The manual gearbox is not, as the Internet might have you believe, under threat of imminent extinction. Think about it - until EVs completely take over, the simple and inexpensive stick shift will always have a place in the cheap stuff.
But how about for the cars we most want to have ye olde-style gearstick poking out from between the seats? You know, things with two doors and a lot of power? The news there, fellow petrolheads, is a little bleaker.
The mainstream supercar world has all but abandoned manual transmissions. Jaguar’s introduction of a six-speed F-Type seemingly backfired, with the option pulled from the US market and the UK market showing little appetite for it since the launch a few years ago. Even the new C8 Chevrolet Corvette - a car we thought we could rely on for high-power manual heroics - seems to be a dual-clutch-only affair.
There are, thankfully, brands out there keeping the flame alive. Porsche recently launched the manual-only 718 Cayman GT4 and Boxster Spyder twins, and although there isn’t a manual 992 911 Carrera or Carrera S yet, we’re almost certain there soon will be. But if you don’t fancy waiting for that, another manufacturer has stepped in to give the world another stick-shifting sports car: Aston Martin.
Yep, the new Vantage has - as expected - gone manual. The first one is the Vantage AMR, which is limited to only 200 units, but the stick will soon be joining the options menu for the ‘regular’ car. Welcome, ladies and gents, to one of only two V8 manuals for sale in the UK right now. The other is the Ford Mustang, just to save you a Google.
It’s important to understand what a big deal it is that Aston Martin has done this. It’s not a simple case of whacking in the Graziano gearbox - for a start, the Mercedes-AMG-sourced 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 needed bespoke software to communicate with the new transmission.
Ditching the ZF eight-speed automatic and the attached E-differential for the seven-speed with its integrated mechanical plated diff has lopped a whopping 70kg off the overall weight figure. Forged wheels and carbon-ceramic brakes account for another 30kg loss, giving a total reduction of 100kg. For context, that’s 1.25 Alex Kerstens.
This means that the suspension has to change. The dampers have all been re-valved and the rear spring rates are decreased. The software for both the adaptive damper and electric power are new, and there’s a stiffer rear anti-roll bar to work with the mechanical differential. Meanwhile, the engine needed a bespoke flywheel, and a unique torque tube to feed the transaxle ‘box. As I said, you can’t just dump in a manual and stick it on sale, even if this is the same basic transmission Aston used in the last Vantage.
Sliding behind the wheel for the first time, it does just feel weird being presented with three pedals. It’s getting so rare for a car like this. The gear stick itself is disappointingly ugly, but there will be a more aesthetically carbon-clad option coming from Aston’s Q department. And in any case, I don’t intend on spending very long staring at it.
The uneasy, physically demanding shift from neutral to first gives a clue as to what this box o’ cogs is all about - it’s going to be a workout. The clutch pedal action is nicely judged, though - it’s not overly springy like in the disappointing F-Type manual name-dropped earlier.
The shifts to second and then third aren’t quite so reluctant, but the AMR doesn’t exactly slide in effortlessly into either. It takes practice to get the changes fast and clean, but the reward is a feeling of mechanical connection you don’t get with most other manuals.
You don’t just have to put the time in to get your shifts smooth, it also takes a while to get used to the layout. It’s what’s known as a dog-leg gearbox - one of the dumbest phrases in the car world which means first is down and to the left. This puts second and fourth - the cogs you’re most likely to use on a fast road or track drive - in an H-pattern. Great in theory, but the reality is that if you’re used to the normal way, you’re likely to get confused on the first few drives.
Weirdly, all of this is what appeals about the Vantage AMR. Most high-end sports and supercars available now let you jump in and kick their heads in from the off, but this is a coupe that requires more from you. And once you’re at the point you need to be, you can reap the rewards.
Hot damn, is it a joy to chop through a few cogs the old-fashioned way with this engine. The AMR gives me an appreciation for AMG’s latest V8 I’ve never had before, with its rumbly delights brilliantly enhanced with this manual. The eight-speed automatic normally found in the Vantage is a worthy enough unit, but it doesn’t have the immediacy or compliance of the dual-clutch Mercedes uses in the GT. Giving you complete control with a manual is the key for the current Vantage to achieve greatness.
It helps that the ratios aren’t too silly for road use. At the natural shift point, you’ll find you’re doing a little over 60mph from second to third, approaching 90 from third to fourth. Compare that to the Porsche Cayman GT4, which will hit 84mph at the top end of second. Plus, unlike the naturally-aspirated Porsche, the AMR’s V8 isn’t an engine that needs to be revved out. In fact, it sounds better if you don’t play with its upper reaches, and there’s so much mid-range torque to play with - even though the peak figure has dropped from 505lb ft to 461lb ft here - it’s fine to short-shift.
The rev-matching feature is super slick, and a welcome device when you’re busy cocking up all your downshifts early on. Once you are up to speed though, the pedal spacing is spot-on for ‘proper’ rev-matching, and the ‘fake’ version can be simply turned off by pressing one button. BMW and Porsche: are you listening?
Aston has also added a flat-shifting system, and although it seems massively unnatural to change gear manually without lifting off the throttle, it’s mega effective.
As for the chassis changes, with it being about 18 months since I last drove an auto Vantage, I’m reluctant to define any noticeable changes. It drives much as I remember, although the retuned steering is just a little sweeter than I recall. It’s not Porsche-good, partly due to it being almost unnervingly quick off-centre, but it’s up there with the best modern EPAS setups.
On the road, the AMR is best set to the softest ‘Sport’ chassis mode and the ‘Race’ engine mode with the ESP in its semi-off setting. That applies to both the dry, where you’re never wanting for traction, and the wet, where the electronic stuff has a fit at the slightest amount of slip. You do have to be paying attention as it is quite a spikey thing in the wet, thanks partly to the short wheelbase. That new plated diff may be a factor, too.
The powerplant’s Track mode actually softens the throttle a little, but this is a good thing - it makes the right-hand pedal much more consistent and predictable. The Track chassis mode isn’t exactly spine-shattering away from a silky-smooth circuit so by all means try it - Sport just lets the car flow with the undulations of the road a little better.
Inevitably, some Porsche 911 comparisons have to be chucked in here. And awkwardly for Aston, the Vantage can’t quite match the 992 in any area. It lacks the overall handling poise of the Pork, the unflappable high-speed stability, and the solid build quality. Where it’s really lacking is the tech - all of the Daimler-borrowed bits are a step up from what Aston used to use, but it’s all previous-gen stuff. The infotainment is a particular bugbear - it’s perfectly good, but why do some of the textures on the maps look like they’re lifted from Microsoft Flight Simulator 1994?
With the manual, though, the Aston has stacks more appeal than it used to have. The seven-speed gearbox goes with the Vantage’s edgier, angrier attitude brilliantly. The Vantage remains more of a heart than head choice - you buy it because you want it. You buy it because it’s an Aston. But unlike the old one, there’s much less to forgive here. And isn’t it a far more interesting choice than a 911?
The only problem is, it’s also a more expensive choice than a 911. The AMR is £149,999, which, to compared it to some AMG stuff with the same engine, is around the price of a GT R and quite a lot more than a GT C. For a car that isn’t as accomplished as either. Hmmm.
Despite the punchy price, you can’t imagine Aston Martin having problems finding homes for the 200 of these it’s making. And in any case, I’d happily forgo the forged wheels and carbon brakes, opting for the standard production Vantage with the optional manual once available. Which would make me part of a minority group.
That’s why Aston Martin’s decision to make this requires such a hearty hat-doff - the manual is expected to make up just 10 to 15 per cent of the mix. This tells you a lot about the number of people - even those buying a car like this - who really value the driving experience. On the strength of a few days with the AMR, which included probably the most satisfying, most thrilling drive I’ve had all year, I’d implore any potential auto Vantage customers to rethink. Because this is the Vantage you want.