Are there too many variants of good sports cars? Does a great coupe always need a convertible version? Are open-top cars less worthy of factory performance tuning than coupes? These are questions that haunt the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S, whose raffish charms as a magnificent, snarling tin-top have been ported recently to a Roadster counterpart.
[Full disclosure: Aston Martin wanted me to drive the V12 Vantage S Roadster so bad, they transported me to Palm Springs, a very hot, dry place where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack would have been consumed in a massive alcohol fire, were it not for all the tonic water.]
Pairing a carmaker's hottest engine with its smallest model isn't for the rank boulevardier. It takes someone with an overclocked adrenal gland to appreciate the effects of such a pairing: Defibrillator-like acceleration and – if the platform is willing– the multi-directional agility of a parcour, what? Enthusiast? What do you even call those guys anyway? Parcouratzi?
That was the V12 Vantage S in a nutshell. Of course, the same people who praised that car might consider the Roadster version to be a gimmick of atmosphere, like stand-up paddleboards or trikes or Joe's Crab Shack: a trite aberration of a deeper, more authentic vision.
I'm not a fan of convertibles, but not for the typical reasons, like frame torqueing or scuttle shake, or other slacknesses sometimes caused by the lack of a roof structure. Frankly, it's because I've got the skin pigmentation of a newborn snowy owl.
This troubled me, as Aston Martin staged the V12 Vantage S Roadster test route in and around Palm Springs, California. Of course, some great roads wind around the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains, roads that offer a delicious mix of well-cambered corners and vista-like straights with miles' worth of line-of-sight.
It's just that, here on the western fringe of the Sonoran Desert, the sun blazes with such profligate violence, the notion of spontaneous combustion seems reasonable, if not likely. Indeed, humans with albinistic tendencies riding in open cars are among this fragile ecosystem's most vulnerable populations.
But let's talk about the Aston Martin V12. It's one of the last great engines of a shriveling, naturally-aspirated performance era. If, in some alternate universe, the latest version of Aston's 6.0-liter (well, 5.9 liter) V12 in its highest state of tune was only available in a 1978 Plymouth with rusty rocker panels, I'd find a way to justify it as a great sports car. ("But, it has so much character…")
Insert the standard, Aston Martin-issued crystal obelisk in the console slot and, like a hero out of '70s Saturday Morning sci-fi, the Vantage S's AM28 V12 yawps into action. Aston and collaborator Cosworth never stopped fiddling with the Ford-era 12-pot, adding dual variable-valve timing, direct injection and larger throttle bodies, and cutting rotating friction. The result — 565 hp at 6750 rpm and 457 lb-ft at 5750 rpm — is a refreshing flexibility and a quick, tuneful chase to the redline that's becoming harder to find in the age of forced induction. Fitted with the exhaust piping from Aston's One-77 unicorn, the noise is even better with the top down, all snarly and windswept.
In previous years, the Vantage V12 was manual transmission only, but starting with the S coupe in 2013, efficiency and market demands, and a faster Bosch ECU, informed the decision to go auto only. The box is the same seven-speed Graziano automated manual as in the V12 S coupe, directed by the third version of Aston's Sportshift software, Sportshift III.
It's a clever packaging solution; the auto-manual is lighter than the manual and its small size means it fits in the tight confines of the Vantage's rear transaxle position. But in an age of really good, high-performance automatics, like ZF's latest eight speed — available on Aston's flagship Vanquish and four-door Rapide S as the Touchtronic III — the robotic single clutch is a tricky compromise.
Paddling manually (in Sport and Track modes), at full acceleration, the system bangs shifts with an anachronistic thwack to the back of the head. A slight throttle breather between shifts helps ease the transition. Hold the downshift paddle down in a corner and, very neatly, the software will find and engage the most efficacious gear based on speed, and at the behest of various sensors.
Going full auto is less satisfying; in Normal mode at medium speeds, it's balky, often slow to find the right gear and regularly psyched out by rambling terrain. At low speeds, and in traffic, it's clear the system is fighting to smooth out clutch engagement, but there's only so much an algorithm can do, before it throws its little binary hands in the air.
Nonetheless, the V12's fat band of torque means curvy desert B-roads can be conquered in third and fourth, minimizing the trans's effect on the drive. What's more, the many strengths of the V12 Vantage S remain intact. The connected steering feel, the massive grip, the neutral handling dynamics, the strengthy carbon-ceramic brakes, now with all that V12 music shimmering around our exposed heads.
With the adaptive dampers set in normal mode – which offers the best combination of body control and compliance on multiform desert highways, compared to the harder-edged Sport and super-stiff Track modes. Coming out of slow corners, the rear squats as the V12 howls and the linear Gs load up. The Roadster accelerates just as violently as ever, only now you can hear more of it happening, plus the raging desert wind around your ears. Then there's the bragging rights of hitting 201 mph (with the top up), which may seem superficial, but let's face it, numbers matter.
And that question about the convertible compromise? Aston Martin has already addressed the rigidity issue in previous Vantage Roadsters with structure-enhancing aluminum undertrays, and the V12 S gets additional adjustments to rear damping and spring rates to compensate for extra flex. While a torsional test rig will likely reveal a greater propensity to twist compared to the coupe – as might a track test — on the street, the Roadster suffers no substantial ill effects from its openness to the sky. A squeak here, a rattle there. The real compromise is in spending just over $200,000 on a gorgeous car that feels special to drive, with natural, beautifully mechanical sounds like a sports car should have, but also trails competitors in outright performance and ergonomics.
In a few years Aston Martin will look like an entirely different company, with a fully-updated car line and AMG engines underhood. For now we can, without charity, look upon the compromises as character. Like pinkish skin or Jessica Paré's overbite.
As we plunge through the jagged, caldron-formed landscape that surrounds our descent into Borrego Springs, I can empathize with an ant suffering its final indignity at the hand of a 12-year-old psychopath with a magnifying glass. Bursting into flames here just seems like the thing to do. So does putting up the top.