Two weeks ago I took part in the Mille Miglia, a celebratory road rally designed to evoke the spirit of the Italian road race of that name. Expensive, exotic sports cars from the 1920s right up to the event's demise in 1957 reconvene for a fabulously hedonistic thrash on a route from Brescia to Rome and back. It's not a race, although some participants (including, last year, chef James Martin whose programme on the event missed the point entirely) might think so.
I did the Mille not in some insanely valuable work of automotive art but in a 1948 Fiat 1100S Coupé with just 51bhp but a lot of spirit within its streamlined, bright red body. We had a great time before a spark plug popped out of the cylinder head three-quarters of the way round, taking the threads with it.
And my point is?
That there was no sign whatsoever of any form of financial shortfall among the 377 entrants, suggesting that for some fortunate folk it's high-end auto-business as usual. Lucky them. And it's such luck-attractors (38 of them so far, plus one who bought the chassis displayed at the Geneva motor show) who feel able to spend more than £1m on a 750bhp Aston Martin One-77, a car whose price edged up past £100,000 to help Aston Martin keep afloat. That Aston Martin can do this shows remarkable confidence and not a little pragmatism.
In the slightly more understandable world of cars with price tags in the low six-figures, Aston Martin's hopes are similarly high for it has launched another permutation of the parts that inhabit this price point. You see it here; the Aston Martin V12 Vantage is broadly the existing Vantage V8 with the engine of the hitherto-fastest V12 model, the DBS. Smallish body, monster engine, huge pace and optimum agility. Who would want a DBS now, when you can have a more wieldy car for less money? The figures are £135,000 versus £159,043 – a smoking hole in a foot might be detected. Aston Martin explains it by deciding that the DBS, itself a faster, harder-edged DB9, is a high-end GT car whereas the V12 Vantage is an ultimate sports car. Well, maybe; certainly it exists only with a closed coupé body and a six-speed manual transmission, so there's no dilution of purpose. That coupé body is spectacularly good-looking. The V8 was always thus, but with a deeper nose, fewer grille-slats, a revised tail-diffuser, extended sills, wider wheels and a fine collection of vent strakes on the bonnet, it looks more muscular without descending into bling. Inside, you can have fixed-back, carbonfibre-shelled racing seats for an extra £1,756 (should be standard), and the steering wheel is covered with Alcantara mock suede.
Squeezing the V12 into a structure which, while similar to a DBS's in being made from bonded aluminium, is shorter, was not easy. The engine weighs around 100kg more, but the complete car's mass rises by just 50kg by shaving weight elsewhere (carbon-ceramic brakes, carbonfibre door handles, lighter carpets, lighter wheels and more). Peripheral engine components had to be shrunk and repositioned, cooling had to be sufficient.
I drove it in Germany, on my way home from the Mille Miglia. Some autobahns still lack speed limits and the prospect of the 190mph top speed was tempting, but prudence and traffic intervened. This is one mightily rapid car, though; like the Audi R8 V10, similarly an enhanced-engine version of something already very quick, the ready torrent of energy from almost any engine speed is what really impresses. That, and the hard howl from the exhausts especially when the by-pass valves have opened.
The DBS has adaptive dampers which never quite let the car settle. The V12 Vantage has simpler suspension with normal dampers, and it both rides bumps with more suppleness (though it's still firm) and steers more progressively. That said, your first bends are taken in a series of darting movements until you learn the required lightness of touch and trust the front wheels' enormous and immediate grip. This done, you can squirt the V12 Vantage along sinuous roads like no Aston ever before. Seldom does a car hide its mass so well.
Just one snag. The accelerator has two modes, normal and sport. Both are troubled by an initial mushiness, which continues in normal but switches to a rush of energy in sport at a point infuriatingly hard to define. It's fine if you're rushing, frustrating when you want crispness but are not trying to break records. Ferrari ditched a similar system in the HGTE version of its 599, and it is now more natural and pleasing. Aston Martin should do the same. Make it simpler, chaps, and your V12 Vantage could really claim to be the greatest Aston of modern times.