Aston Martin has delivered a gift for classically-minded driving enthusiasts: the new, manually-shifted Vantage AMR. Released at the sunset of a century’s worth of rowing gears and creeping clutches, the car is a thoughtful, precise swan song for the old-school supercar. It’s fast, fun and a little scary — and a rare bird among the dual clutches of today and the electric cars of tomorrow. For now, though, we have Aston’s triumph of old-school engineering modernized in the service of pure driver engagement to celebrate.
The Good: The gearbox, of course. This is a racing-derived seven-speed transmission that features a dog-leg first gear — that is, first gear is at the bottom left, reverse at the top left. (That’s designed to make it easier to shift between second and third, a far more common action on a race track than shifting from first to second.) It also deploys Aston’s AMSHIFT system, which blips the throttle while decelerating to mimic heel-and-toe shifting, smoothing out the gear shifts. Finally, there’s the aura and prestige that now comes with driving a manual transmission…which is just another way of saying you’re as much a dinosaur as this gearbox.
Who It’s For: Well, obviously, it’s for people who know how to drive a manual transmission. Within that fading group, it’s for those who actually want a manual transmission — and you do have to want it quite badly. This is, after all, a premium sports car that starts at $184,995, and isn’t precisely state of the art. If all that appeals to you, buckle up.
Watch Out For: You’ll likely get a brief, white-knuckle refresher course in clutch-induced wheelspin the first time you jump on the gas in low gear on a damp road. When that clutch comes all the way out and the full fury of 504 horsepower reaches the driveshaft, those wheels go. If you’re not careful, that little wriggle can propagate into full-on fishtailing. Make sure any driver who hasn’t commanded a performance clutch recently takes it easy at first. (Also, valet parking might be a problem, for obvious reasons.)
Alternatives: Anytime this conversation comes up, someone jumps in and says, “Hey, man, there’s no way manuals are dying!” Then they list the three cars they know still have sticks. Here, then, are some of your better performance alternatives available with a manual transmission: Subaru WRX STI, Mazda MX-5 Miata, Honda Civic Type R, Ford Mustang Shelby GT350. Notice anything? There’s not a supercar or exotic among them. And the closest grown-up performance cars you buy with manual transmissions are a few lower-tier BMW M models and Porsche 911s.
Review: Yes, we all know the manual transmission is fading from existence. Few young drivers are acquiring the skill; only two percent of cars sold in America in 2018 carried them, and even the gallant (if quixotic) Save the Manuals effort fizzled out about five years ago. Performance cars now overwhelmingly carry electronically shifted dual-clutch transmissions operated via paddles, absent a third pedal. It’s sad, but not exactly tragic; the world is moving on, and this satisfying, artful mechanism for managing the power must go with it.
They aren’t likely to come back either, even for old time’s sake. Economics being what they are — and the practical reality of so few drivers knowing how to operate the tricky buggers — there’s little motivation to invest in the technology. The fact that Aston Martin did so is honorable and appropriate, but equally limited. Only 200 AMRs will be produced, in a nod to either exclusivity or simply raw data. There just isn’t a huge market for them. (The company promises the stick shift will become available in the regular Vantage after the AMR run is done.)
For those who are in that crowd, however, the Vantage AMR is absolutely worth seeking out. If you relish the choreography of a user-managed powertrain, and if you enjoy the analog, mechanized feel of each transition between gears and each surge of thrust that results from your movements, you will adore this car.
Driving through the German countryside in the vicinity of the Nurburgring racetrack — featuring the same rolling hills and cresting apexes as the track, just with a few more road rules—was a sublime pleasure. Every revolution of the 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 seems to enter your body through the clutch pedal and stir your consciousness, every flick of the ultra-short-throw gearshift is an eagerly anticipated move.
Yes, paddle-shift performance cars offer satisfying clicks between gears, but usually only when you’re hauling ass. Nobody paddle-shifts a car when driving around town — you leave it to auto mode. In a three-pedal manual, you don’t have that option, and you’re rewarded for it with fluid waves of power as you balance the clutch and play with the throttle. At high speeds achieved on the unrestricted autobahn, the transitions between fifth, sixth, and seventh gears were downright magical — surges of thrust as I released the clutch and matted the pedal to the floor. I’m as big a fan of dual-clutch supercars as anybody, but nothing can truly replicate the sensation of a manual gearbox.
The gearbox mechanisms Aston developed for the AMR feel beautiful. Most noticeable, of course, is the dog-leg first gear. As a result of that arrangement, your hand is close to your thigh at launch; you shift up and over into second, naturally extending your hand into a more comfortable position. It also makes it easier to transition from reverse to first; you just pull down to first, drop the clutch, and go. The scheme also eliminates the seventh gear dogleg, giving you a conventional H-pattern from second to seventh.
The transmission connects to a manual limited-slip differential, and its AMSHIFT feature creates smooth downshifts and upshifts, though it can be deactivated if you want to be a true purist’s purist. (Also, if you want to be a purist’s purist’s purist, opt for the AMR Vantage 59 specification, which comes in a two-tone green/lime exterior and a dark leather interior, as well as including all the sport upgrades — seats, steering wheel, etc.)
The Vantage AMR is otherwise generally similar to the paddle-shifted version, but there are a few notable distinctions beyond the manual itself. It’s 220 pounds lighter, thanks to the absence of the automatic-transmission hardware and the inclusion of lighter components like carbon-ceramic brakes, carbon fiber trim and carbon fiber body panels, including the roof. It’s also got custom drive modes and steering ratios compared to other models, for a more analog, more connected driving feel. This works out nicely, delivering a drive that’s at once a throwback and a gold standard of man/machine connection, regardless of model year.
Verdict: The Vantage AMR is an astoundingly satisfying ride, one that challenges drivers as much as it rewards them. If this appeals to you, it might be now or never for an exotic three-pedal supercar. The company — specifically its CEO, Andy Palmer — has promised to maintain manual transmissions in its lineup indefinitely, but it’s always possible that one day, that promise may become unsustainable. The company will yield with the rest to progress…leaving a bit of mechanical art in its wake.
2020 Aston Martin Vantage AMR: Key Specs
Powertrain: 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8; seven-speed manual transmission; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 460 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 3.9 seconds
Top Speed: 195 mph
Aston Martin hosted us and provided this product for review.
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