHAPE THAT OOZES DRAMA

Itís one of those innocuous turns Iíd have driven straight past. A left hander that splits from the main road at a right angle, its beginning arrow straight and flat as you drive headlong into the mountains on the horizon. Itís totally deserted and quickly becomes challenging, straight sections giving way to fast crests that unsettle the car and off-camber kinks that tighten unexpectedly. I cycle through the suspension modes, double wishbones up front and multi-links out back doing their best to absorb the bumpy surface. The damping is nicely judged in Sport. It doesnít jiggle or jolt, though thereís no escaping the overarching sense of tautness. Track and Sport+ modes are too stiff here, the rear bucking and skipping on corner exit as I grab big armfuls of corrective lock. Itís quickly apparent the ideal set-up is Sport dampers, Track powertrain. The sense that this is a car that gets better the harder you drive returns; its grip on terra firma is vice-like, body control is kept neatly in check, the steering sensitive to load and meaty when youíre attacking. Does it have the Braille-like feel of a 911? Or the chassis precision, suspension subtlety and control?

Not quite, but Astonís recruitment of some of the best chassis gurus in the business Ė people like ex-Lotus man Matt Becker, McLarenís Chris Goodwin, and even a few tasty hires from Ferrari Ė is plain to feel.

We finish our detour as the daylight starts to fade, the craggy, cloud-cloaked peak of Mount Cook tantalisingly out of reach. Without enough time to make it to the top, we cruise slowly along the edges of the powder blue canals that line its base.

Model Aston Martin Vantage

Engine 3982cc V8 (90į), dohc, 32v, twin-turbo

Max power 375kW @ 6000rpm

Max torque 685Nm @ 2000-5000rpm

Transmission 8-speed automatic

L/W/H/WB 4465/1942/1273/2704mm

Weight 1630kg

0-100km/h 3.6sec (claimed) Economy 10.5L/100km

Price $299,950

On sale Now

Thereís a moment when the light goes soft, the sky turns pink and after setting the car up for a final static shot, all three of us stop. Itís eerily silent. No shuttering of Vaughanís camera. No footsteps as Dwight rushes to get another angle. We all just stare.

Behind the Vantage a perfect full moon glows. The Astonís colour, which has seemed to suck in all of the light around it all day, suddenly changes. It becomes liquid, lines and creases in the body that were hidden suddenly embellishing a shape that oozes visual drama.

The moment stretches like an eclipse until the dark night reclaims the bluey black paint and all thatís left is the thin, uninterrupted light signature that stretches across the Vantageís wide rump.

I pause as I slip into the seat for the three-hour schlep back to Queenstown. Itís better than I was expecting, this steelier-eyed Vantage. Not perfect, and certainly not a giant killer, but bloody good, straight out of the box, which isnít always the case with Astons.

It feels special, somehow comfortable in its own skin, and just like the untapped potential of the roads that sweep up towards Mount Cook, thereís real promise in the reminder that for the reborn Vantage, this is just the beginning.

STILL TO COME...

Myriad Vantage variants are in the pipeline. First up is one with a sevenspeed manual gearbox, though itís still more than a year away. A soft-top Volante version is also a shoo-in, as are harder versions with a greater performance focus. We know thereís plenty of headroom left in the 4.0-litre V8 (it churns out 450kW/850Nm in the AMG E63 S) and tantalisingly, Aston says its 5.2-litre V12 does fit though ďthere are no plans at this stage.Ē No plans either for a six-cylinder version using Mercís all-new M256 in-line six, which is a shame. A cheaper six-pot with a manual íbox would be a lovely thing.