V8 Vantage S vs AMG Merc. What can Aston Martin learn from its German partner? Wish upon a star. What Might Aston Martin take from its partnership with Mercedes? We compare a V8 Vantage S with the latest SL63 AMG. Words Jethro Bovingdon. Photography Matthew Howell.
TWIN TEST SL63 AMG vs. V8 VANTAGE S
Thursday 19 December, 2013, Gaydon/ Stuttgart: Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd and Daimler AG have signed an agreement for a significant technical partnership between Aston Martin, Daimler and Mercedes-AMG GmbH, a 100% subsidiary and high-performance brand of German automotive corporation Daimler AG.
The announcement pinged into journalists’ inboxes across the globe with little fanfare. The press release added a little more detail, but left plenty of questions hanging in the air. We now knew that AMG would supply the next generation of Aston Martins with ‘bespoke V8 engines’, though when this might happen remained something of a mystery. There was no mention of V12s – surely the Vanquish, DB9, V12 Vantage S and Rapide wouldn’t be the last V12 Aston Martins? Though with ever- tightening emissions legislation, the writing had been on the wall for the current V8 and V12 for some time. Forced induction and downsizing had to be the way forward and in truth Aston Martin desperately needed a technical partner to ease the financial pain of developing new engine architecture. AMG might just be the perfect candidate…
‘The Vantage S hits back with instant throttle response and an appetite for revs’
You see, when AMG does ‘downsizing’ the result tends to be something like the SL63 AMG. Don’t be fooled by the ’63’ nomenclature; this SL is ‘merely’ a 5.5-litre V8. With two turbochargers. It produces 530bhp and 590lb ft. That’s Vanquish-squishing torque in a car that’s just £8000 more than a V8 Vantage S at £110,785. With the optional AMG Performance Package as fitted to our test car, those figures rise to 564bhp and 664lb ft. That is not a misprint – six hundred and sixty four pounds-foot. Despite talk of AMG and Aston working together on ‘bespoke’ units, you can bet that the next-generation Vantage model-line will utilise something very much like this veritable torque-monster. So should we be excited about a potential giant leap in performance or apprehensive that sweet-revving naturally aspirated engines could become a thing of the past? Today – with our earth-trembling SL63 and a gorgeous V8 Vantage S kindly supplied by Vantage reader Karl Madges – we find out.
Of course the AMG/Aston alliance will extend way beyond simple engine supply. The new Astons will also benefit from cutting-edge gearbox technology and any number of electronic systems, too. Thankfully, though, the deal won’t allow those clever people from Germany to have any influence on design. The SL63 is not a pretty car. In fact next to the lithe athleticism of the Vantage S, the vast and awkwardly detailed SL looks bloated and about as subtle as an elephant gun. However, when the big V8 catches with a theatrical boom! all is forgiven. It’s a noise you feel deep down in your stomach – and it’s fantastic.
As with the exterior, the SL’s cabin puts function over form. It’s beautifully finished and exudes a vault-like quality, but it lacks an Aston’s joyous use of materials and feels mass-produced rather than bespoke. On the move, though, the engineering quality beneath shines through. The SL’s damping is superb, providing a supple ride but containing its 1770kg mass with deft control. It also summons up quite extraordinary traction considering the seismic force of the engine’s attack on the rear tyres, while the seven-speed MCT gearbox is fast and precise.
The ‘box is interesting – not an all-singing dual-clutch transmission (although AMG’s SLS supercar does use a dual-clutch ‘box), but a full automatic that replaces the traditional torque-converter with wet clutches for speed and responsiveness. It works superbly, playing the quiet, creamy automatic in Comfort mode and then ramping up its aggression in Sport and Sport+ modes. The latter is spookily effective, popping in clean and perfectly timed downshifts when you’re driving enthusiastically on road or even at track speeds. Happily, for Luddites like myself there’s still a ‘manual’ option that offers complete control via paddles attached to the back of the steering wheel. I suspect Aston Martin will go down the dual-clutch route in future to reflect common practice by the likes of Ferrari, but this solution has real appeal, offering as it does great refinement but also punchy, aggressive shifts when required.
Of course it’s the 5.5-litre twin-turbocharged V8 that defines the SL63 AMG. Part internal combustion engine, part force of nature, it picks up this huge car from 1000rpm and sweeps it up to crazy speeds with apparently effortless ferocity. The throttle response is a little softer than in a naturally aspirated car, but the sheer thump available is eye-widening. For the first few hours in the SL’s company you just can’t get enough of that torque, your eyes scanning the road ahead for an opportunity to pin yourself to the seat. You start speculating that the combo of AMG power and Aston Martin style and agility might prove irresistible.
Greater exposure sees a few doubts creeping in. The performance is never less than vivid but, despite the dramatic stab of hard-edged V8 at start-up, once on the move the engine is more muted and less satisfying. The deep-chested, bassy sound just isn’t very exciting and so easily does the V8 give up its performance that you find yourself hardly troubling the upper end of the rev-range. There’s plenty of reward when you do so, but self-restraint is necessary if you don’t want to find yourself sailing down your favourite B-road at three-figure speeds. The effortless delivery seems to permeate the whole car, so despite its obvious balance and surprising agility, you find yourself treating the SL as a GT rather than a proper sports car. Partly that’s to do with its size, the slightly slow steering and squishy brake response, but mostly I think it’s due to the engine’s rippling nature.
The Vantage S rams home the point in seconds. Gone is the haymaker punch but it’s replaced with instant throttle response and an appetite for revs that is plain thrilling after the AMG’s surreal wave of any-rev power. The Vantage S is lighter, smaller and much, much stiffer-riding but it’s the engine’s character and crackling soundtrack that once again permeate the whole experience. The jagged ride seems perfectly matched to the garrulous engine, the mechanical thump between gears with the Sportshift automated manual gearbox isn’t exactly creamy but it is exciting, and the howl that rips the air around the Vantage S is wholly addictive. It seems infused with energy and is unmistakably a sports car first and GT second.
The engine’s linear delivery brings great benefits in terms of handling balance, too. Firstly, the Vantage S isn’t in a constant battle against torque and so the traction control is far less intrusive (in Track DSC mode it’s perfectly judged), but more than that it allows you to creep up on the limits of grip so much more confidently and manipulate the car around those limits with greater accuracy. With intimate and instant control of the engine’s delivery and a more intuitive power curve, you simply have more fun, more often.
Driving the same stretch of challenging road back-to-back is instructive. The SL63 combines crazed performance with supple control and an impressive resistance to understeer, though traction control is too busy in its default setting and still rather restrictive in AMG Sport Handling mode – perhaps a clue that the SL can be a tricky beast when it breaches its limits. Turn everything off and, while the SL doesn’t reveal any evil traits, the combination of softer throttle response and 664lb ft from as little as 2250rpm means ‘metering out’ performance involves an element of guesswork. Moreover, when you do get the rears spinning they light-up quickly and the big SL needs confident corrections to stay pointing in the right direction. It’s big fun but it also feels pretty high-stakes.
The Vantage S is a much busier experience. It hops and skips over bumps, you need to keep the 4.7-litre V8 spinning hard, the gearchanges punctuate the flow, the steering is so much quicker and the brakes react more instantly. So you expend considerably more effort and the car feels like it’s working harder, too. All for quite a lot less actual speed. However, what’s that old saying about the journey being the destination? Cheesy as that sounds, it rings true in the Vantage S. It’s just such a contagious machine – so keen to change direction, the V8 so sharp-edged and the chassis so finely balanced that you just can’t help wringing its neck.
It all begs the question of whether this tension, precision and exuberance can survive with a new generation of more efficient and potentially much more powerful turbocharged V8s. Judged purely on the evidence of the SL63 AMG, you’d have to say no. However, the SL63 is a GT car that’s been injected with attitude and dynamism. In those terms it’s mighty impressive: fast, composed, exciting and well-balanced… but lacking that last degree of interaction and involvement. Aston Martin’s new models will be bespoke sports cars from conception and will benefit from unique tuning and components designed to suit the application. AMG has great experience of this sort of relationship with supercar maker Pagani and, as the Italian manufacturer has found, the Germans are happy to invest time and effort to create a unique-feeling powertrain. It’ll be a lot more than bunging an engine and gearbox into a crate and shipping it to Gaydon.
Things that will need work? Well, if it is to be this 5.5-litre twin-turbo engine, then noise, throttle response and the way the power is delivered will all need lots of attention. Dial back the torque, dial up the top-end power, reduce the fuzz between accelerator and rear axle and hook it up to a dual-clutch gearbox and we could be in for a real treat. It’s going to be a fascinating transition and one that will no doubt prove to be controversial at times, but having spent a great day in the company of these two fantastic cars I have a feeling that the benefits will run both ways…
Right and below
SL63 packs a twin-turbo 5.5-litre V8. With the AMG Performance Package, it produces 564bhp and a faintly absurd 664lb ft of torque. Interior appeals more to the head than the heart.
Left and below
Aston pursued by AMG Mercedes on English B-roads; it’s an intriguing comparison. The Vantage S’s 4.7-litre V8 makes 430bhp in exhilarating fashion; cockpit makes you feel special.
2013 Aston-Martin V8 Vantage S
ENGINE V8, 4735cc
MAX POWER 430bhp @ 7300rpm
MAX TORQUE 361lb ft @ 5000rpm
TRANSMISSION Seven-speed automated manual, rear-wheel drive, lsd
SUSPENSION Double wishbones, coil springs, monotube dampers and anti-roll bar front and rear
STEERING Rack-and-pinion, hudraulic power-assistance
BRAKES Vented discs, 381mm front, 331mm rear, ABS, DSC, EBD, EBA
WHEELS 8.5 x 19in front, 10 x 19in rear
TYRES 245/40 ZR19 front, 285/35 ZR19 rear
POWER TO WEIGHT 271bhp/ton
TOP SPEED 191mph
PRICE NEW UK (102,511)
Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG
ENGINE V8, 5461cc, twin turbochargers
MAX POWER 530bhp @ 5540rpm (standard form)
MAX TORQUE 594lb ft @ 2000-4500rpm
TRANSMISSION Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, lsd
SUSPENSION Multi-link with coil springs front and rear, Active Body Control
STEERING Rack-and-pinion, electric, speed-variable power-assistance
BRAKES Vented discs, 390mm front, 360mm rear, ABS, DSC, EBD, EBA
WHEELS 9 x 19in front, 10 x 19in rear
TYRES 255/35 ZR19 front, 285/30 ZR19 rear
POWER TO WEIGHT 304bhp/ton
TOP SPEED 155mph (limited)
PRICE NEW 110,785
The Aston owners view
AMOC member and Vantage reader Karl Madges supplied the stunning Vantage S for this feature and also drove the SL63 AMG R231. Here are his thoughts.
‘The two cars felt very different, but still threw up lots of interesting points of comparison. The engine in the Mercedes has more than enough power and is very controllable. You can use brute force or drive it steadily in traffic, but it lacked the engine note I have become used to in the Aston. I guess that’s at the heart of the differences – they do similar things but the Aston always feels a bit more special. The Mercedes seems more like an everyday car with lots of useful gadgets, but without the sense of occasion and drama of the Vantage S. Though the gearbox in the Mercedes was smooth and very efficient, I didn’t seem to get the same feel and control I get from the Aston.
‘I suppose I would be happy for AMG to provide engines for Aston Martin providing they retain the driving feel of the current cars – especially the soundtrack. I think it is possible, but it would require a lot of work from the engineers to get the balance right. The key to purchasing a car like these is how they make you feel. I liked the Mercedes but I didn’t feel special in it; it didn’t put the smile on my face the Aston does. Every time I’m about to go out in the Aston I get nervous and excited and when I’m driving in it I have a permanent smile on my face. In fact I have that same stupid look when I am thinking about my car or just staring at it in the garage.’