Road test: 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — There are places where you can properly enjoy a $315,000, 565-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive convertible shod with summer-only tires. This was not one of them.

As visibility dropped even further, the slick-backed mountain road snaked ever upwards into thick mist and torrential rain. The exterior temperature gauge clicked off the numbers: 10 degrees above freezing. Six degrees. Two.

A small digital display in the gauge cluster, one that once proudly announced, “Power, Beauty, Soul,” now announced nervously, “Ice Warning!” Well, that’s not very encouraging.

And yet, inside the 2014 Aston Martin Vanquish Volante, it felt as snug as the inside of a Warwickshire pub. The three-layer fabric top bottled in the warmth, the heated seats kept both passengers’ crumpets well-toasted, and the six-speed automatic picked its way smoothly through the gears. The massive V12 thrummed away contentedly at a distance, like the far-off heartbeat of a trans-oceanic liner.

When a chunk of the Southern California mountainside starts thinking it’s wintertime in the British Midlands, it turns out it’s perfectly OK to be in an English-style supercar. The rain came down hard, but the Vanquish Volante preserved its composure with a stiff upper lip.

This stiffness comes from the exoticism of carbon-fibre construction. Like the extremely limited and colossally expensive One-77 supercar, this convertible version of the Vanquish grand tourer has body panels fashioned entirely of woven carbon composite.

In an ordinary car, you might see this material as mere garnish displayed like a badge of honour, a faux-flag signal of sporting intent. In the Vanquish, yes, there are exposed carbon-fibre sections both front and rear, but even more of the lightweight material lurks underneath its glossy paint.

Consider the rear trunk lid. This complex shape, integrating a spoiler and compound curves, is formed from a single unit, pressed out of a three-piece nickel mold. The company that manufactures this and other major components of the Vanquish’s carbon-fibre skin is called Gurit, based on the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel. At maximum output, they can only supply enough panels to clad a theoretical 30 cars per week.

An epoxy-resin material is pressed into the thin mold, surrounding the structural carbon-fibre sandwich. Pressed and heated, the completed piece has an even, uniform skin that can be painted just like steel or aluminium bodywork, but with greatly reduced weight.

As beautiful as the exposed carbon-fibre accents are, the weave that shows up when the trunk is opened is all about functional weight-savings more than decorative trim. Even so, at 4,065 pounds, this car is hardly a featherweight.

Some of the heft comes from the 6.0L V12 engine, an all-aluminium powerplant that produces a hearty and refined 565 hp at 6,750 rpm. The rest of the mass is perhaps a result of 100 years of heritage.

Reading through the history of Aston Martin, stretching back over a century to a shed in the English countryside, is a bit like listening to the king in Monty Python and the Holy Grail recounting the construction of his castle. First, Lionel Martin and Reginald Bamford founded the company. Then it sank into the swamp. Then David Brown bought the company after the war. It sank into the swamp.

Then Victor Gauntlett bought a 12.5% stake in the company and allowed his personal V8 Vantage to be used in the Bond film, The Living Daylights, in the hope the publicity would spur sales. What happened next, metaphorically speaking, was that the company burned down, fell over, and sank into the swamp.

But the next time, with Ford at the helm, it stayed up! Sort of.

It’s been a tumultuous hundred years, the company changing hands and suffering near-mortal sales results, and each time the Aston Martin brand doggedly cries, “Tis but a scratch!” and keeps on coming. It’s not an ordinary car company, and it doesn’t build ordinary cars.

What’s special about this particular car isn’t just the exotic material which it’s made from, but the shape that it takes. Wasp-waisted and curvaceous, it’s simply gorgeous. And while there are numerous small details that stand out — the way the windshield glass extends right up to the roofline, the rear tail-lights that resemble the spread wings of a hieroglyphic eagle on Tutankhamun’s tomb — it’s more the way the shape works in its entirety as a whole. It’s drivable automotive sculpture.

A folding roof means that more is both exposed and expected of the interior — if you’re going to take your shirt off, you best have been doing a few crunches. The Aston’s hexagonal-quilted seats look fantastic, as does the centre stack with its swooping elegance and capacitive glass buttons. The stitching of the all-leather interior is impeccable.

Then there’s the performance, which is just that: a performance. As a grand tourer, both coupe and convertible Vanquish are smooth and refined when they need to be, but then there’s what happens when you press the glowing-red “S” button mounted low and to the right on the oddly shaped steering wheel.

The wheel-mounted “S” button handles throttle response and powertrain settings, while damping and power-steering levels are controlled separately. Selecting the mid-level sport mode reduces the hydraulic boost to the steering and stiffens the Bilstein-sourced shock-absorbers.

Get yourself sorted, aim that svelte nose at the horizon, and roll into the throttle to be rewarded with the soundtrack of the Battle of Britain. It’s a glorious, sonorous, illustrious roar; a symphony by Edward Elgar, the howl of the Flying Scotsman at speed, a full broadside rippling out from Nelson’s flagship.

Yes, it’s true, you can buy a much faster car than this for considerably less money. Without the benefit of turbocharging, even six litres worth of noble British thoroughbred would be trounced to 100 km/h by an uncouth Shelby Mustang. But it’s not what the Vanquish is capable of, it’s how it goes about it.

Basically, if you’ve got huge tracts of land to cover, this is the best possible way to go about it. It’s simply a wonderful noise.

With the top down, you get even more of that ear-tingling soundtrack, and really, what better reason to saw the roof off? Given the strength of Aston’s aluminium spine, nothing much was done to stiffen the car structurally in compensation for the absence of a hard-top: any added weight comes from the folding soft-top mechanism.

Yes, it’s a big car, but there’s agility here. While it feels built primarily to take on banked sweepers at breathtaking speed, the Vanquish’s considerable avoirdupois is balanced on its big paws at a split of 51/49 front-to-rear. Show it a series of serpentine canyon curves and it’s surprisingly light on its feet, the quick steering providing plenty of feedback.

Sounds idyllic, but should you attempt the pricetag, there are some idiosyncrasies to be lived with. To fit children into the ridiculously tiny rear seats, for instance, they’d have to be minced, or possibly stewed. The automatic transmission works hand in glove with the big 12-cylinder, but it’s a fairly heavy glove and muffles the performance somewhat — this is a grand tourer, not a sports car.

Then there are some issues that are (hopefully) down to the pre-production status of the cars tested. Panel gaps are not quite as meticulously even as bragged about. The seams in the corners where the roof meets the windshield look a bit messy, a few gaps in the rubber trim. I didn’t have my tape measure out, but I’d swear one of the “Vanquish” badges on another car was crooked.

The weather-stripping running down the inside of the front quarter window was as wriggly as if piped in there by a first-year apprentice, and this may have contributed to the high level of wind noise. Yes, it’s a convertible, but a car capable of a claimed near-300 km/h terminal velocity should be as silent as a tomb at highway speed.

Even if the quality assurance folks get these details fine-tuned, the in-car technology will doubtless remain slightly wonky. Those glass-buttons look fantastic, but you often have to press them multiple times to get a reaction; it’s a bit like wrestling with an elderly iPhone. Also, it’s borderline impossible to read the digital temperature readout on the controls, with glare washing out the display whether the top’s up or down (you do get the figures repeated in the power-folding navigation screen).

But then, nit-picking an Aston Martin over technological foibles is a bit like complaining that Buckingham Palace doesn’t have enough flat-screen TVs. Sure, the navigation screen looks a bit dated, but when sitting in such a beautiful car, would you ever be so bored as to care about that?

Which brings us to the question of whether the performance levels of Aston Martin’s fastest-ever convertible can match its sizable price. Let me paint you a picture. You’re on holiday in California, walking along the pavement in a small town on the edge of the desert. At the last stop-light on the road heading out of town, a Vanquish Volante pulls up next to a Nissan GT-R, today’s modern high-performance yardstick.

The light goes green and the GT-R engages launch control, fat tires sticking like glue and twin-turbo V6 emitting a forced-induction rasp like a large dog choking on a chicken bone. In seconds, it’s a quickly receding dot on the horizon.

The guy in the Aston Martin rolls off the line, lowering the top as he does so, bathing in the tune of 12 cylinders worth of genteel thunder. The big Vanquish lopes along the desert road, the sun glittering brightly off its curving flanks.

Now, which one would you rather be driving?

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