It's not just the cars that are getting frazzled. This is the Sierra Nevada, the Spanish mountain range near the beautiful Moorish city of Granada. We're 8,000 feet above sea level and it's touching 100 degrees. This is Europe's equivalent of California's Death Valley, and in the summer months it's a hotbed of hot-weather testing.
In the parking lot near the summit, masochistic cyclists mix with all manner of secret prototypes. Even the giant trucks wear zebra paint to disguise their lines. There's sport to be had in guessing what's what. Apparently the new Porsche Macan was here yesterday, but it's gone missing today.
Paul Thomas admits he's part of a "traveling circus" of automotive engineers who chase the extremes. Winters are spent in Sweden dodging frostbite. Summers are spent giving sunstroke the slip here in Spain. As Aston Martin's engineering manager, he's the man responsible for signing off on new models before they head to production. We've been invited to ride shotgun in the 2013 Aston Martin Vanquish, the company's upcoming flagship, to get a glimpse at what goes on before Thomas is satisfied enough to call it ready for production.
Aston's New Star
The new Aston Martin Vanquish has already been unveiled at a celeb-filled party in London's Covent Garden so it's no longer required to don any disguise. Thomas admits it's a relief: "There's a danger that camouflaged cars lead you down a duff route," he says. "It can affect the aerodynamics, the weight distribution and the refinement."
Designed by an Englishman with a German name, Marek Reichman, the new Vanquish draws obvious inspiration from the Ian Callum-designed original. It's instantly recognizable as an Aston but it's still a steep change from the me-too Virage. Privately, Aston insiders admit the Virage was too conservative and that it was time to move on from yet another DB9 clone.
Reichman's work is a fusion of the original Vanquish, the DB9 and the One-77 hypercar. It's certainly more complex — the uncharitable would say fussy — than Callum's original, but it has undeniable impact. For the first time on a production Aston, the body's also fashioned from carbon fiber, which reduces the mass by around 13 pounds and allows for a more intricate level of detail. "Some of the surfacing simply wouldn't be possible with an aluminum body," reckons Reichman.
Getting a Feel for It
Thomas prods the starter button and the 5.9-liter V12 up front answers with a provocative rasp. This is essentially the same engine featured in the original Vanquish but it's evolved over the years and now produces 565 horsepower at 6,750 rpm and 457 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm. All-alloy with independent quad variable camshaft timing and 48 valves, it powers the Vanquish from zero to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 183 mph, according to Aston.
But not at this altitude. Some of the Aston's horses have clearly gone missing but from the passenger seat it still feels deliciously rapid and the V12 sounds better than ever. The whine that made the Virage sound as if it had a supercharger has been eradicated, leaving a smooth, rich timbre. This Aston, like the new Ferrari F12, is proof that there's life left in large-capacity, high-revving V12s.
Thomas has spent the last 15 years at Aston Martin and has honed his driving skills. He's pushing the car harder than 99 percent of owners ever will, determined to fine-tune the last minutiae of steering and suspension control. Through a left-hand hairpin he throws it sideways, catching the drift with a swift dose of opposite lock. "On days like this, I really do feel like I've got the best job in the world," he says. Given the perilous, death-inducing drops at the roadside, we're grateful for both Thomas' skill and the Vanquish's mighty carbon-ceramic brakes.
Fine-Tuning Through Laptops
Thomas is not acting alone. Aston currently has 11 engineers and 11 different cars in Spain. Some are more top secret than others and my prying questions are met with blank expressions.
"We're now a global company and all our cars must be capable of operating in temperatures from -30 to +50 degrees Celsius [-22 to +122 Fahrenheit]," says Thomas. "Every new model undergoes around 40-50 weeks of extreme weather testing before it's launched." For a company that builds fewer than 5,000 cars per year, it's a big ask but it's the price of doing business today. Aston's owned by a Kuwaiti consortium who'd be spectacularly unimpressed if their new toy broke down in the desert.
The Aston team is specialized, with engineers assigned to monitor everything from the air-con to the dampers. There's even a representative here from ZF to assist with the testing. Stephanie Liu is just 25 and on her first hot-weather test. An engine calibration specialist, she's tasked with managing the temperature of the engine oil, using sophisticated computer models. "I've been to the test track at Idiada [in Spain] and now I'm here. If you're leaving university as an engineer, then a job at Aston Martin is a bit of a dream."
At this stage of the car's development, electronics are king. Subtle refinements are achieved not by men with wrenches, but by graduates with oversized brains and laptops. It's not fancy design, posh parties or even James Bond that will define the success of the Vanquish; it's the cleverness of the algorithms.
Aston is persisting with a six-speed ZF automatic rather than switching to the latest eight-speeder and Thomas is concerned about the quality of the paddle-shift changes. His feedback is relayed to the transmission experts, who will use the data to produce a graph detailing the action of each shift. Then they'll make a plan and then tell the computer to try something different.
Has To Feel Like an Aston
At this stage it's all about the detail. Thomas' role is not only to sign off on the durability testing, but also to fine-tune the dynamics. The roads around the Sierra Nevada are among the finest in Europe, if not the world. Beautifully surfaced mountain passes wind their way skyward to venues that serve as ski resorts in winter. Ideally you'd want something small and nimble — a Porsche Cayman would no doubt feel magnificent here — which makes it a good test of the Vanquish's GT aspirations. Thomas says it's supposed to have a harder edge than the DB9, although the electronic damping should help it play a range of roles.
"It's my job to fine-tune the emotion in the car. It's about understanding how our customers will interact with their cars in the real world." In other words, for all the gigabytes of data, the sensitivity of his bottom is still a critical component in the make-up of this Aston Martin.
We descend the valley to Granada, home to the famous Alhambra, a 14th-century palace and fortress. The roads feel like they were laid in the 13th century so it's a good test of the Vanquish's ride quality. The suspension has double wishbones all around and the adaptive damping offers three modes: Normal, Sport and Track. The difference in low-speed ride quality among each of the modes is among the most pronounced we've ever experienced. Normal is genuinely comfortable, while Track comes with a free appointment with a chiropractor.
Like Ferrari, Aston offers different switches for the powertrain (throttle, transmission and exhaust) and the suspension (steering and damping). This is a good thing. On badly surfaced back roads, supple damping with an aggressive throttle is often the best compromise.
An Interior Fit for the Vanquish
The 2013 Aston Martin Vanquish is in the final phase of its development and this hand-built prototype feels surprisingly normal. I'd expected an interior festooned with wires, gauges and laptops, but apart from a telltale plastic box on top of the wheel and some dodgy stitching, it could be a production reality.
Inside, the influence of the One-77 is self-evident. The tired switchgear of the Virage, DBS and every other mainstream Aston has been swapped for touch-sensitive controls that vibrate gently when they're activated. There's a little more room for people (although the rear seats remain all but useless) and a genuinely impressive 13-cubic-foot trunk, which is 60 percent bigger than a DBS's.
The seats on this prototype lacked support, though, and there's nothing to hold on to when the driver engages in what Brits call "spirited motoring." Thomas reckons that the seat cushioning has yet to be finalized and that improvements will be made before the car reaches the U.S. early next year. He's also quick to point that the color scheme's in a prototype phase — gold paint with bright yellow interior stitching is definitely more Dubai than Denver.
In the early evening, Aston's little band of technicians gathers in the bar for a debrief. To the outside world they might look like a tour group, but their work is no vacation. Aston Martin prides itself on being one of the world's coolest brands, but there is nothing remotely cool about standing next to a broken-down car no matter what corner of the world you're driving in.
We'll reserve our definitive judgment on the new 2013 Aston Martin Vanquish until we drive it next month, but first impressions are good. Whereas the loud-mouthed style of the DBS always felt at odds with the driving experience, and the Virage was little more than a face-lifted DB9, the Vanquish feels like a genuinely new car. And right now, that's exactly what Aston needs.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.