The Future of Aston Martin

Just to lay the groundwork before we dive into this blog post, let's get a couple things sorted. First, the next-generation Vantage that was revealed this morning is being called "the New Vantage" and that's how I'll refer to it so it isn't confused with the "outgoing Vantage" that we've been enjoying for the last 12-or-so years. Second, I haven't seen the New Vantage in person, so I'm hoping that my perception will change after seeing it. I doubt it, but I'm hoping because obviously I'm a big Aston Martin fan and the company needs as many successes as it can get. A lot of what I'm going to say is based on my own personal feelings, thoughts, and expectations, so there's going to be plenty of stuff that some will disagree with. Third, it's been a really long time since I've written a blog post, updated anything on my website, or made any videos. I'll cover what's been going on lately, but I'm going to leave out quite a few details for the sake of everyone involved.

The New Vantage

This morning Aston Martin finally revealed the next-generation Vantage.

 Picture from Aston Martin

Picture from Aston Martin

The outgoing Vantage has been in production for over a decade, which is an incredibly long time for a modern car, and it's overdue for a replacement. As much as I love the previous Vantage - I do own two of them, after all - there's a lot of room for improvement. The cars are slow on paper compared to competitors, the electronics were outdated before the car even went into production in 2005, let alone now, the Sportshift transmissions in most cars has been a sore spot for many owners (and potential owners that opted to not paddle-flap), and the cars were falling behind global standards for emissions, fuel economy, and safety.

The one thing that would be hard to improve, however, was the styling. The Vantage is simply gorgeous, and from any angle.

 Picture from Glenn A. Miller Photography

Picture from Glenn A. Miller Photography

It has long been known that Aston would be using the 4.0L twin-turbo engines from the Mercedes-AMG GT. What wasn't known was whether or not those engines would be tweaked to produce more power, rev higher, or sing more beautifully. From what we've seen on launch day, the answers are no, no, and no.

The New Vantage (as Aston Martin refers to it) gets a standard 503 hp albeit with a slightly higher 505 lb-ft. Unlike the Vantage's naturally-aspirated V8 engines that have dry sump oil systems, the AMG-derived unit has a wet sump - though apparently Aston Martin did reconfigure this to get the engine to sit lower than it otherwise would, which is something of a compromise between wet and dry sumps. Odd about this, though, is that the standard AMG engine comes with a dry sump, so the reasons for the change to a wet sump setup is something I'm interested in exploring.

Aston's variant of the engine also doesn't rev any higher than the AMG version. The AMG version makes its 503 hp at 6250, along with 480 lb-ft from 1750-4750 rpm, while the New Vantage makes 503 hp at 6000 rpm and 505 lb-ft from 2000-5000 rpm. What's good about this is that it makes the same horsepower sooner than the AMG, and makes more torque at a slightly higher (but equal-length) rev range. But it's not the high-revving engine many of us are used to in the n/a Vantages. For example, a standard 4.3L Aston Martin V8 revs has a 7300-rpm redline and builds power all the way to it. That's 1300 rpm higher than the New Vantage's peak power. And the tuned 4.3L in my grey Vantage has a 7700-rpm redline - that's 1700 rpm more! I don't know the actual redline for the engine, but power after the 503-hp peak falls away (that's why it's called "peak" horsepower), so there isn't much point in revving beyond that.

This isn't all bad, though. The New Vantage does make a lot more horsepower and wayyyy more torque much sooner than the outgoing Vantage. That's fantastic no matter how you slice it. It's just a little bit of a downer for guys like me that enjoy having a mountain of revs that we can climb through. And I'll be honest: I really do miss having a forced-induction car. Massive amounts of torque on tap is hard to ignore, and I'll be happy to have it back when the time comes.

But let's talk about the big disappointment from the engine, at least from what I've been able to tell so far... the sound. It does not sound better than the outgoing Vantage. It doesn't sound as good as the outgoing Vantage. It doesn't even sound as good as the outgoing Kung Pao chicken I ate last night. Here's a video with some great coverage of the car, along with the engine revving at the 3:09 mark:

Granted, that's sitting stationary, but... what's with that awful crackling? It's done intentionally to make the car sound more aggressive, but it's totally overcompensating at it. I hate how that was done in the Jaguar F-Type, and it's no better in the New Vantage. Compare that to how smooth this sounds:

Of course I'm biased - that's my grey Vantage (and my red one is in the video, too) - but it's how an Aston should sound. There's still some crackling on overrun, but it isn't that jarring, abrasive nonsense you hear coming out of the New Vantage. I seriously hope it sounds better on the road, because I'm pretty disappointed by the sound when stationary.

Speaking of disappointment, let's go over the main issue I have with this car. The engine, while it may seem like I'm complaining, is more just a comparison of sorts. The fact that it's a Mercedes engine rather than an Aston-developed one is more upsetting to other people than it is to me - I'm not too bothered by where Aston sourced it but it was a big deal for some. And the engine itself has a ton of potential for tuning, and modifications.

My big gripe with this car and, frankly, a dealbreaker for me, is the front end.

 Picture from Aston Martin

Picture from Aston Martin

I fucking hate it.

It looks exactly how I hoped it wouldn't based on the camoflagued one that we've been seeing in pics, which looked identical to the production car. The headlights have little character. They're almost lifeless. That might be because of the front overall, but the headlights themselves are just uninspired and boring. The grille looks like a giant fake mustache that was tacked onto what would be an otherwise pretty nose. The concept comes from the DB10, which was a more traditional Aston Martin grille in the upside-down wings logo shape seen on both the DB10 and the New Vantage. While the DB10's grille was more or less flush with the front bumper fascia, the New Vantage has the grille surround sticking out. TThe end result comes across as a poorly-integrated design feature that ruins the front end.

Another complaint I have is that the hood lines aren't as graceful as the outgoing Vantage, especially since the hood doesn't extend all the way to the grille. It replicates the clam-shell of the DB11, but Aston Martin took a step back in design, and not for the better. That detail of the hood stopping well short of the grille is just like the DB7 and first-gen Vanquish of the early 2000s.

Carfection did a nice video overview of the New Vantage (great YouTube channel, by the way - one of the best there is for cars). As soon as the video starts, so do the problems with the heinous front end.

In the opening shot in the dark, it looks like the front bumper fascia is missing when viewed from the side - the darkness of the massive, protruding grille trim erases the front of the car. From the front, there are tiny headlights, a massive grille, and no other features. It's entirely unbalanced, which is very uncharacteristic of a car company whose design prides itself on things like its use of the golden ratio. The huge piece of mesh filling the grille makes the front bumper look unfinished. While I'm a fan of mesh used the right way - again, I have it on my grey Vantage - the implementation on the New Vantage just doesn't work. Plus, we haven't seen how it's going to look when a license plate is fitted to the front, but I expect it's going to look like a catfish swallowing bait.

If we're honest, the "not knowing" is going to be a problem in general for any new car. We've got limited information, we've only seen the car in a couple specifications, and there are plenty of questions left to be answered. But one that that holds true is that first impressions matter and a car that's truly beautiful won't leave you disappointed from the outset. Sure, the New Vantage's fake mustache may grow on those of us that hate it. But this is the same as when the current Vanquish debuted. The big carbon fiber front splitter on that car looks like a neckbeard and I really didn't care for it at first. Over the course of a few years, it grew on me. But then a couple months ago I was at an event at my local Aston Martin dealership (I meant to write about that but things have been rather... hectic... lately, and I didn't get to it). Out front were a pair of white cars parked side by side. One was a Vanquish, and one was a DB9 GT. Same color, similar size and stance, similar age. But the DB9 GT was far more beautiful than the Vanquish from every angle. It was less fussy, it was more sleek, it was elegant where the Vanquish tried to be bold. It was simply more beautiful, and it wasn't even trying to be. Even if the fake mustache grows on me, the New Vantage will never be as beautiful of a car as the outgoing Vantage for the same reasons.

The stark change in styling from the outgoing Vantage is very deliberate. There have been quite a few complaints about people not being able to tell Aston Martin's cars apart. To help fix this, Aston is making them all very different with their "Second Century Plan" - and not just with styling. The DB9 was a grand tourer, and the DB11 is grand tourerer. The Vantage was a sports-ish car, and the New Vantage is a sports car. The styling of each is being exaggerated compared to the previous generations to help accentuate the differences in intended use and performance.

Aside from that heinous front end, I have to say I actually love the rest of the New Vantage. There are a few things I think could be improved: the exhaust tips are proportionally way too small for the rear valance, and the rear of the car is absolutely dominated by the blackness of the diffuser, valance, and trim back there. (Side note, the lime green launch car did have some body-colored accents that I think were a great touch and helped fix the blackness-imbalance of the rear end.) The chrome "ASTON MARTIN" badging on the back is a bit gawdy, but I guess someone at Aston Martin decided it was necessary to help with all the, "What kind of car is that?!" questions we Aston owners get so often. Still, I hope there's a badge delete option.

 Picture from Aston Martin

Picture from Aston Martin

The interior looks fantastic. It's a bit busy, like the rest of the car, but it looks great. The Mercedes-sourced controls blend well with Aston's own. The glass buttons are familiar items since they carry over from the outgoing Vantage. The steering wheel is similar to that of the DB11 but with a smaller diameter. The infotainment screen is the weak spot of the interior - it's just propped up there, not integrated at all. It's a shame, but it's how the vast majority of car manufacturers are installing screens these days.

I have to say that I love that Aston has gone back to traditional controls. Buttons and knobs, this is what we need for control! Having these physical instruments allows a driver to better focus on the road since the controls can be manipulated by feel. I think this is a fantastic yet subtle indicator of how driver-focused the New Vantage really is.

What's missing from the interior is a shift knob, but that's coming.

 Picture from Aston Martin

Picture from Aston Martin

A while back I wrote about an event at the British embassy in Washington, DC. I had a chat with Simon Sproule, Aston Martin's Chief Marketing Officer and all-around fantastic guy, and he said point-blank that the New Vantage would definitely be coming with a manual transmission option - the only way to get the AMG GT engine with a stick shift, by the way. Andy Palmer, Aston's CEO, confirmed that when I chatted with him later that night. It'll probably be 6-12 months before we see the manual option appear, but I'm fine with that because it existing at all is all that matters. A huge Thank You to Aston Martin for giving us the option to row our own gears!

Even if you don't want the responsibility of shifting, another great update is the use of a ZF 8-speed in lieu of the generally-maligned Sportshift gearboxes used in the outgoing Vantage. The ZF box is a tried-and-true transmission used in plenty of cars, and it should finally fix the constant complaints of transmissions being the Achilles heel of Aston Martin's cars.

All in all, I do love the car so far, but that front end is a dealbreaker. This car is going to be the bread and butter of Aston Martin's sales for the next decade, so it needs to be a winner. It really is the future of the company because so much rides on it. Hopefully that front end gets sorted, though, because I was fully intending to get a manual roadster when the time came.

Redpants Parts Supply

The last blog post I wrote was about my supply of Aston Martin parts getting cut off. That hasn't changed, but luckily I can be rather stubborn. I've got enough parts in stock to carry through, and I'm working on revamping things and setting up a new supply chain. I can say right now that it means prices are going to go up. I'm sorry about that, but it's outside of my control. There's a lot going on, so let's cover the basics.

From what I can tell, Aston Martin corporate received a bunch of complaints from their franchised dealerships that people were buying parts from third party vendors and bringing them to the dealerships for installation. While the dealerships are making money on the labor, they're not making money on the parts. That's a big deal to them as parts sales are one of the main sources of revenue for a dealership.

From what I can tell, dealership costs for parts in the US is somewhat higher than my costs were from my original suppliers. I've explained in the past that dealership prices are generally much higher than my own due to completely different business models. But it looks like Aston Martin's corporate structure may be increasing that spread as well. With Aston dealerships already trying to cope with a low-volume market, having to increase their prices due to higher costs just compounds an already difficult problem. If dealerships are subject to higher costs than an independent like me, that's a corporate issue. I'm no business analyst, but I am indeed an analyst, and it stands to reason there's an underlying issue here. I'm speculating enough with that as-is so I won't go any further.

From what I can tell, I'm not the only vendor that's being affected by this supply cut-off. I'm a small fish in all this, and there's absolutely no way my revenue has a meaningful impact on any one dealership. My customers are far too geographically spread-out and my total revenue far too low for me to bring a dealership to the brink. There are other companies much bigger than Redpants that supply Aston Martin parts. Some of them are less expensive than I am, but I try to differentiate myself through customer service and putting a massive amount of time and effort into providing information, DIY guides, and support to Aston Martin owners and prospective owners alike.

From what I can tell, the supply cut-off is going to affect Aston Martin corporate far more than it will any one dealership. I've had plenty of people email me, message me, post comments on my last blog post and elsewhere stating that if my parts supply doesn't get turned back on, they'll sell their cars. (I'm sure you guys would settle for another vendor, but hey I'm flattered!) Not to mention the numerous people that bought an Aston Martin because of me - including from a couple of dealerships that apparently complained about me (that's worth an ironic chortle). What Aston corporate doesn't quite know how to handle is this new market segment that I work with every single day. The young up-and-comers like myself, the couples that bought an Aston instead of a Corvette when their kids went off to college, and guys that just want to do their own wrenching in the garage on a weekend. This market isn't going to drop a $40,000 car off at the dealership and pay $2,400 for a basic service (that's a real number someone gave me from a dealership quote for something that should have cost less than half as much). Alienating this group of owners is going to lead to a backlash. Myself and others have worked incredibly hard to give owners a way to afford their cars and do things their way. But taking that away and forcing them to use dealerships - many of which are hours of driving away from them - it's going to piss them off.

From what I can tell, Aston Martin corporate's hands are tied. They're beholden to their dealerships and they're doing what they can to satisfy dealership complaints. Aston Martin makes cars, their dealerships sell those cars. If the dealerships can't survive, Aston Martin can't survive. Independent suppliers like Redpants are a wrench into the corporate-franchise relationship. The people I've talked to understand this just as I do. That doesn't make it any easier to sort out. In the end, Aston Martin Lagonda will kowtow to their franchised dealerships - they are the ones who have paid literally millions of dollars for the privilege to being official Aston Martin dealers. Small fish like me just don't matter.

I'm not stating anything as fact because I could be wrong... I could be a big, floppy fish.

The big question I keep getting is what happens next

I'll figure things out. I've put too much blood, sweat, and tears into Redpants to let it go. I've had too much support from too many people to stop doing what I'm doing. As many of you know, Clare has been helping me out with a lot of the work around Redpants. We were about to have her do it full-time until this parts supply thing happened. Since OEM parts are the vast majority of our revenue, we had to change plans and she's back at a 'real' job. It's going to stretch our time even more, and that's going to make it even more difficult to building DIY guides, creating videos, and writing blog posts. I'm hoping that changes, but both Clare and myself are entirely dedicated to this and we're going to make it work.

In the meantime, I'm finding a new supply chain. I've got a bunch of maintenance items and a few other things on the shelf to keep Redpants alive and your cars running, so there's no immediate cause for concern. I'm also going to be expanding what I'm doing to spread things out a bit. Obviously putting all of my eggs in the Aston Martin basket wasn't the best idea, so it's time to dilute that liability. Stay tuned.

If the guys that supplied me before read this, I hope they know how much of a positive impact they've had on Aston Martin as a whole. I'd love to continue working with them but the powers that be have put a stop to it. If Aston Martin reads this, I hope you realize how much of a positive impact they've had on the brand. I'll leave it at that.

Redpants Updates

I've got the prototype V12 oil catch cans and testing is getting started! I'll be posting updates as things progress, so stay tuned for that.

The corner marker lights and side repeaters we've had made are just about ready. They were in final assembly about a week ago so I'm hoping to have them very soon. I have them listed as sold out because I'm not taking orders for those until I have them in my hands. Our high-flow intake filters took forever to receive, and the BC Racing coilovers are still in development when we expected them to be ready months ago, not to mention my lug nuts (I've got a list of people waiting for those, too) which I had to start over from square one due to the original supplier backing out... it's far too messy and stressful to take pre-orders so I'm no longer listing them for sale until they're actually in stock!

The rest of the updating... dealing with all the stuff I described above. It's been a very interesting series of events that I frankly wasn't expecting. Even though Redpants is taking a step back, we're getting positioned to take three steps forward. It's a very difficult process and we're working through it.

Thanks again to everyone for all the support!!