x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Aston Martin Vanquish goes from Burj Al Arab helipad to UAE roads

Kevin Hackett takes the Aston Martin Vanquish on a tour of the UAE, and finds it turns every kilometre into pure joy.

The desert roads around Ras Al Khaimah are perfect for sports GT cars such as the Vanquish, which makes a strong case for itself as a weekend tourer thanks to its impressive space in the cabin and the boot. Photos by Kevin Hackett / The National
The desert roads around Ras Al Khaimah are perfect for sports GT cars such as the Vanquish, which makes a strong case for itself as a weekend tourer thanks to its impressive space in the cabin and the boot. Photos by Kevin Hackett / The National
The Aston Martin you see before you was, for at least one day, the most famous and talked about car on the planet. As I've previously mentioned, to celebrate the company's centenary in January, Aston Martin thought it would be a good idea to land a brand new Vanquish onto the Burj Al Arab's helicopter pad - somewhere, unsurprisingly, no car had ever before set down a wheel.
As a publicity stunt, it did the business, and the Vanquish is selling in healthy numbers both here and elsewhere. But you had to feel for the car. There it was, strapped to a small platform and swinging beneath a helicopter in really strong winds, with the threat that, should anything go wrong, it would be ditched into the sea. It made for some spectacular footage and photography, but I have been thinking for some time that what that car needed was some proper exercise. It was designed to be driven, not flown.
In the weeks since its day of fame, that Vanquish has been checked, stripped down, rebuilt and checked again. After all, who knows what kind of stress and strains that stunt put it through? The net result is that my chance to experience the latest Aston flagship had to be put on hold until now. And now that my time has come, the last thing I want to do with it is simply pootle around Dubai for three days.
Fortuitously, my time with the Vanquish has coincided with my wedding anniversary. So I instruct Mrs H to pack her bags because we're heading for the Banyan Tree hotel in the desert near to Ras Al Khaimah. Three days of rest, relaxation and excellent driving await.
I have driven the Vanquish before, but bizarrely, the press launch event I attended last year in the UK was restricted to a series of short bursts within the confines of Millbrook Proving Ground, near Aston's old headquarters in Bedfordshire. And you can't really tell what a car is like until you've spent some quality time driving it on actual, public roads. Hence the wait, you see.
Had I been spending these few days on my own, I would have been tempted to tour all seven emirates, but I'll have to make do with just four: Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain - enough of a tour, in my mind, to put this GT car extraordinaire through its paces and be able to get the measure of it.
The Vanquish is Aston Martin's replacement for the DBS and nobody - nobody - thought more highly of that car than I. Over the years, I've put many thousands of kilometres on those beautiful cars and every single one has been a complete joy. The DBS took the glamour and sophistication of the sculptural DB9 and threw machismo, testosterone and anger into the mix, resulting in a car that was as good to drive as it undoubtedly was to look at. And now it is no more; killed off in the name of progress.
The DBS is dead, long live the Vanquish - at least that's what Aston Martin would have us believe. Having sold three times as many DBSs as the company had hoped for, and having started to confuse the marketplace with a bewildering array of DB9 and Vantage derivatives, it actually was high time the company got its act together. So, along with the DBS, the axe has fallen on the pointless Virage and we now have a much more cohesive line-up. A new DB9 that has inherited the best bits of the Virage, and is actually more powerful than the outgoing DBS, and this - the flagship car with a name that many hold sacred: Vanquish.
The original Vanquish was the car that showed that Aston Martin had a future. A brave attempt at merging beauty with untried technology, as the first model launched under the direction of chief executive, Ulrich Bez, it was a flawed gem. Styled by Ian Callum, it looked fast when it was at a standstill - good job, too, because that was its usual status due to inherent reliability problems with its automated manual transmission, which continuously vexed Bez and his engineers.
So, given that the four-wheeled love of my life has been replaced with a model that carries with it some fairly unhappy memories, it has a huge weight on its carbonfibre shoulders. I really do want to love this thing. I really do want to believe Bez when he categorically states: "this is the best Aston Martin ever".
I'm not sold on the styling (I find it too fussy and overly complex), but that's not really important. What is important, is the amount of effort that Aston's designers and engineers have put into this project to make it the best they could, given the restrictions placed upon them of having to fend for themselves while their rivals benefit from seemingly bottomless pits of parent company money and resources.
The most remarkable change is the use of carbonfibre for the entire body structure, where the other DB9 derivatives have always been skinned in aluminium. This has contributed to a 25 per cent increase in torsional stiffness, and working with this material has also provided the designers with some new possibilities - the scalloped roof, the One-77-style door strakes and the moulded rear spoiler in the boot lid.
The interior looks and feels pretty familiar, but there are changes: a redesigned centre console with touch interfaces and new rotary dials that, to my eyes and fingers, are quite nasty. They're like horrible fridge magnets. But at least the pop-up satellite navigation has waved goodbye to the terrible Volvo system. It actually works and looks nice. There's more space in here, too: leg, shoulder, elbow and knee room are all significantly increased over the DBS and the dash has been pushed back 200 millimetres. In keeping with its grand touring aspirations, there's also a handy, and very welcome, 60 per cent increase in boot space.
These are important factors when it comes to choosing a GT car, and my first pleasant surprise with the Vanquish relates to just how much luggage it swallows in its boot without the need to litter the rear seats with excess baggage. Mrs H doesn't exactly travel lightly, yet, everything we "need" for three days is in there with room to spare.
The journey to our hotel isn't exactly inspiring. The Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Road (the old Emirates Road) is long, boring and, at times, quite terrifying thanks to the occasional, distracted driver. But the Vanquish takes everything in its stride, providing comfort and civility, along with more than enough oomph when it's necessary to escape trouble. It's quiet at speed, too, with the magnificent V12 engine nothing but a discreet rumble, until you put your foot down and unleash its pent up fury.
Press the sport button, which is inconveniently positioned on the underneath of the centre boss of the awkward-looking but pleasant-to-use square steering wheel, and the car wakes up in an instant. The revs jump and the exhaust opens up, ready for action. Stamp on the throttle and it simply chews up the road, spitting it out in a haze of full-on induction roar and acceleration that does actually pin you to the back of your seat. As superb as the DBS always was, it never felt quite this rapid or eager.
Passing through Sharjah, this car turns heads like it's a superstar, but we don't hang around for the attention. We need to get to our hotel and unwind, escape the city madness and revel in the peace and solitude that only a desert environ can offer in these parts.
Arriving at our temporary home, I'm relieved of the Aston's key. Turns out, they want to park it out front - pride of place outside the main entrance. If I didn't have my DBS blinkers on, I could concede that it actually is a startlingly good-looking machine. It still exudes class and Britishness in a way few others could hope to match.
The following day, I'm tempted to simply laze by our private pool and go nowhere. But room service will have to wait, for there are places we've yet to explore, towns and villages we've never before seen or experienced. Ras Al Khaimah and neighbouring Umm Al Quwain have their own, very distinct charms, but the coastal parts near Ras Al Khaimah are what grab us. What a charming, sleepy place this is - the kind of environment I always wanted to spend lazy summer holidays in. We agree that, if work permitted, we'd both rather like to live here - and that's praise indeed.
Roads in these parts vary in quality between billiard table-smooth and moon-like craters that threaten to engulf this precious automobile. Yet, even the roughest surfaces are smothered by the Vanquish, reminding me that this is, first and foremost, a grand tourer, not a silly supercar. Yes, it might go like one, but its prime objective is to make its occupants feel like they're being treated to a luxury experience. And it does so with aplomb.
The next day and a half are spent pretty much the same way and, as with the DBS before it, the Vanquish turns every kilometre into a joy. Like its new DB9 stablemate, it feels utterly complete and capable of crushing entire continents with a single drive. Sure, there are niggles, faults and imperfections, but they don't detract from what has to be one of the most desirable cars on sale today.
I'm extremely glad to have had this opportunity - to experience this car on all manner of roads, to let it off its leash and give it a bit of a thrashing after its nerve wracking adventure at the end of a helicopter's ropes. It doesn't belong hundreds of metres up in the air. It belongs here, on the road, with two people inside and all the luggage they can muster.
Is it the best Aston Martin ever? Yes, I believe it is, but my heart (and, incidentally, that of my wife) still yearns for its predecessor.
khackett@thenational.ae