MIRABEL, Quebec – For hundreds of millions of people, the Aston Martin represents one thing: the favourite car of the planet's most famous secret agent. Who? Bond, James Bond, obviously. From the gadget-laden DB5 that he christened half a century ago to the magnificent DB10 that he drives in the upcoming movie, Spectre, the century-old British brand is synonymous with Agent 007. And vice-versa, even though Agent Bond has driven many other sports cars.
For me, Aston Martin is the gold DB5 from Goldfinger in 1:43 scale with a metal body, doors that open, extendable hubs that slash the bad guys’ tires and an anti-bazooka screen that rises from the rear. So maybe it didn't have oil sprinklers to foil opponents with a slick road surface, but it was still one of my favourite toy cars.
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Aston Martin also means a single victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1959, by a DB1R ahead of a horde of Ferrari 250 GTs. It was driven by British driver Roy Salvadori and Texan Carroll Shelby, who raced with a nitroglycerine pill under his tongue in case his heart gave out during the race. In the end, the DB1R’s heart and that of its two pilots held on for the win and Shelby, of course, went on to become a legend.
A long time coming
But I’m forced to admit that Aston Martin was also the brand whose cars I had never driven once in 33 years as an automobile journalist. Until last week, that is, when I test drove five in the same day on the ICAR track in Mirabel, Quebec. It was a mission that I accepted without hesitation, as you can well imagine.
Regardless of the schedule or the weather that day, I was finally going to find out what it felt like to rest my hands on the wheel—and feet on the pedals—of some of the most beautiful cars on the planet, those with the British automaker’s winged logo.
That morning at ICAR, we were greeted by a sort of roving job squad: a group of seasoned instructors, most either current or former race car drivers, who travel the world with a squadron of Aston Martins to introduce them to potential buyers. And sometimes a handful or two of journalists.
After taking in their instructions and advice, I strapped on my helmet and headed for the track. Five Aston Martins were neatly aligned on the pale cement bordering the circuit. The most imposing, of course, was the Rapide S with its large grille, four doors, shapely roofline and 6.0-litre 552-horsepower V12.
The Vanquish Coupe was the most beautiful, in my opinion, with silver exterior. It was also the most expensive, with a base price of $304,805, and the most powerful, thanks to the 568-horsepower version of the same V12. Unfortunately, the burgundy convertible Vanquish Volante (base price of $325,652) had to be pulled due to a defective sensor that was out of stock. It was there only for the photo sessions.
Completing the field were three versions of the Vantage, all of the same size. The Coupé and Roadster Vantage S share a 565-horsepower V12, while the Vantage V8 GT Roadster, an exclusive to the North American market, is powered by a 4.7-litre 430-horsepower V8. It also weighs 55 kilos less.
The schedule is set to the quarter-lap. I was directed toward a white Vantage S Roadster with magnificent red leather seats. The instructor welcomed me with typical British courtesy and took the wheel to show me the cones placed at the beginning of corners and at the end of the fastest ones on the 3.2-kilometre ICAR circuit.
Andy, at least I think that was his name, then explained some of the unique controls in this Vantage S. I had already noticed the seat controls and their strange location on the side of the central console. It isn’t ideal, but you get used to it quickly. The seat was nicely sculpted, the steering wheel superb and the driving position and pedals impeccable. Andy did his utmost to describe how the Vantage S V12s’ seven-speed automated single-clutch Italian Graziano Oerlikon transmission works.
When I finally got the green light, I hit the right paddle, the number 1 replaced the letter N on the dashboard, and I was off. Even without accelerating full-tilt, I was instantly blown away by the V12’s extraordinary sound and torque. The deep howl and the push from behind only got better as the acceleration, speed and instructor’s level of trust increased.
I was expecting the cars to be awkward and I could not have been more wrong. The Vantage S is solid and stable and laughs in the face of undulations and protrusions on the concrete track. The front end goes straight for the apex without the slightest hesitation. The steering is linear and precise, with good feedback from the leather steering wheel. Shifting is clean during acceleration and very reasonably fast when downshifting with the left paddle.
Each one brilliant in its own way
Andy indicated that the Vantage S in its various forms is the sportiest member of the family but I was not disappointed by any of the Aston Martins. On the contrary, I was even impressed by each and every one. All are built around a chassis made of bonded aluminum extrusions, their engines are installed as far toward the back as possible and their gearboxes are literally grafted to their rear axles. All have a flawless suspension rating, which gives a fixed position to an adjustable element, and their braking is impeccably designed, with large discs (398 mm in front and 360 mm in back) for the V12 Astons and carbon fibre backing plates for the sportier Vanquish and Vantage.
All five Aston Martins are totally balanced and completely at ease on a track. Of course, since the Rapide S measures five metres long and weighs two metric tonnes, it presents the most body roll in corners. It also goes without saying that the Vanquish is a tad smoother than the Vantage S in major transitions. But what a fabulous sound, what majesty on the track for this beauty queen! As for the Vantage V8 GT, it’s fun to drive with its American accent and respectable manual transmission, despite the shifter being perched high on its wide console.
Don’t ask me if the sound system or the turn signals on these five hot-blooded English cars work well. Maybe I’ll notice those aspects next time. All I know is that I finally got to drive a small fleet of Aston Martins all out—and on a race track to boot! The experience was a pleasure that I wish you all got to have, too.
The cars test driven at the ICAR circuit: