July is a lovely time of year to visit the United Kingdom. Good weather brings out the best in the Brits, and I’ve always had great luck with sunshine over on that side of the pond, as long as I visit in July. This is a different July, though, because we now have this thing called Brexit looming, there's a good chance Britain will depart the European Union. I’m not here to make a political statement, or give an opinion on what other nations should do with their affairs; we do enough of that here in America. I’m here to do the otherthing we Americans pride ourselves on: score a good deal.
Thanks to Brexit, the pound is now in the proverbial pooper. Whether or not it stays there isn’t my concern; what I want to talk about is that this July, while a pound is worth as much as the erstwhile lire, you should fly to England and buy some English sports cars to take home with you. English sports cars are perfectly imperfect; representing the most beautiful, stubborn, high-tech, and low-tech cars in the world. It’s the second-most creative country for automaking, behind Sweden. In 2016, right now, you can still get a Morgan that’s made of fucking wood; or you can get a McLaren P1, arguably the most advanced road car ever built. And with the most racetracks per square mile of anywhere in the world, the UK has more than enough room to run them.
Since you’ve just returned from booking your plane ticket, now let’s explore two very expensive ways to blow a couple hundred thousand pounds when you get there:
McLaren 570S (Base Price, $187,300; as tested, $218,759)
The term “entry level” is used liberally with the 570S. It’s McLaren’s cheapest model—at least until the 540C arrives—and that's a bit like referring to the “brokest billionaire” or eating the “healthiest Big Mac.” It’s all relative. With a carbon fiber tub mostly shared with McLaren’s other road cars (including the P1) and extruded aluminum subframes, a carbon and aluminum body, and lightweight forged wheels, the 570S is a featherweight at a claimed 3,100 pounds. It even shares the basic engine layout with its bigger brothers—the 3.8-liter Twin-Turbo V8 mated to a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox. It’s the smallest McLaren since the F1, and thanks to some interior tweaks, a pinching of the door sills, and “butterfly” doors whose wings stay tucked in closer to the body when open, the 570S is, in theory, the most practical McLaren ever.
I landed at JFK airport and took an all-time horrible 2-hour cab ride to Manhattan Classic Car Club’s new, spectacular west side location to pick up my Volcano Orange 570S tester, at 5 PM on a Monday. After deciding that, should I ever decide to make an honest woman out of Hanna, this former NYPD Stable overlooking the Hudson River and filled with all manner of metal from around the world, would be the only suitable location for such an event. I grabbed the keys, awkwardly loaded my camera case into the passenger seat (unlike the Porsche 911 and Cayman, the Ferrari 488, and the Tesla Model S, my Pelican 1610 will not fit in the ‘frunk’ of a McLaren), and tore-ass up the West Side highway, for about 100 yards. I then spent the next 2 hours in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam.
For a car with 570 Horsepower and 443 lb/ft, a car that is clearly derived from motorsport, this littlest McLaren is comfortable, quiet, and refined while creeping along, shifting automatically in traffic. McLaren has absolutely nailed the driving position and the relationship between eyes, hands, feet, and gauges. Even my tall, wide frame fits comfortably. “I could daily drive this thing,” I’m thinking to myself as a stare at my Pelican case, riding shotgun.
Free of traffic and on the stunning Taconic Parkway, northbound en route to Monticello Motor Club, the McLaren is a missile. One press of the pedal and whatever was in front of you is now far, far behind. The diminutive V8 gets shoutier and smokes about a hundred packs of cigarettes the instant you engage sport mode, and unlike the Ferrari’s, it stays there. No throttle-position baffles here. There’s an effortless wail to these McLaren’s; as refined as they are down at the bottom, coasting through traffic, they truly are much happier at the ready, 5,000 RPM everywhere. No one, it seems, has informed McLaren’s boffins what the concept of Turbo Lag is, because there isn’t any. Press go, and you’re gone. And this 570S wants to go, always. It’s the single most eager car to rev, to accelerate, to howl, that I’ve ever tried. It can go slow, it even will go slow if you try hard enough. But it really, really doesn’t want to.
Fast freeway driving is a two-handed job. Mid-engined cars are designed for handling, and the compromise is straight-line stability. Even though the 570S only has 225-section front tires and 285-section rear tires, you really can’t just relax and drive with two fingers; constant miniscule inputs are required to keep it in line. The 570S doesn’t get the fancy swaybar-less suspension you get with the 650 series of cars, but with Double-Wishbone geometry, adjustable dampers, reasonably sized Pirelli Corsa tires and low weight, the ride is absolutely extraordinary for a car at this level of performance.
There’s that old cliché about only being able to exploit a car’s performance at the track, since you can’t go as fast as possible on public roads. Until this newest crop of supercars, I always thought that was bullshit. I could definitely drive an E92 BMW M3, or a Ferrari 360, or a Gallardo to 90% of the car’s ability on a public road. With the Huracan, the Ferrari 488, and this McLaren 570S, the cliché becomes fact – this car is so fucking fast you cannot drive it at more than 60% of its potential on a road. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold statement: McLaren is lying about the 570S. They are sandbagging the horsepower, the weight, or both.
At Monticello Motor Club, a private, 3.6-mile, 18-turn circuit 90 miles north of Manhattan, there is enough room to run this car. The kind folks at Monticello gave me a few laps, and in turn, I tried not to dent their Armco.
With both chassis and powertrain knobs turned two clicks to “Track,” and ESC set in “Dynamic Mode,” which allows the car to move around some before saving your “not Chris Harris” ass, the 570S shoots out of every corner like a time attack car; near instantaneous shifts as the LCD gauge cluster’s F1-style shift lights turn blue, then red. Unlike the 650S and 675LT, this 570S is “aero neutral,” which means it doesn’t use fancy wings and undertrays (as much) to stick to the ground in fast bends. It transitions from mild understeer under braking to a strong resistance to oversteer as the ESC reigns in what I reckon to be well over 600 actual horsepower.
On a track all to yourself, unlike the highway, the speed is manageable and you don’t realize how fast you’re actually going until the end of the ¾ mile back straight, when, at 160-something miles an hour, you need to threshold brake from the 5 board in order to make Monticello’s 35 MPH crested chicane. There is grip available, even with the seemingly too-narrow tires, as the stability control lets the back stand out a couple degrees with mild throttle. Things get light over the 140-mph kinked crest known as “Kryptos,” and yet Monticello’s steep curbings are no problem for the simplified suspension.
I pulled into the pits for a breather and phoned my friend Jack Baruth from Road & Track to figure out how to go full-off.
“I don’t recommend that,” he says. “The 570 will spin its tires at 110 mph with ESC full off, and it’s really hard to control without the computers.”
“But I want to drift it.”
570 horsepower, my ass. This is not an entry-level car.
Drifting is my newest obsession. Controlling a car while out of control is the next level of driving for me, and I have found nothing more fun to do in a car that put it into a huge, smoky slide.
Full stop, gearbox in Neutral, foot on brake, Chassis and Powertrain in Track, and hold down the ESC button for 5 seconds. Some lights come on, and the computers take five.
Back out on the track, it’s not 2 corners before I realize how amazing computers have become. The 570S is a handful. The computers keep it in line under braking, the computers keep it in line at corner exit, and the computers keep it in line when, like Jack warned me, the rear tires break loose shifting into fourth gear at over 100 MPH.
570 horsepower, my ass. Anecdotally, I have been informed that several owners have run the quarter mile in their 570S in 10.2 seconds at 135 mph. Ten-second quarter miles out of the box. This is not an entry-level car.
Stepping out the back in any one of Monticello’s second-gear corners is a breeze; the speeds are low and even mild throttle application is rewarded with big angle, full boost, and tire smoke. Trying to be a hero and going for a third-gear slide at 80 MPH through turn three, I completely forgot that I was not, in fact, Chris Harris, and looped the $220,000 orange supercar four-off into the grass. Although I never came within even 15 feet of the Armco, I was done for the day, and needed a new pair of shorts. This was the first and only time, in 10 years of driving there, that I have ever spun a car at Monticello.
This is also probably the best McLaren ever built. It’s easier to live with on the road, it’s insanely fast, and it’s the roomiest, while also having the smallest footprint. It’s easy to park, the visibility is great, and you really could daily drive one if so inclined. But it’s a manic rodent of a car, a sensational overload and immensely capable. Easier to live with than the 650S or 675LT, for just over half the money, and in most driver’s hands, no slower.
I handed off the keys to TheDrive.com editor Mike Spinelli and boarded a flight to LA. Upon arriving, I found the opposite end of the British car spectrum waiting for me: stubbornness on wheels.
Aston Martin V12 Vantage S Manual (base price: $199,000 ; as tested, $225,000)
The Aston Martin V12 Vantage S has a key. Not a fob, a key. You have to press a button to unlock the car, and then insert the key, which is made of Crystal, into the dash to fire the humungous, naturally aspirated, 6-liter V12.
It also has a shifter and a heavy clutch pedal. In 2016, this is the last hurrah of an old stallion. The formula is as good as ever – biggest engine, meet manual gearbox and smallest chassis. From the Shelby Cobra on down, the last fifty years have been graced with some of the world’s greatest sports cars based on this simple equation. The V12 is, physically, a gigantic motor. Open the bonnet and you can’t believe it even fits in the engine bay. Those carbon slats on the hood are very real and very necessary, as this lump cranks out heat like Three-Mile Island.
It’s an ode to the old school, and a brilliant one at that. An angry lion purrs at the front, and shouts at the back. The 7-speed manual gearbox, a first for Aston, features a dogleg first gear, and reverse where you’d normally expect to find first. Nobody does dogleg gearboxes anymore; not since the Mercedes 190 Cosworth has a manufacturer put so much faith in its customers not to do something stupid, like selecting reverse and backing into a Prius at a red light while forgetting this manual is different from 99.9% of all other manual gearboxes from the last 30 years.
Even for someone like me, who drives at least 10 different manual-transmission cars a week, there is a learning curve while navigating LA’s traffic running errands. I find myself missing Fourth (which is where Fifth normally is) and ending up in Sixth. I accidentally downshift to Third, rather than going up to Fifth, and basically spend half a day kicking myself because apparently, I don’t know how to drive stick after all. Aston’s rev-matching technology keeps me from making any major fuck-ups, and I’m thankful it’s there (and also easy to switch off).
Fortunately, day two goes better. Out of the grid and on to PCH, the winding two-lane heading west towards Malibu, I get out of first and stay out of first, and the strange gear pattern suddenly makes sense. Gears 2-5, which you use the most when driving in spirit, are directly in line with each other. In the canyons, upshifts and downshifts are smoother and more direct with this pattern. I suddenly realize Porsche and GM are doing it wrong by having 7th stick out of the pattern like a sore thumb. This way is the right way. Seven speeds is still too many gears compared to six, but if Aston is committed to making manuals, which CEO Andy Palmer says they are, then this is the way forward.
Though similar in both (advertised) horsepower and torque to the McLaren, the Aston couldn’t deliver power differently. There’s no monster torque shove from pre-spooled turbos and pre-loaded gears. There’s no eagerness for the car to simply drive out from under your ass, like you get with the Macca. It’s perfectly linear; a straight, increasing line of power which ranges from “never need to use the gas in traffic” at the bottom to “holy fuck I hope I have enough brakes to haul this focker down!” at the top. It delivers a raging river of torque through its long legs sailing the counter clockwise tach northward with just enough time in each gear to really enjoy not only the wail, but the echo that trails it. The McLaren bangs through gears, the Aston relishes in each one a different note on the scale.
When things get bumpy is where the Aston goes awry. It’s oversprung and under-damped, and bounces at every undulation.
Ceramic brakes feel good underfoot, if a little squeaky when cold, and manage the Vantage’s nearly 3700 pounds much better than expected. The whole car feels dense. So much weight on such a small body, and the traits are mostly balanced out. As long as the road is smooth.
When things get bumpy is where the Aston goes awry. It’s oversprung and under-damped, and bounces at every undulation. Thanks to the car’s heft, the Pirelli Corsa tires do remain stuck to the road, but confidence through corners isn’t nearly as nice as the McLaren, as each bump in the road translates into two, or three, in the car. Fortunately, the old-school hydraulic steering is excellent with good feel and feedback, and the Vantage’s weight is fun to toss around.
Everything about the car is heavy, though. The clutch is heavy, and my leg aches in traffic. The shifter is heavy, especially going back through the detent into first. The engine feels heavy, the wheels feel heavy, and the doors feel heavy when you close them. The Aston’s much more of a compacted GT car than a super sports car, and as such is the kind of car you’d want to drive every day.
Except you wouldn’t. The new center console, light years better than the old one, looks and feels expensive. But it controls a janky, second-rate MMI that wouldn’t pass muster in a car five years older. That heavy clutch and shifter gets old if you spend any time in traffic at all, and despite the traditional classic shape, you can’t actually fit anything of significance in the trunk (including my Pelican case). The interior of my test car, about the coolest interior I’ve ever seen in a production car, actually isn’t all that comfortable. The seats don’t have much bolstering or adjustable lumbar and feel overinflated in the center. I can’t find a good position for them. I will them full points for design though, it is stunning in there. And that crystal key, the “Emotion Control Unit,” which costs $3,000 to replace, must be taken out of your pocket to lock and unlock the car, while standing on concrete, many times a day.
Despite my gripes with it, that last grip of the old school remained strong with me. The Aston was everything I liked about classic British motoring. It was brash, loud, England’s take on a style we invented on this side of the pond – a Hot Rod.
So which do you spend your discounted pounds on?
You can tell a lot about these cars by how their manufacturers choose to spend money – McLaren spends money on weight savings, advanced horsepower, aerodynamics, and the software to reign all that in so people don’t go out and kill themselves. They don’t spend much on the interior. I’m not saying it’s not nice; quite the contrary – very nice. But LCD screens, even if they are inspired by Formula One gauge clusters, are significantly less expensive to produce than bespoke buttons, multi-layered, milled, analog gauges, and whatever insane space material is that the Aston’s interior is made of. Aston spent money, a lot of money on that. And it shows. The McLaren is the pinnacle of technology, until next year’s pinnacle of technology. Then, the next year’s. As the amount of seconds it takes to reach sixty miles an hour rapidly closes on “zero,” the McLaren’s 2.7 second-run will one day seem unimpressive.
There used to be a time when driving an exotic car meant you could do something others couldn’t. They were intimidating, everything was heavy, you couldn’t see shit out of them and if you crashed one, God help you. That time is no longer. Now, the highest performing cars in the world all come with a button that says “Auto.” And here’s this $200,000 Aston Martin that isn’t just one of the last V12’s, isn’t just one of the last manual transmission supercars, but has now changed the order of the gears to be more confusing. At the same time, it has satellite radio, navigation, and all the modern conveniences wrapped in a carbon fiber-trimmed sneaker. The Vantage represents earned masculinity. The Vantage may feel old now, but it will always feel the exact same level of old, no matter how far technology goes. The manual transmission removes it from the aging curve entirely.
There’s permanence to that; the car will always feel exactly the same, regardless of the progress around it. Sort of how the companies market their product – McLaren has the latest and greatest, every year, until the next year, halving the distance to perfection.
While the Aston Vantage has soldiered on for a goddamn decade. It was pretty and sounded good then, it’s pretty and sounds good now, and it will always be pretty and sound good, no matter what technology McLaren shows up with in 2018. It shifted as fast as you could move your hands and feet in 2006, just like today, just like 50 years from now, perfectly imperfect.