Aston Martin has three very distinct versions of its Vantage supercar. There's the standard V8 Vantage, designed to provide acceptable levels of lunacy, the V8 Vantage N420 special edition, and the more extreme V12 Vantage, which is fast enough to rip your heart out if you don't treat the go pedal with the respect it deserves.
It's a line-up that seems relatively straightforward to us, but Aston Martin clearly doesn't agree. The company's decided the time has come to wedge a fourth car, the V8 Vantage S, between the V8 and V12 models, offering customers a more fiery, track-focused driving experience, without the savagery and running costs of a V12 engine.
The V8 Vantage S uses the same engine as the entry-level V8, but offers additional power, sportier suspension and better brakes. Our test car is the £102,500 roadster edition.
Devil in an old dress
When producing souped-up versions of existing cars, many manufacturers routinely opt for ostentatious body kits, enormous wings and gaudy paint jobs, but Aston Martin has resisted this temptation when crafting the Vantage S.
Instead, Aston Martin's chosen to make a host of very subtle tweaks. The lower front air intake, for example, is wider and more aggressive-looking, and styled to resemble that of the Aston Martin Virage. The car also has new side sills, a more pronounced boot-lid 'flip' spoiler for increased downforce, new 19-inch V-spoke alloy wheels that are half an inch wider at the rear, and a more aggressive rear bumper, borrowed from the V12 Vantage.
Nips and tucks
Beneath its skin, the V8 Vantage S sports a wealth of more noticeable upgrades. Firstly, there's the engine, which, although virtually identical to the one in the standard V8 Vantage, has been tuned to provide more power. The 4.7-litre unit develops 430bhp and 490Nm of torque -- 10bhp and 20Nm more than the standard car.
The V8 Vantage S also trades the six-speed manual transmission and Sportshift paddle-shifting systems seen in previous Vantage cars for an all-new, custom-built, automatic Sportshift II transmission. Aston Martin says this unit not only weighs less than the original Sportshift transmission, but also changes gear 20 per cent faster, making it better-suited for a track-orientated car such as the V8 Vantage S.
Aston Martin's also revised the V8 Vantage S' suspension and dynamic stability-control system, so it's more comfortable over rough surfaces, yet more focused on the track. It also features a faster steering rack ratio of 15:1 -- compared with 17:1 on the standard car -- plus a new electronic brake module that features hydraulic brake assist. Usefully, this applies the brakes when ascending hills, preventing the car rolling backwards before you apply the throttle -- a problem that's common in Vantage cars that use a manual transmission.
Aston Martin would be first to admit the tweaks to the V8 Vantage S are minuscule on paper, but, together, they help make the car a keener, more focused weapon on the track. The faster steering in particular is extremely direct and almost go-cart-like in its responsiveness, with the slightest of turning inputs causing the car to point its nose more keenly in whichever direction you desire.
Straight-line performance is something of a disappointment -- at least initially. Despite the upgrades, the Vantage S doesn't feel any faster than the standard car. The engine is a peach and a new exhaust muffler makes all the right noises, but the throttle response isn't as keen as one might expect and gear shifts feel slow and laboured in comparison to the clutch transmissions of cars such as the Ferrari 458 Italia.
Prod the button labelled 'sport', however, and the V8 Vantage S begins to shine. The throttle wakes from its slumber and takes on a very keen, aggressive nature.Give it the full beans and it'll catapult the car from a standstill to 62mph in just 4.4 seconds -- 0.3 seconds quicker than the standard car and 0.3 seconds slower than the all-conquering V12 Vantage.
The sport mode seems to blow the cobwebs out of the transmission, too. Changes that feel ponderous in the standard mode take place much more quickly when travelling at speed, and the Sportshift II system becomes noticeably more responsive. It isn't quite as rapid as many dual-clutch systems but it's a definite improvement on the manual transmission seen on previous Vantage cars, as it eliminates the possibility of missed gears and noticeably increases the speed at which the car pounces from one ratio to another.
Brakes our heart
The V8 Vantage S handles extremely well. It changes direction more quickly, and is better-balanced through turns, than any other Aston Martin we've ever driven. It will, understandably, understeer slightly when asked to tackle tight, low-speed corners, but the car provides plenty of feedback through the steering so you know exactly when the tyres are about to lose traction.
The car's brakes are a disappointment, though. The Vantage S features uprated 380mm front discs that are 25mm larger than those on the standard V8 Vantage. The discs are ventilated and grooved in the usual fashion to improve cooling and stopping response, and use a two-piece 'floating' design, whereby the caliper -- the part that clamps the pads onto the disc to stop the wheels turning -- moves along a line parallel to the axis of rotation of the disc, providing better stopping power.
Unfortunately, the brakes don't inspire much confidence at race speeds. Stomp on the middle pedal as you approach a tight bend and the rear end of the car squirms like a snake in a headlock. This can result in frantic steering-wheel adjustments to keep the back end in line, but the hyper-sensitive steering rack can then lead to over-compensation and ruined lap times.
Tech no prisoners
The Vantage S' interior and cabin tech are the same as those of all modern Vantages. The inside looks great, as ever, thanks to a muscular dashboard, aluminium-lined instruments and a crystal key-cum-starter-button, dubbed the 'emotion control unit'. This car also features an Aston Martin-branded Lamy Pico pocket pen that nestles in the centre console.
There are problems, though. The navigation and entertainment system is still controlled via the same oddball joystick-based user interface as previous Vantages. The car also has a relatively shoddy, low-res, Volvo-sourced sat-nav system, rather than the newer Garmin model seen in the Virage.
On the upside, the Vantage S comes with an optional £4,500 Bang & Olufsen audio system. This, as we've discovered with previous Vantage cars, provides one of the best listening experiences outside of the Royal Albert Hall. It's loud, powerful, well-balanced and an absolute joy to listen to.
The Aston Martin V8 Vantage S' various improvements -- particularly its reduced weight, keener engine and added downforce -- make it a potent weapon on the track. It squirms uncomfortably during hard braking, but, on the whole, it's a very welcome addition to the Vantage line-up.
Edited by Charles Kloet