You’d think such an illustrious carmaker as Aston Martin, particularly given its limited production, would have created a lot of noise with the release of the Vanquish Volante and V12 Vantage S. Perhaps the fact they are evolutions of existing models explains why they passed under the radar; after all, it was to be expected that the flagship Vanquish grand tourer would have a convertible variant, and the Vantage has been around for a number of years. But that wouldn’t be giving either car its due.

Aston Martin’s choice of the US desert resort of Palm Springs, California for the first media drives was intriguing. Only memories of heavily congested freeways and some rather dull, straight roads through the arid landscape came to mind, but these were soon dramatically updated.

On a surprisingly brisk but sunny morning, my co-driver and I receive our route map and some guidance on the car’s controls before setting off in the Vanquish Volante, roof down, through town and onto the freeway. Having driven the Vanquish just a year ago, the Volante feels familiar. One of the first impressions is the surprising amount of wind in the cabin, even at low speed. With the top down you’re not sitting as low as you’d expect, leaving you more exposed to the elements than in other convertibles. We immediately reach for our caps, then raise the windows to reduce the crosswind.

The effect becomes more pronounced at freeway speed and I occasionally hunker down so my cap won’t fly off my head. Thankfully, the freeway stint is brief and we soon climb into the mountain roads that our route map guides us towards. The Volante handles impeccably, displaying excellent balance and a very well tuned chassis. Like the Vanquish flagship, it has tremendous performance but allows you to use as much or as little as you wish, while still giving the driver a sense of involvement.

You can enjoy the car at “normal” speeds, taking in the scenery, amplified by having the top down, or you can start looking for the limits of grip, well communicated through the steering and lateral forces, with just the right amount of support from the seats. Inevitably there’s a loss of rigidity, as the roof is a significant structural element in any car. Compensating Aston Martin Vanquish Volante Extruded bonded aluminium and carbon fibre 6-litre V12 565bhp 620nm (460lb/ft) 6-speed Touchtronic ii 0-100km/h in 4.1 seconds 295km/h priCe Hk$4,788,000 for that loss adds weight, but it is really difficult to perceive.

There’s also a lack of the shakes and rattles, however minor, that you can experience in a convertible. The ever-present wind noise occasionally overwhelms the note of the engine and exhaust. Aston Martins have always had a great mechanical soundtrack, for many one of the most important aspects of a sports car. There’s something about Aston Martins, from the initial bark of the exhaust, the rumbling as you drive along, to the crescendo as you approach the higher revs, that I’ve always enjoyed. I’d expected that with the roof down in the Volante, it would be more enjoyable than ever, but the wind, at least on that particular day, robs us of the pleasure.

Regardless, all drivers returned to Palm Springs safely and with grins on their faces. It certainly didn’t feel like we’d been driving for several hours. The next day, another bright morning, Aston Martin rolled out the V12 Vantage S, the most extreme car it has produced.

Should you see the six-litre V12 engine on its own, you wouldn’t think it could fit into the Vantage’s engine bay. Somehow the engineers managed to get it in. They’ve also given the V12 S different engine management systems, with dual variable camshaft timing and knock sensing. These might seem like minor details, but only until you take to the road. Driving through Palm Springs, the V12 S feels somewhat unsettled; low speeds really aren’t in its comfort zone. You quickly sense it needs to go a bit faster than city speeds dictate. The adaptive damping transmits more of the rough surfaces than you initially expect. It’s certainly a big contrast from the Vanquish Volante.

We are soon blasting the V12 S through even more enjoyable mountain roads than the day before. This is where the V12 S comes into its own, blasting from turn to turn with tremendous eagerness. The long throw of the accelerator pedal makes it easy to dose the power delivery. Combined with the tremendous torque available, in what remains a relatively small car, it is possible to power through the longer turns without having to drop a gear.

Speaking of gears, there’s a somewhat unfortunate development with the V12 Vantage S; you can no longer get a manual transmission, as the only option is the Sportshift III automated sequential manual with paddle shifts. This might seem to defy the current trend of dual-clutch transmissions in most sports cars, but such transmissions add significant weight, perhaps anathema to Aston Martin’s quest for ultimate performance. I feel there is a higher degree of driver involvement with the automated sequential manual, because to get the mostout of it, you need to treat it like a traditional manual, that is, lift off the throttle slightly whenever you select a higher gear, which actually gives a quicker shift.

Reviewers raised the choice of transmission with Aston Martin CEO Ulrich Bez, noting that the V12 Vantage (not the S version) is available with a traditional manual gearbox. We argued that even if the V12 Vantage was surpassed in pure performance terms by today’s single and dual-clutch automated gearboxes, it gave the driver a sense of involvement the paddle shifts lacked. The argument fell on deaf ears; Bez is absolutely convinced that the paddle shifts are the future, providing a much quicker response than any driver can achieve via a clutch pedal and stick shift, and that there is no sense dwelling on old technology.

 

I understand his position from a technical point of view, but I still feel it applies primarily to the track and not necessarily to the road. There is something to be said for the satisfaction that comes from properly matching the revs on a particular gearshift, without the gearbox electronics handling it for you. Bez says there are already plenty of Aston Martins on the road with stick shifts if you really, really want that option. However, I wouldn’t count on stick shifts for too much longer in future Aston Martins. The Vanquish Volante and V12 Vantage S provide a study in contrasts. Even though they ostensibly share many elements, they prove that subtle changes can entirely alter the character of a car. Different though they may be, they represent the embodiment of  Aston Martin’s cumulative achievements. Like the rest of the marque’s stars, they provide a wonderful foundation on which the renowned engineers and designers at Gaydon can build for another century.