We first got to test the Aston Martin Vantage S last year at Ascari and it left quite an impression: The svelte, punchy coupe was both a perfect track companion and a delight cruising the picturesque Spanish countryside. It was whirlwind romance, but when we got back to the U.S. we were faced with a question: Would the car's charms hold up in the day-to-day driving in a city like New York?
We were presented with the opportunity to answer this very question recently when Aston loaned us a 2012 Vantage for an afternoon in our hometown. With limited time, we decided the best plan would be to do what many New Yorkers do when they have a friend suddenly drop in: Take them out for pizza.
We have 8 hours to get a slice of pizza from the best spot in each of New York's 5 boroughs: Brooklyn, Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. We will drive the Vantage in a variety of challenging real-world settings, from rush-hour traffic on the infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to navigating the crowded surface streets. We'd put the Vantage to a true test to see if a British track star could conceivably be a daily driver in one of the worst places to drive in America.
The 2012 Vantage sat waiting for us outside of our office, the tungsten silver paint already wet with rain. As soon as we get in, we hear it: the whisper of "Aston Martin" from every pedestrian over the idling V8 as they pass the car. New York is a city that probably contains every exotic car on the market at any given time, so you'd expect a certain level of automotive ambivalence from the general population. Not so with the Vantage—passers-by seemed eager to point out their recognition of the Aston with their friends. We start to get used to strangers taking our picture.
At first glance you'd be hard pressed to spot the aesthetic differences between the outgoing Vantage and this 2012 model. Aston's design changes happen at a pace so deliberate it makes Porsche's 911 updates look radical by comparison. Indeed, this is a common gripe from fans and detractors alike—that the average person can't tell a Vantage from a DB9 from a Virage. You get the sense that Aston is less about selling individual models as it is selling the Aston experience at varying, narrowly defined levels.
Upon closer inspection the changes begin to emerge: more heavily sculpted sides, a more defined and expressive front grille, a handsome carbon-fiber front splitter. The design tweaks are slight but add up to make the Vantage feel more premium, more muscular, and more evolved.
After picking up our co-pilot/eater in Bedford Stuyvesant (home of Notorious B.I.G and Jay-Z), your correspondents punch in our first destination into the GPS: L&B Spumoni Gardens, in southern Brooklyn. We head south on Nostrand Avenue, passing a group of kids playing basketball who stop mid-game to watch us pass. Nostrand is profusely potholed, and the Vantage's taught suspension and low stance tattoo every single bump directly into our spines.
Upon arrival, we chance into the rarest of New York phenomena: a parking spot right in front of the restaurant. Now, a note on parallel parking a car like the Vantage: It's nerve-wracking. Despite the tight turning radius, newly improved steering ratio, and radar-assisted parking—it still takes years off your life.
We park right in front of a brand new Mustang GT, which our co-pilot (not, it should be said, an automotive aficionado) remarks is vaguely similar to the Vantage. It's true—there's something in the DNA of the Vantage that shares lineal roots with great American muscle cars. Despite the fact that the Vantage costs nearly 4 times a base Mustang GT, they both are V8 powered, rear wheel drive sport coupes. Maybe that's what's drawn us to the Vantage in the first place: despite its modern technology and British heritage it's instantly familiar, harkening back to the sports cars of our youth. We understand this car, emotionally.
As we sit eating our slices, we notice a steady stream of cooks and waiters making their way to the window to check out the car. The counter guy catches our eye and says: "There's an Aston Martin right out front. What kind of sicko parks a car like that out on the street?"
As we head out of Brooklyn traffic suddenly thins just as we reach the onramp to the Verrazano Bridge, letting us open the Aston up a bit. Up until now the Vantage has been restrained—there's a palpable urgency at every stoplight as the car aches to open up. But now with the first open quarter-mile we've seen, we're able to accelerate with a confidence that could get us out of (or into) a sticky situation. At the toll booth, the attendant gives us a nod and a "Sick Aston" while the cop standing beside him asks us for a ride. Welcome to Staten Island.
This becomes a common refrain during our trip—not only is the Vantage the center of attention wherever we go, but we're amazed with how many people know the brand specifically. Aston Martin is essentially a niche brand; sales never top a fraction of the Porsche 911. Even still, people recognized the car; we didn't have a single person ask us if it was a Ferrari.
We grab a quick slice of thin-crust at Joe and Pat's, a neighborhood institution since 1960. Then back on the road, headed for the heart of the Big Apple.
We enter the address for Patsy's in East Harlem into the Vantage's GPS unit. We get to interface with the GPS a lot in our mission, which proves to be a double-edged sword: while the 2012 Vantage now sports the much-improved Garmin powered unit first seen in the Virage, it's still a far cry from competitors' offerings. Entering addressed with the joystick input is fiddly and time-consuming and had us yearning for a more streamlined experience. The visual interface is also identical to a stock Garmin GPS, cartoonish icons and all, so the overall design felt anachronistic and cheap compared to the rest of the Aston's polished interior. At the very least, couldn't we get a British accent for the voice?
This remains our key issue with Aston as a product: for a brand that came to notoriety and fame as a gadget-filled car for a super spy, the modern Aston still feels a generation behind when it comes to in-cabin technology. We recognize it must be difficult for a small brand to remain on the cutting edge of telemetrics; as we learned from Mercedes, it requires a staff of almost 100 full-time employees to develop custom interfaces for their vehicles. Still, if Aston is going to be considered alongside other premium exotics, it needs to compete on the technology front as well as performance. This is the space where Aston can differentiate and win—by being the choice of high design rather than cold numbers.
We circle the block in East Harlem a few times until a spot opens up. By now we're almost pros at the parallel parking game, trusting in the ever-increasing shriek of the Vantage's park assist to let us know when we're too close for comfort. We go into Patsy's only to discover they're not a slice-type place, they're a full-pie kind of place. Undeterred and committed to the mission, we order a full pie to go and eat a few pieces sitting on the hood, chatting with anyone and everyone about the car.
It was here we discover another flaw in the Vantage's design: There is absolutely nowhere in the cabin to put a standard-sized pizza box. We try setting it on the small shelf behind the seats to no avail. The small back decklid is also less than ideal—the box slides around as the Vantage bites into turns headed over the bridge into the Bronx. Asking our very nicely dressed co-pilot to hold the box is right out of the question. We eventually pull over and put the box in the trunk, lesson learned.
We leave Harlem and cruise up past Yankee Stadium toward Full Moon Pizzeria on historic Arthur Ave. Driving in New York in a car with this kind of power (420hp coming out of the base V8) can be a maddeningly frustrating experience. You just get the sense that the car wants to break out and run at every opening. The improved, 7 speed automatic Sportshift II transmission is eager to drop down a gear on heavy pedal, especially if you've switched the car into SPORT mode (and why would you ever not switch such a car into SPORT mode?). And the brakes are good, insanely good. But it's like I'll Have Another pulling a Central Park carriage—there's just never enough room.
We get to Full Moon just as they're closing and beg for their last slices. The great thing about pizza is that even when it's lukewarm and hours old, it's still pretty magical. We notice that Full Moon is denoted on the Aston's GPS as a cartoon slice of pizza, which seems just about right. We roll down the windows, put on some Jay-Z, and head south, for Queens.
With the hour approaching midnight and traffic sparse, the cruise from the Bronx to Queens is smooth. As we leave the tolls, a BMW M6 races to catch up with us. We're not interested in getting into a race, nor are we very interested in getting a ticket, so we slow to let them pass. As they do, the 4 guys stuffed inside all give us simultaneous thumbs up—8 thumbs in total. People really love this car.
And we love it too, though the ride, a combination of firm bucket seats and a tight sport suspension, is starting to take its toll. While we imagine this would be lessened by some smooth highway miles, a definite fatigue starts to set in.
We pull up to New Park Pizza only to find they've closed up for the night, their famous neon PIZZA sign gone dark. We feel an immediate sense of defeat: we've been driving for nearly 8 hours and we fell short of our goal to eat slices in every borough by less than 15 minutes. We lean against the car to sulk when we suddenly remember the box from Patsy's stashed safely in the trunk. We grab the last 2 slices and take almost ceremonial bites. It is accomplished.
Before dropping the Vantage off for the night, we decide to take it on one last victory lap through Manhattan. The other place you always begrudgingly end up taking out-of-town guests is Times Square, and this seems like the best place to end our drive. We do a few laps through the bath of neon and crush of tourists, driving especially slow to let them take their photos of this striking exotic vehicle. Stereo switched off, the low throaty rumble of the V8 through New York's concrete jungle is the only soundtrack we need.
Images by Ryan McManus