Dialed up to 11 – Driving the Aston Martin Line

Aston Martins in Karuizawa, Japan

The hills are dotted in shades of pine green and auburn. A gentle mist rolls in between them. Soft breezes have easily dislodged some brown leaves, now floating in the cool, 10-degree mountain air. It’s a scene from a postcard, save for the soundtrack of a roaring twin turbo V12 echoing against the hills of a canyon road just out of sight.

It’s the sound of another Aston Martin carving its way through the sweeping roads, unleashing some pent-up aggression the long highway drive here from Tokyo has held back for the past hour. We find ourselves in Karuizawa, a resort town in Nagano Prefecture, Japan. This upscale suburb, much like the Hamptons in the East Coast of the US, is the meeting place for a group of Aston Martin owners getting together for a short drive to the nearby active volcano, Mount Asama.

Though not owners ourselves, we were invited to the activity by Aston Martin Manila. Aston Martin Japan has been kind enough to lend us the keys to the brand new DB11, Rapide S, Vanquish, and a V12 Vantage S to tag along. The owners would turn up one by one at the local country club, each arriving in their own Aston, bearing one or more of the bespoke options available, and lined up on the parking lot.

By evening, the Aston Martin Japan staff had invited us for dinner in a rather unconventional restaurant with Aston Martin VP and Chief Marketing Officer, Simon Sproule. Requiring some weeks’ of prior reservation, we made our way to Ninja Akasaka. As the name suggests, it’s a theme restaurant, where guests are ushered into a secret ninja lair complete with trap doors, rising bridges and secret passageways. Our servers were, but of course, ninjas, and had prepared an interesting reinterpretation of Japanese staples, spiced up with ninja flair. Though Simon Sproule had quite a lot to share about Aston Martin and where it’s headed, our courses were punctuated by a few magic tricks performed by the servers themselves. As the night wore on, it became apparent we had to turn in as the next day we were to drive to Karuizawa.

It was cold come daybreak, but not even the weather could dampen our spirits for the two-hour drive. Japan’s long highways were a welcome change of pace from the city, and while progress was a little slower than usual, owing to the higher than normal long-weekend traffic, highway driving is exactly the kind of conditions grand tourers like the DB11 were designed for.

Two hours had certainly flown by quickly and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves at the Karuizawa country club to meet the Japanese Aston Martin owners.

They were a quiet yet passionate lot, each one accomplished in their field, distinguished, yet conservatively attired, and a far cry from the typically more boisterous crew of other car clubs. We found that a number of them had been to the Philippines and had several kind compliments to pay. Nonetheless, their attention was divided. After all, on that day they would get to sit behind the wheel of the DB11 we drove.

All the previous vehicles, counting the Vanquish, Vantage and Rapide bore components dating back to an era when they were developed under Ford, simply refined over time. The 11 is one of many firsts, bearing the new design language under lead designer, Marrick, propelled by a new 5.2-liter twin turbo V12, the first production Aston Martin ever, and one bearing the new electronic architecture, evident in the all-digital instrument cluster and infotainment system.

V12 Vantage S

Easily the smallest on the lot, the Vantage best exhibits Aston Martin’s sporting character in its purest form. The result is a truly intimidating vehicle that makes no apologies for the bold slatted hood, carbon fiber grille, carbon ceramic brakes, flat front splitter and steeply angled rear ducktail.

The simple yet iconic shape is hardly spoiled by any bodykits or wings – just the trademark silhouette and low ground clearance.

Inside, the cabin is swathed in soft leather and Alcantara. Carbon fiber trim is generous but not over the top. In fact, it’s the Alcantara that’s in abundance, lining the door cards, seat inserts and the entire steering wheel.

The instrument cluster is clear and simple with two large dials flanked by the smaller fuel and temperature dials. The wheel itself is rather plain, taking pains to hide the remote stereo controls. The center stack, covered in carbon fiber and piano gloss, puts the gear selector buttons at the very top.

Push the crystal key in, with foot firmly on the brake, and the V12 power plant starts up with a menacing roar. The tachometer twists in a counter-clockwise fashion – strange at first, yet makes for beautiful symmetry when paired with a winding speedometer.

Putting it into gear requires merely a press of the gear selector on the dash, or a pull on the carbon fiber paddle shifter. There’s no subtlety in the way it engages, with a firm jerk that lets you feel the torque. That’s 465 lb-ft to be exact, 376 lb-ft of which are available as early as 1,000 rpm from the 5.7-liter V12, which sends enough tractive force to the rear wheels to rocket you to 100 km/h in just under 4 seconds.

Pulling away smoothly is a challenge in itself. The power runs through an automated manual 7-speed gearbox. As such, it is essentially a manual with clutch operation regulated by a computer. Some deep throttle input is required to get it going initially, and much less as you’re already moving. I couldn’t help flooring it. The engine and transmission gladly obliging, lighting up the rear wheels, twitching the tail slightly, and overcoming the rather lenient traction control just a tad.

Being a sports car first and foremost, the ride is understandably stiff at the lightest setting, the transmission shifts sooner but is eager to downshift gears as you slow down and the steering is still hydraulic assisted.

Sport mode stiffens the shocks more, improves throttle response, and tells the transmission to shift higher and lets that exhaust burble and crackle more. Track mode unleashes the full Kraken from the depths of hell. And I’m not ashamed to admit I was too frightened to do so.

It’s apparent that the Vantage, even on Japan’s smooth roads, can be a taxing drive, yet pays dividends with its linear and untethered powerband, precise and analog feel, and exceptional handling.

Vanquish

Being the ultimate luxury tourer, the Vanquish evidently shows that no expense was spared. It defines itself from the lineup with a more aggressively styled front splitter, a longer side character line stretching from the front wheel, more muscular haunches, and an integrated spoiler at the back. Under the hood sits a massive, 6.0-liter naturally aspirated V12. It’s seemingly held in by huge strut bars that stretch across the engine bay.

Inside, the plush interior is a welcoming sight, sporting tan and black quilted leather all over the interior. Look up and the ceiling is given a similar quilted treatment. Carbon fiber generously lines the center console with soft touch controls framed in piano black gloss. The top features the gear selector buttons with the crystal key insert in the center.

Over in the instrument cluster are the analog dual dials with digital speed and gear indicators where they touch. The tan wheel is only black on the parts you touch the most: the horn and the sides.

Pushing the key illuminates the digital displays, causes the Bang & Olufsen tweeter to rise at the corners of the dash, as the engine lets out the distinctive V12 roar. A pull on the right paddle shifter returns a delightfully tactile metallic click. There’s no shift shock. It rolls along gently. And with a gentle prod on the throttle, begins to accelerate.

It’s a balmy ride at the softest suspension setting, feeling every bit like a luxury sedan, cleverly disguising the fact that it’s a low sports coupe.

Moving the drive mode to sport has the needle jump up to higher revs, returning some engine brake and better throttle response. With just a prod, the needle quickly climbs, counter-clockwise, as the speeds pack up. With the throttle just halfway depressed, it’s already quite powerful, comparing quite favorably to most sports cars but with more to give.

With the throttle fully depressed, it surges forward, shoves your head straight back to the seat and has the thrust slowly pull a smile across your face. Some curves have come up, and with the suspension set to sport, I comfortably dive in. There’s reassuring grip, even as the turns are taken at 100 km/h. Maintaining the throttle pressure has the back wheels rotating the car, but far from stepping out and losing it. A harder prod and traction control begins to kick in, cutting the throttle by just a little. All the while, the V12 is beginning to bellow, burbling each time the throttle is let go.

Rapide S

Serving as palatable blend of the two is the Rapide S. Designed as a sports car first and four-door saloon second, back row space may not compare favorably to most luxury saloons. Still, it’s in the performance where the Rapide justifies itself. With arguably the best ride in the lineup, the most space while still retaining many performance qualities, it’s no surprise it’s come to be a favorite in the Japanese market.

It had the tamest design of the three, with nothing but the proud signature grille up in front. The side retains the marque’s classic profile, in spite of the four doors. The rear door’s handle is hidden in the pillar. Behind is a steeply raked hatch that still provides enough room for overnight bags. It also shows off how well contoured the rear seats are.

Inside is a lovely quilted leather ceiling. On the second row are LCD screens on the seatbacks.

Appointments aside, the Rapide is the most comfortable of the lineup, with adaptive damping able to provide a truly magic-carpet pampering ride. It’s set to adaptive mode by default, returning a soft ride but slowly stiffens as the speed builds and if steering inputs are quick.

It too is powered by a V12 and returns the same effortlessness and eagerness as its brethren. Its most unique trait is its handling, easily tackling the turns just as well as the others with just a tad more body roll. The length is also evident, being so far from the feedback returned by the back wheels. The seat-of-the-pants sensation may be dampened but it’s by no means any tamer in the corners, easily keeping pace with the other vehicles in the convoy.

As for Aston Martin itself, our short drive around Karuizawa, up to Mount Asama, and through the roads that border its national park, showed the many ways the vehicles can be enjoyed. In spite of the inviting mountain roads, perhaps the most memorable leg was in the DB11, travelling well below the speed limit and simply enjoying each new vista of Japan in Autumn the tight winding roads revealed, corner by corner.

When the sun had decided to retire for the day, we made our way back to the country club for a fellowship dinner with all present. Our dinner was serenaded by opera singers, brought there by the Osato Research Institute (ORI) of Japan, chaired by one of the members of the Aston Martin Japan club. His organization has been conducting collaborative researches aimed at healthy aging, aimed at achieving reduced medical costs though preventive medicine. Few may have heard of it, but his clientele includes globally influential individuals like the Pope. As for our opera arias, the repertoire included classics from Puccini, Mozart, Bernstein and Verdi. True to the Aston Martin theme, there were also renditions of the James Bond theme and popular soundtrack hits from spy movies.

The evening ended with an announcement of things to come, among them many activities such as Japan’s own Festival of Speed as an homage to Goodwood’s sponsored by the Aston Martin club, as well as several more fun-runs and track days.

Our few days with Aston Martin of Japan had certainly showed that acquiring a vehicle from Gaydon isn’t simply a matter of preference, but the adoption of a particular lifestyle —one that clearly appreciates the finer things in life, like an autumn drive, the unrivalled harmony of Puccini’s Turandot, or meeting new people that change the world in their own way.

Specification – Aston Martin Rapide S

Engine: V12, 5935 cc, dohc 48V, Port Injection, 8-speed AT

Max power: 552 bhp @ 6650 rpm

Max torque: 465 lb ft @ 5500 rpm

0-100 km/h (0-62mph): 4.4 sec.

Top Speed: 327 km/h (203 mph)

Fuel Mileage: 13 mpg City & 19 mpg Highway

C! RATING 9.5/10

+Distinctive and very fast 2+2 luxury sedan with supreme presence

-Despite its proportions, the rear seats maybe too sporty for seasoned owners and the rear trunk is compromising

Specification – Aston Martin V12 Vantage S

Engine: V12, 5935 cc, dohc 48V, Port Injection, 7-speed SMG

Max power: 568 bhp @ 6650 rpm

Max torque: 465 lb ft @ 5500 rpm

0-100 km/h (0-62mph): 3.9 sec.

Top Speed: 330 km/h (205 mph)

Fuel Mileage: 13 mpg City & 19 mpg Highway

C! RATING 9.5/10

+Heck of an entry point for the brand, the very best of its charismatically raw breed model range

-Will be replaced soon

Specification – Aston Martin Vanquish

Engine: V12, 5935 cc, dohc 48V, Port Injection, 8-speed AT

Max power: 568 bhp @ 6650 rpm

Max torque: 465 lb ft @ 5500 rpm

0-100 km/h (0-62mph): 4 sec.

Top Speed: 324 km/h (201 mph)

Fuel Mileage: 14 mpg City & 21 mpg Highway

C! RATING 10/10

+Eclipsed ever so slightly by the all-new DB11, still fabulous and exhilarating

-S-model even more potent and more desirable

Executive Editor