Just a two hour drive from Tokyo is an upscale suburb, much like the Hamptons in the East Coast of the US, serving as a meeting place for a group of Aston Martin owners. Shades of pine green and auburn dot the rolling hills around us. Soft breezes have easily dislodged some brown leaves, now floating in the cool, 10 degree mountain air.
The area is called Karuizawa, in Nagano in Japan. It's just a 30-minute drive away from an active volcano, Mount Asama. Aston Martin Manila had invited us here to take part in one of the activities Aston Martin Japan (AMJ) frequently organizes with their vehicle owners.
This activity, creatively called 'Volcano Driving', promises the owners sweeping mountain routes, thick wooded areas to fully experience the beauty of autumn, and of course, a tour to the nearby lava rock bed of the volcano. And while they have all opted to drive up in their own Aston Martins — bearing one or more of the bespoke options available — AMJ has also prepared a line-up of their models, should they wish to change it up.
The owners are a quiet yet passionate lot, each one accomplished in their field, distinguished yet conservatively attired, and a far cry from the typically more boisterous crew of other car clubs.
Their own vehicles are a veritable stable of some of Aston's best, comprised of a few Vantage coupes and convertibles, Rapides and Vanquishes. Thankfully, many were far more interested in the brand new DB11 (First Drive coming soon) that AMJ had brought, leaving us an open slot in the eye-catching Vanquish.
Being the ultimate luxury tourer, the Vanquish evidently shows that no expense was spared. Its predecessor could be easily identified in the line-up being the broadest, and unfortunately, bulkiest of all the AM's.
Yet the redesign has worked in this car's favor this time. It features a more aggressively-styled front splitter, a longer side character line stretching from the front wheel, muscular but sexier haunches, and an integrated spoiler at the back.
Little has changed with the Vanquish since the all-new model's introduction in 2015. Perhaps the biggest improvement is the 8-speed automatic, making it just a tad more civil than the automated manual of the Vantage. A lot of the Vanquish's components are still very much old-school sports car; from the naturally aspirated 6.0-liter V12 to the hydraulic power steering.
Inside, the plush interior is a welcoming sight, sporting tan and black quilted leather all over the interior. Look up and the ceiling is given a similar quilted treatment. Carbon fiber generously lines the center console with soft touch controls framed in piano black gloss. The top features the gear selector buttons, driving modes and sport suspension settings, with the crystal key insert in the center.
Over in the instrument cluster are the analog dual dials with digital speed and gear indicators where the two dials touch. There doesn't seem to be a redline indicator on the tach, though with its monstrous power, it's unlikely we'll push it to the limiter. The tan wheel is only black on the parts you touch the most: the horn and the sides. Pushing the key illuminates the digital displays, causing the Bang & Olufsen tweeter to rise at the corners of the dash, as the engine lets out the distinctive V12 roar. Like the Vantage V12, its handbrake is by the door of the driver's side, and requires a pull to be released. A pull on the right paddle shifter returns a delightfully tactile metallic click. There’s no shift shock. It rolls along gently. And with a gentle prod on the throttle, begins to accelerate.
Being in the company of owners with regular access to such exotic cars meant they were in no rush to get to the volcano. It takes quite a lot of restraint not to peel out of the parking lot, especially with the Vanquish's elegant burble. As such, I took the time to acclimatize to its more luxurious qualities first.
It’s a balmy ride at the softest suspension setting, feeling every bit like a luxury sedan, cleverly disguising the fact that it’s a low sports coupe. It makes its size evident feeling almost like a long sedan, especially in low speeds around town, with its broad track, long wheel base and wafty ride in the comfort setting. The in-car entertainment feels a generation behind, yet with the right tunes hooked up, you tend to forget just how old the navigation and menus look. And with a motoring journalist riding shotgun, we were rather enjoying our conversation in the quiet cabin.
Some minutes out of the country club, the light traffic this weekend has granted us some time to play on the curves. Moving the drive mode to sport has the needle jump up to higher revs, returning some engine brake and better throttle response. It's equipped with a long-travel accelerator that gives your foot more play to modulate all 570PS very gently and more precisely, bereft of all the typically drive-by-wire delays most modern sports cars have. The gear shifts aren't as quick as a dual-clutch, but responsive enough for a spirited drive, paired with a blip to rev-match. With just a prod, the needle quickly climbs, counter-clockwise, as the speeds pack up. There's no doubt about its 0-100 km/h time of just 4 seconds. With the throttle just halfway depressed, it’s already quite powerful, comparing quite favourably to most sports cars but with still more power to give.
With the throttle fully depressed, it surges forward, shoves your head straight back to the seat and has the thrust slowly pull a smile across your face. In just a short straight, the car has rocketed to 160 km/h in a matter of seconds, overtaking a train of trucks and slow vehicles in the time it takes most cars to pass just one.
Some curves have come up, and with the suspension set to sport, I comfortably dive in. There’s reassuring grip, even as the turns are taken at 100 km/h. Maintaining the throttle pressure has the back wheels rotating the car, but far from stepping out and losing it. That analog hydraulic steering is paying dividends, communicating even the minute difference in elevation and grip the little white lines on the road return. It's variable ratio too, turning sharper at speed and requiring less effort. A harder prod and traction control begins to kick in, cutting the throttle by just a little. All the while, the V12 is beginning to bellow, burbling each time the throttle is let go.
In just a few kilometers, our short drive with the Vanquish had come to an end as we pulled up to the viewdeck with Mount Asama on our left, parked the cars and grabbed some coffee.
Looking at specs alone, it's easy to regard the Vanquish as a dinosaur, particularly compared to its computerized and hybridized competion. Yet the drive will reveal why Aston Martin has likely purposely stayed with older tech. It may position itself as a luxurious GT, and waft about when in comfort mode, but when pushed, it's the car's more traditional components that return a more communicative drive. Say what you want about its competition's better acceleration, dual clutch transmission, or launch control, in a Vanquish, you still feel very much connected and in control. That alone is worth the premium.