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A Day at Millbrook Proving Ground with Aston Martin

Aston Martin Rapide V12

When you are offered the chance to drive the complete range of newly launched Aston Martins, you don’t say no… especially when you’re flying to Mykonos the next day for the Gumball 3000! Instead you say yes and juggle your diary to within an inch of its capacity because it’s a day you don’t want to miss.

Unfortunately though, as it’s a proving ground, it means many manufacturers send their cars, vans, lorries, motorbikes, the list goes on… to test there, which meant I wasn’t allowed to film my own content.  So you’re just going to have to trust me when I say it was an awesome experience.

Arriving at just after 12, I was ushered through security and a sticker applied to my iPhone camera to prevent me from taking any pictures, before I was then taken in a minibus from the front gate to the centre where Aston Martin was holding their hospitality for the day. After sitting down and catching up with Henry Broughton, from Henry Broughton Automotive, who had kindly invited me to the day, as well as getting to chat to other likeminded enthusiasts, we got to start the exercises.

First up for me was the mile straight run and my opportunity to nail (!) the new DBS Superleggera.  Looks wise (from the outside), this was my favourite car of the day; pentland green with copious amounts of carbon fibre liberally spread across the bodywork.  It’s outrageously beautiful.  Inside the car is less attractive to my eyes however – the Mercedes switchgear shining through and, like all the other cars there, bar one, was spec’d in black on black when, with that exterior, it cried out for tan or cream. It was also a shame that, despite the Vanquish (which it replaced) having launch control, this does not. Somewhat strange given the performance on offer.

But there is no doubt however about the car’s acceleration. In a straight line it is effortlessly devastating, with over 700BHP on tap it pulverises the road into submission and 60MPH arrives in 3 seconds and 100MPH in 7. It feels somewhat muted however and you feel like the car is doing all the work, not you; there isn’t a great sense of connection. What was also a little disappointing was the noise. Given the ballistic firepower from the forced induction V12 power plant, it made so little sound (at least from the inside) I was somewhat underwhelmed, particularly having read numerous reviews as to just how good it was supposed to sound.

Next was the hill climb course in the V8 Vantage and the DB11. The course is full of undulations and blind brows, making it a real challenge to drive fast, particularly when you don’t know the course or the car (!) but after a few laps I felt confidence in the former. You could tell it was the most focussed sportscar of the range, had great turn in and excellent power delivery. I should also say the sound was much improved over the Vantage I drove previously – the single pea shooter exhausts replaced by quad tips with some work having been done to give the car much more sound presence. But I would still maintain a lack of overall feel to the steering. Maybe I’m just biased (and also fortunate), but having spent so much time driving Ferraris they are just on a different planet in this regard. My dad came up with a good analogy in fact –  ‘when you drive an Aston it’s as if you’re stuck to the ground. When you drive a Ferrari, you glide over it’.  Couldn’t have put it better myself!

I then got to take the DB11 V12 AMR on the 2 mile banked circuit to experience what it’s like to take your hands off the wheel at 98mph (!), then brake, once again without touching the steering wheel to guide you off the track. Unfortunately this exercise was cut short because a car broke down in front of us but I got enough from the car to know that this is a much more capable sports car than the DB11 V8 which I drove on the hill climb.

If you think that, having read the above, I sound rather unimpressed by the new Aston range, you are partly correct. Unfortunately, a number of criticisms I laid bare in my review of the Vantage are present throughout the models.  That’s not to say they are bad cars, by all accounts they’re excellent, but they just don’t make me FEEL it.  Other than one…

Last of all, I asked to go out in the Rapide AMR.  This was actually just a show car but, after some grovelling and doleful eyes, they agreed. And my, what a difference. Stunning, carbon fibre interior? Wonderful hydraulic steering feel? Looks both inside and out? All present. But the defining feature of this car was the noise. With a full titanium exhaust and only 200 being made, this is the swansong for the Rapide . . . and what a send-off. The best way to describe it is this; I have been fortunate enough to drive a number of lovely sports cars, but only one has made the hair, not only on the back of my neck, but my entire body, stand up. And that was the first time (and indeed every time since) I drove the F355.

Until now.

The Rapide AMR makes the kind of noise you read about. You dream about…  Why we love supercars in the first place.  It has a howling, baleful, sonorous musicality that, even when writing this, is still ringing in my ears. I had mentioned to Eddie, the instructor sat next to me, that I was interested in the manual V12 Vantage S and I asked him whether it had the same exhaust note. He told me it did. Then I showed him how the hairs on my arms were standing to attention and, instantaneously he told me I had to buy that car!!  He had never seen that reaction before and loved the connection the car’s soul had made with me.

So… what a day it was. Not only the perfect preparation for the Gumball 3000 rally but also, to a certain extent, it revitalised my interest in Aston Martins.  They don’t all have to be for you, but if you find one, it will live with you forever.  I NEED that V12 Vantage S.

Thank you so much to Aston for their hospitality and to Henry for the very kind invitation.