Seven and twelve pair nicely.
It’s too soon to spray champagne celebrating the return of the manual transmission, but we should at least put a couple of bottles on ice. Our preferred gearbox certainly isn’t saved quite yet. But it does seem to have more of a future in sports cars than looked to be the case for at least the past decade, as makers conspired to send it the way of the drum brake, the ashtray, and the key that is actually a key.
A modest return began last year with Jaguar’s decision to offer a manual version of what was previously the automatic-only F-type. Then Porsche tacitly admitted it had been too hasty in making its latest 911 GT3 a PDK-only car by creating the manual-only 911R. Now Aston Martin follows with an even bolder move, offering a second manual-gearbox Vantage model.
A six-speed stick is standard on the V8 Vantage and available on the 2017 V8 Vantage GTS, and now the British sports-car maker is producing a limited run of the considerably brawnier V12 Vantage S fitted with a seven-speed manual gearbox, one that comes with the additional novelty of a dogleg shift pattern.
Master the Gates
First and foremost, selecting the manual means avoiding the lurching automated single-clutch transmission found in the regular V12 Vantage S, a gearbox with all the smooth sophistication of a martini embellished with gravel. Although Aston Martin has brought in a new Sportshift III automated manual for 2017, and although we concede that even the slickest heel-and-toe merchant won’t be able to change gears as quickly in the stick-shift Vantage, doing so is vastly more rewarding than experiencing the automated gearbox’s head-nodding torque bump.
Of course, the dogleg shift pattern takes some getting used to. First is down and to the left, offset on its own, with second where you would normally find first in an H-pattern box, third replacing second, and so on. It’s the way that racing gearboxes used to be laid out, with the logic being that first is likely to be used only when starting off, and that the most common gearchange on a tight circuit—second to third, or third to second—can be conducted without having to cross the shift gate. It also means that, unlike the seven-speed manuals in the Porsche 911 and the Chevrolet Corvette, the V12 S doesn’t hang seventh out all by itself.
The shifter has a pleasantly mechanical action and a nice weight to it, although it doesn’t like to be hurried. Familiarizing yourself with the idiosyncratic shift pattern is a necessity to gain any degree of deftness; muscle memory tended to return us to the familiar defaults, leading to several “Where is second again?” moments. Fortunately, the V-12 produces enough low-rpm torque to allow you to effectively drive the S as you would a conventional six-speed; doing so just means being one gear higher everywhere.
Aston has spaced the ratios relatively close together, although the tall seventh equates to 2000 rpm at 70 mph. But the engine is quite capable of pulling the tall gearing. The selector is weighted toward the fourth-to-fifth gate and needs to be consciously directed left to engage third or second; we found the fourth-to-third downshift the trickiest to master. But the engine’s enthusiasm to rev to 7000 rpm means that you rarely require any gear other than second or third—which tops out beyond 90 mph—to tackle a challenging road. A clever automatic-rev-matching function does a decent job of matching engine and road speeds when downshifting, but this can be switched off if you want to prove that you are not quite as adept.
A mild disappointment is that the gearshift lever itself isn’t quite as grand-looking as the car to which it’s attached; if Mazda did a dogleg seven-speed, we imagine the shifter would look pretty similar. Yet we didn’t notice or mind it once the car was moving, when there were suddenly far more important things to concentrate on, not least avoiding arrest in a car that makes attaining and maintaining ridiculous speeds so easy. It’s a bit like critiquing the style and color of a pull handle when reviewing a parachute.
Earning Its Sidewalk Star
Transmission aside, pretty much everything else is familiar. The V12 Vantage S has hardly changed since we first drove the car nearly three years ago, and it still offers the compelling combination of a small car fitted with Aston’s largest engine. In the fashion-conscious sports-car market it might seem old, given that the basic Vantage design has just celebrated the end of its first decade. An alternative argument is that it has managed to leap straight from shiny newness to latter-day classic without a wearisome diversion through middle age. Aston’s sonorous naturally aspirated V-12 engine is one of the greats, fully deserving of having its name set in a sidewalk star before its emissions-dictated retirement. It’s more than powerful enough to make the larger Vanquish or even the four-door Rapide seriously quick; it turns the smaller and lighter Vantage into an aristocratic rocket ship.
Aside from the small matter of having to find $200,000, this is definitely the Aston Martin Vantage to have. An even bigger problem is that the limited run of just 100 manual-equipped V12 S models set to be brought to the States has, we’re told, already sold out. The good news is that Andy Palmer, Aston’s CEO, has committed to offer a manual gearbox in the Vantage’s replacement, which we will see next year, expected to be powered by AMG’s 4.0-liter turbocharged V-8. That’s something worth looking forward to—and yet another reason to keep the bubbly on ice.