I just drove the 2019 Aston Martin Vantage in Portugal. I can't say much yet, but I can say it's a pure sports car whose dreamy beauty is matched by its German brawn: A 503-horsepower, twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8, birthed by the mad Dr. Frankensteins at Mercedes-AMG.
Why yes, it is the same engine that powers the Mercedes-AMG GT, the Vantage’s most-obvious straight-up rival in price and performance. Which makes one wonder: Why in the bloody hell would Mercedes do such a thing, giving Aston such a powerful bite for the hand that feeds them? It’s like Porsche executives sitting down to a nice lunch with Chevrolet, offering up their own twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 from the Panamera Turbo, and suggesting it’d be perfect for the coming mid-engine Corvette.
Of course, this situation is different, as Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer reminds me over our own lunch in Portugal, not long after I’d stormed around the rain-dampened Portimao circuit—that ultimate blind-man’s bluff of European road courses—in the second-generation Vantage. Daimler AG, Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, is now sugar-daddy to Aston as well. A technical partnership forged in 2013 has Daimler supplying electronics, infotainment and engines—perhaps including Mercedes’ new inline-six as well at some point—in return for a stake in Aston Martin that’s grown to five percent. The flip side is that these companies will need to swallow some pride and make nice, even when their genetically-linked cousins—including the Vantage and AMG GT—are occasionally forced to engage in fisticuffs in the marketplace, or in the comparison tests so beloved by journalists and car buyers alike.
Aston’s 2018 DB11 V8 was the first beneficiary of the technical sharing: The all-alloy, quad-cam AMG powerplant spools up a hefty 503 horsepower in Aston form, yet weighs 253 fewer pounds than Aston’s downsized, 5.2-liter V12. The same engine now powers the Vantage, though Gaydon's engineers (as in the DB11) switched the AMG GT’s dry-sump lubrication for a slimmer wet-sump unit that allows the engine to nestle especially low and behind the front axle, delivering an Apollonian 50/50 weight distribution.
Flashing some of that company pride, Aston reworked the induction and exhaust systems to tease out more midrange and higher-frequency engine noises, versus the deeper beer-hall chorus of the Mercedes. It’s linked to an eight-speed, paddle-shifted ZF automatic transmission, versus the Benz’s seven-speed dual-clutcher. Yet traditionalists may soon be saying, “Advantage, Aston”—executives affirmed that the Vantage will bring a seven-speed manual transmission option to America, though they didn’t say exactly when.
As for a compare-and-contrast on performance, I’m sworn to silence on driving impressions until April 10, when Aston’s manufacturer embargo lifts. Check back for a full Vantage review then. This I can say: Priced starting at $153,080, the Vantage is ready to plant a British flag—and then strongly defend its territory—in an expanding class of near-supercar models that includes the Mercedes, Audi R8, and BMW i8, and even includes high-end Porsche 911s and McLaren’s starter-model 570S in the mix.
Let’s handicap that sales race first: Americans bought 1,608 AMG GTs in 2017, versus about 1,200 in 2016, the car’s first full year of sales. Congratulations, Mercedes: That’s a whole lot of six-figure sports cars, especially in a down market for cars (versus SUVs and pickups) in general. It’s even more impressive when you consider the GT is Mercedes’s first-ever true bid to compete against the mythical Porsche 911. The AMG GT’s popularity was boosted by an expanded lineup that now counts four coupe and two convertible versions, ranging from the 469-hp AMG GT Coupe at $113,395 to the mighty, 577-hp AMG GTR for $157,995—plus $9,900 if you can’t live without the signature Green Hell Magno paint that Will Sabel Courtney and I flaunted at Lime Rock Park during a summertime jaunt.
McLaren is next up, moving 837 copies last year of its “Sports Series” that encompasses the 570S, 570GT, and 570S Spider. Not bad for a car that starts from $188,600, about $35,000 more than the Vantage. Audi found 772 buyers for its mid-engine R8, starting from $166,150. Like the Aston, the Audi spreads costs around by sharing a V-10, AWD, infotainment, and other components with another exotic, the Lamborghini Huracan. BMW sold 488 copies of its unique, electric i8 sports car (priced from $143,400), a total that may get a bump from a more-powerful i8 Spyder that reaches showrooms this year.
Now, you may ask, what about the Porsche 911? Aston Martin executives and engineers do cite the Porsche as a key competitor and benchmark. Yet they’re mainly referring to like-priced models like the 911 Turbo, the GT3, or the GTS at a minimum, with the latter's starting at around $122,000. The vast blue-chip 911 lineup—with an incredible 24 variants—contributed a healthy 8,970 units to Porsche’s record-setting American sales in 2017. Yet the sheer breadth of the 911 lineup doesn’t make for an easy or fair comparison versus the Aston or other cars in this hard-to-define class: A standard 911 Carrera starts from a relatively attainable $92,150, versus $153K for the Vantage. And you’ll ascend through 16 more 911 models before you find one that costs as much as the Aston—that being the 911 Turbo, at $162,850.
My hunch? This Vantage, especially when it adds its own convertible Volante version—plus the manual model that’s increasingly rare in this stratosphere—should find at least 1,000 euphoric buyers a year in the States; more than the BMW, Audi, or McLaren, but fewer than the Benz. While it’s relatively easy for Mercedes to crank out cars, Aston is production-constrained, with its Gaydon factory limited to 7,000 sports cars each year. That 7,000-unit capacity must be divvied not just among global markets, but multiple models too: The Vantage and DB11 for now, plus an upcoming Vanquish replacement and an all-new mid-engine sports car. Yet if Aston can manage to squeeze, say, 3,500 Vantages a year from Gaydon, dealers in America might lay claim to roughly 1,200 of those.
As for handicapping performance, numbers alone offer clues to the Vantage’s outsized potential: 0-60 miles per hour in a ferocious 3.5 seconds, and a heady 195-mph top speed. Hmm, a little deja vu? Mercedes cites an identical (though conservative) 3.5-second 0-60 blast and a 196-mph apogee for its gobsmacking, top-of-the-line GT R, which squeezes 577 horses and 516 pound-feet of torque from the engine that’s largely shared with the Aston.
In the Aston’s defense, this Vantage is their opening gambit, and Aston could just as easily turn up the wick on AMG’s hot-vee turbo V8. At 3,360 pounds in minimum dry weight form, the aluminum-intensive Vantage does weight at least 100 fewer than the Mercedes. It’s also 3.4 inches shorter, and 1.3 inches shorter than a 911.
Again, you’ll have to wait for our April review for our full take on this intriguing, mildly-incestuous horse race. But performance aside, should it occur to you that an Aston Martin might strike some people as being more exclusive, exotic, and prestigious than a Mercedes...well, you thought it first. But what’s a little friendly competition among friends?
Discussing the "whys" of the engine-sharing partnership, Palmer says, "We happen to believe it's the greatest V8 in the world today." He acknowledges that Mercedes isn't known for playing well with others—including its notorious, culture-clashing merger during the Daimler-Chrysler days, the so-called "partnership of equals" that turned out to be anything but. Yet Palmer has referred to Mercedes as Aston’s big brother (awww), and he puts his company's Lilliputian scale into perspective thusly: Mercedes-Benz sold 2.3 million cars around the world last year, its seventh consecutive year of record sales. Aston sold 5,100 cars, and dreams of expanding annual production to 12,000 at most, including the critical DBX SUV that will emerge from a new factory in Wales. Daimler needn't view Aston as a competitor, Palmer says, but rather a prestigious partner whose reputation burnishes Mercedes's own.
Palmer says that Mercedes has no intention of micromanaging or increasing its Aston stake, underlining recent remarks by Dieter Zetsche; the mustachioed Daimler chief says he can’t imagine Mercedes doing any better job of running Aston than its own management is already doing. Aston’s “Second Century” recovery and expansion plan is already paying off handsomely, with record profitability and revenues that reached a high of $1.2 billion last year. Like a loanshark or bookie, Mercedes is assured of its vigorish, or "vig," from Aston. In this case, that means a piece of the pie and that suddenly-healthy, 10-percent net profit margin. Palmer says that, even if a few customers inevitably choose a Vantage instead of the AMG GT, both companies share in the spoils.
“Ultimately, Mercedes gets a cut of every sale,” he says.