March 13 (Bloomberg) -- In early February I was in Los Angeles to drive a $320,000 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante. A convertible with a V-12 engine, it’s the brand’s marquee grand-touring car.
The Volante poured on the glamour with “red ember” paint and impossibly gorgeous leather seats with diamond stitching. I parked it in Beverly Hills to meet some friends for lunch, and it looked utterly at home.
That evening, a valet at my hotel looked over the Aston Martin and said, “Can I ask you something? Is this a real sports car? I’m sure it’s fast but it just seems a bit prissy.”
I could see his point. The two-door has 565 horsepower, but seemed a world away from a hard-core sports car. Sometimes a car can be too pretty for its own good.
Only weeks later I was in another Vanquish, a coupe this time, spraying wet roostertails from the rear wheels as I blasted down a racetrack carved out of a field of snow and ice.
The valet would have been blown away.
Winter driving programs are all the rage these days, a chance for brands from Fiat SpA’s Ferrari to Volkswagen AG’s Porsche to show off how well their vehicles handle in poor conditions. Locales range from Colorado to Europe, and invitees often include paying customers, prospective owners and dealers.
This was the first time Aston Martin North America had undertaken a winter driving program, choosing the high-altitude town of Crested Butte, Colorado. Workers had spent months carving a winding, mile-long path out of a rancher’s field in a flat below tall snow-covered mountains, ensuring a hard crust of ice coated by powdery snow.
Aston Martin brought all of its latest models -- the Vanquish ($321,025 as tested), DB9 ($215,120), Rapide S ($230,062) and V12 Vantage S ($211,072). It was a vibrant menagerie of electric blues, maroon reds, ghostly silvers and an odd pale green, set off by the pristine white snow.
Some customers paid $5,000, including hotel and meals, while others were invited by dealerships. The automaker, based in Gaydon, U.K., expects to do it again next winter.
This was a great way to experience the full line of vehicles in a challenging arena. By all rights, Aston Martin is at a great disadvantage in slick conditions. Even Ferrari now offers an all-wheel-drive car, but every single Aston is rear-wheel drive.
The naturally aspirated engines are big, heavy and powerful. The weakest one on the ice was the 510-horsepower DB9. Forget a duck out of water. On ice, these cars are as comfortable as fish in the Sahara.
They did get one advantage: snow tires from Pirelli & C. SpA designed for extreme winter, with very aggressive treads and siping, the tiny slits across the rubber surface that provide additional gripping on ice.
Temperatures were low and often accompanied by driving snow that obliterated vision. At points I could barely make out orange cones that helped demarcate the course. The path was bordered by high snowbanks, the kind of unyielding walls that could easily tear off pricey carbon-fiber front wings or even crush those pretty Aston noses.
Instructors with rally racing backgrounds warned us that the coating of snow would soon be worn away by our tires, leaving a sheen of very polished ice and even less traction.
“Get the grip where you can, because it will go away and then you’ll be sliding all around,” one instructor said.
My first car of the day was the four-door Rapide S. It’s a stylish thing, long and lean. If it seems like Aston’s practical car, that’s only because you haven’t sat in the rear and suffered through the hard seats.
Nonetheless, I was soon drifting the Rapide, looking out of side windows and spinning the steering wheel as I tried to keep the car’s trajectory moving forward, even if the car itself was mostly sideways.
Yes, it was slick out there.
The Rapide didn’t change directions as sweetly as several other cars in the line, but the long wheelbase evened out bumps in the snow and patches of jagged ice. So, too, went the most senior car in the lineup, the DB9. A slightly more sedate grand-tourer with wood finish on the interior, it made a decent showing on the ice, but wasn’t the ride you cried out for in the heat of the moment.
The cars that made my heart happy, ravished by fabulous sound and lots of power and finely tuned steering, were the Vanquish and the V12 Vantage S. I’ve had the Vanquish on a racetrack before and was wowed with the direct steering and its connection to the road. It’s fast and fun and sounds like an animal that’s about to attack.
So I took lap after lap in a model painted so bright blue that it seemed to shimmer on the ice, a neon squiggle caroming about the course. The Vanquish was far better on the slick stuff than it has any right to be.
And at day’s end, I got in the latest generation of the V12 Vantage, a car I hadn’t driven previously. The Vantage is the brand’s smallest and lightest sports car and normally gets a V-8. In this case it’s gifted with a 6-liter V-12 with 565 horsepower and 457 pound-feet of torque.
It should be nose heavy, but the engine is pushed as far back toward the cabin as possible, helping weight distribution. And the noise alone is worthwhile. Naturally aspirated engines, which aren’t equipped with power aids such as turbos or superchargers, have a special timbre. It’s the difference between a powerful tenor and a singer using Auto-Tune.
All that power coupled with the shorter wheelbase translated to a rather squirrelly experience when driving in a straight line. But yank the wheel and you could induce a beautiful drift. Done right, slides were perfect and the car felt magnificent.
There is plenty of stuff to nitpick on any Aston Martin. Fit and finish are sometimes spotty, and the interfaces with navigation and stereo systems are maddeningly oblique. The transmissions are several generations behind -- a fault hopefully soon to be rectified with the technical partnership with Mercedes-Benz’s AMG performance arm.
But my days on the ice proved one thing. The cars may be pretty, but they’re not prissy.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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