Costing enough to make even James Bond wince, the £199,995 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante is the most expensive Aston Martin in the British firm's current range. It's in competition with some serious open-top machinery: everything from the Ferrari 458 Spider and Mercedes SLS AMG Roadster to the Bentley Continental GTC and Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet will challenge the 565bhp Aston for the hearts and minds of supercar buyers and exotica fans.
Can the Volante compete? Over to Ben Pulman in California for the definitive CAR verdict...
Palm Springs is perfect Vanquish Volante territory. Despite it being late October it’s past 90°F before we’ve had a chance to explain to the waitress that fried potatoes don’t belong at the breakfast table, and with speed limits lower than the self-esteem of a washed-up Hollywood celeb, it’s all about cruising through this desert oasis. With even Michael Fish worried about an impending storm in the UK, I know where I’d rather be.
The streets are wide, the palm trees are tall, the Aston goes topless in 14 seconds, and whether the triple-layered fabric roof is up or down, it doesn’t affect boot space (which is 50% larger than that of the DBS Volante it replaces) or rear seat space (which remains 50% less than any human needs to be comfortable). The Skyfall Silver paint glistens and gleams as we’re gently fried by the rich Californian sun, and between the boudoir palette of the opulent leather interior and the 26-foot statue of gay icon Marilyn Monroe on Palm Canyon Drive, photographer Greg Pajo and I could be any of the hundreds of couples in town for the Palm Springs Pride LGBT Festival.
Whatever your orientation you’ll find the Vanquish Volante irresistible, from the cleft lip of carbonfibre that forms the front splitter through to the detailing in the rear lights that apes the be-winged Aston badge. Is there a better-looking car on sale? Maybe the Vanquish coupe, but the Volante’s lack of a roof draws your eyes to the hunched rear deck that sweeps out from under the rear spoiler, and emphasises how the taut bodywork overhangs the carbon side sills, like sculpted obliques rather than bulging muffin tops. Its reflection shimmers and sparkles in glass-fronted shop windows, like a hooked fish just breaking the surface of the water before it’s plucked from a river, and we make progress with a relaxed gait, the soft throttle, ample torque and easy steering prohibiting any stress invading the Liberace-inspired cabin.
If the design doesn’t do it for you, then the baritone bark of the V12 will. Slot the glass ‘ECU’ key into the dash, hold it down, and the big engine crackles into life with unabashed potency. Each prod of the throttle sends a cultured snarl ripping through the warm air, piercing the monotonous beat of uncouth V8s that power everything around here from muscle cars and MPVs to vans and limos. I thought the Vanquish was loud, but the Volante is even louder, and the noise intensifies further when you press the Sport button, roaring with such volume it actually sets off a car alarm outside the Riviera Hotel. If your life never extended beyond the grid-pattern pastiche of Palm Springs then the Vanquish Volante would appear perfect.
Time to leave and toughen the test. We head south on Highway 74, up out of the desert into mountains too barren for anything substantial to grow, on a good road unfortunately clogged by commuters. The Aston easily picks off the odd dawdler on the short straights between tight hairpins, and sounds epic when the single-lane highway cuts through cliffs and the twelve-cylinder symphony is trapped and amplified by unnatural angular surfaces shaped with dynamite.
We’re taking the Pines to Palms Highway in reverse, then the Banning-Idyllwild Panoramic Highway in reverse, heading to the San Bernardino National Forest in the San Jacinto Mountains and up to over 6000ft. The Aston takes it all in its stride, and we’re quickly past tranquil Lake Hemet, then amongst the tall trees which are already light yellows, rich reds and deep ambers as ‘Fall’ approaches. There are black trees too, evidence that a recent fire has ravaged the land, but green shoots are already sprouting. We reach Idyllwild as the sun sets, brim the Vanquish Volante for a paltry $48, raise the roof, and retrace our route south in the darkness, then head west, then south, then east, in an awkward roundabout way to reach our overnight stop in Borrego Springs. It’s a fast drive and peaks over the last 15 miles when we dive down a rollercoaster road towards our hotel. One to revisit in the morning.
So, it’s up before dawn, before there’s any colour in the sky or anyone else about to interrupt a few charges on this mega road. As with the Vanquish coupe, the Volante feels a step ahead of our long-term DB9 in every area, due in no small part to the new carbonfibre body and revamped Gen4 VH chassis improving torsional rigidity over the DBS Volante it replaces by 14%. The six-speed gearbox shifts faster and sharper, the ride is more compliant but body control is also better, and engine torque is unchanged but the V12 revs higher and harder. The whole car seems to be working in unison whereas the DB9’s rear end can sometimes feel like it’s out of synch with the front. Everything just feels better.
The only time the Volante doesn’t feel as incisive as the coupe is when the sun-bleached Tarmac degenerates into the sort of uneven country road surfaces we’re used to in the UK. Then the extra flex of the convertible body is noticeable as the rearview mirror shimmies with a telltale sign of scuttle shake. You sense that it’s not quite keen to turn with an extra 105kg to carry, and that the suspension is too stiff, even in the most relaxed of three damping modes.
The lack of a roof doesn’t seem to phase the steering though: there’s a gritty sensation when you turn the DB9’s wheel that hints that everything is not as tautly and as tightly connected as you’d like, but the Vanquish steers smoothly and consistently, with just the right amount of weighting to remind you you’re driving a near-600bhp supercar, and there’s more feedback than offered by the Ferrari F12.
Ah, that Ferrari. Bugger, shouldn’t have mentioned it. Just as a pint-sized Argentinian perpetually outshines Cristiano Ronaldo, so Aston’s latest and greatest must live in the shadow of the F12. It’s coupe against convertible so we’ll forget handling appraisals, but the Italian brings into sharp focus critical areas where Aston needs to improve. Take the engines: both are big V12s of around six litres, but the Aston has a 165bhp deficit, and while the F12’s manic motor keeps ramping up and up and up like an energy bill, the Vanquish abruptly calls time before 7000rpm. The Ferrari’s instantaneous double-clutch ’box outshines the Aston’s torque convertor automatic too, as does the super-quick steering which means each bend is never more than a quick wrist-flick. You’re always adding a little more lock in the Vanquish.
There’s no F12 Spider though, so versus true rivals like the Mercedes SLS Roadster and Bentley Continental GTC the Volante compares well. Without the theatrics of gullwing doors the SLS Roadster is rather bland to behold, and the interior is a disappointing odds ‘n’ sods assemblage of switches and dials from Merc’s parts bin, while the Bentley’s copious kerbweight means it’s not as lithe as the Aston, and nor does it sound anywhere near as thunderous because there are two turbos muting its 12-cylinder engine. Aston, Bentley or Merc drop-top to perambulate around St Tropez and then thrash into the French Alps? Vanquish Volante please.
At least until the niggles drive me barmy. The Garmin sat-nav is more of a mess than a certain free school in Derby; the infotainment buttons are supposed to have the same ‘haptic’ feedback vibrations as your mobile phone’s touchscreen but instead rattle like there’s something loose in the dash; and the indicators on our car developed a fault, playing an erratic tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tick-tick-tick beat.
By the time we’re finished with photography the sun (and one solitary cloud) is high in the sky and trying to turn us the same leathery hue as the interior, but we don’t do what everyone who owns a convertible really does when it’s hot, and instead drive the next 60 miles through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with the roof down. At sea level there’s enough moisture for the valley floor to be carpeted green with vegetation, and the Vanquish Volante settles into a sweet spot through the fast sweeping corners, the wide Pirellis finding grip on the dusty surface, the V12 pulling you endlessly forward like an Alsatian with a scent, the ceramic brakes biting hard after a little initial mush when we’re stupid enough to try to avoid the odd tarantula scurrying across the road.
You live in Sport mode because otherwise the gearbox quickly slips into sixth and won’t downshift unless your right foot’s buried in the thick carpet, and even if you use the leather-trimmed paddles to get the correct gear the throttle response isn’t snappy enough until you thumb that illuminated red button on the steering wheel. It means the Vanquish Volante needn’t be edgy and quite so vocal when you’re ambling about, but for the full Aston Martin experience, for the unadulterated bellow of that V12, and to have that V12 react instantly it’s gotta be Sport. Aston Martin. Empty road. A soundtrack that’ll live with me even after I’m deaf. Whatever the faults and foibles, these moments make it hard not to fall for the Vanquish Volante.
We stay in the low desert until we’ve been buzzed by a couple of helicopters patrolling the nearby border with Mexico, then take the I-86 north from El Centro, up past the Salton Sea and the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge, enjoying the moment as we head towards the lights of Palm Springs. Blame the Germans and the Italians, but this might be the last real Aston Martin. Not because stiff competition from Porsche and Ferrari is about to send Aston into bankruptcy, but because an Italian private equity firm has acquired a 37.5% stake for £150m, and a deal has been done to borrow technology from Daimler. That means crucial funds to invest in future models, which will use Mercedes electronics and AMG engines.
A good thing for Aston Martin? Perhaps, because financial woes have been part of its story almost since Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin built their first car in 1913. Even today the Volante’s V12 is really a pair of Ford engines spliced together, and deep down the chassis dates back to a time when the iPhone and X Factor didn’t exist. Yet Aston’s always found a way to work with what it’s got, and this gorgeous and great sounding car is proof of that. Combined with some plucky underdog spirit, a few James Bond connotations, and a dose of British patriotism, you can see why Aston has always endeared itself to us, you, and even those who know nothing about cars.
When it’s bankrolled by Italians and powered by Germans, I’d be amazed if Aston can build a car that better epitomises what it stands for, and what we love about it, than the Vanquish Volante.