How Aston Martin Turned Itself Into a Mid-Engine Carmaker

With two mid-engine performance concepts and the Lagonda electric SUV, Aston Martin was the company to beat at the Geneva Motor Show. CEO Andy Palmer gave us the rundown on how he pulled it off.

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Aston Martin

Aston Martin took the 2019 Geneva Motor Show by storm. Consider what was on the Aston stand: The Vanquish Vision Concept, a mid-engine supercar to take on the Ferrari 488. The AM-RB 003, a mid-engine hypercar forecast to cost more than $1 million. The , a mega-luxury EV utility vehicle that looks like it came from the next century. And that's in addition to the jaw-dropping Valkyrie that graced the stand.

It feels like Aston Martin just broke into a sprint, but it's been a long time in the making. "If I had stood up in March 2015 and gone through , you all would have thought I was Dany Bahar," Aston CEO Andy Palmer told me at the Geneva Motor Show. "It's impossible to comprehend that, so you do it over time. What I did in March 2015 was show the concept car, the SUV. That SUV will be delivered at the back end of this year. Then, we launched the DB11, the Vantage, the DBS, and last year, we showed the last car in the plan, which was the Lagonda sedan. So what we were missing, in terms of showing the full picture, was car five and car six. Car five is the mid-engine car, the Vanquish as it's now called. Car six is the Lagonda SUV."

Seven new cars, one debuting each year for seven years, just as Palmer promised back in 2015. "Now, you look at that and say, why couldn't you just announce that back then? Well, nobody would've given us any credibility for Aston Martin doing a mid-engine car, because we've never done one before. We needed to seed and fertilize the field and grow the idea that it's perfectly normal and natural for Aston to come up with a mid-engine car," he said. "Adrian Newey created Valkyrie, it's a mid-engine car. Valkyrie becomes a track car that's as fast as a Formula One car. That's credibility. It spawns the son of Valkyrie, 003, a car that sits there with LaFerrari and 918 and you start to understand what Valkyrie is. It's an off the chart, once in a generation car."

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Aston Martin

To Palmer, the AM-RB 003 serves as a bridge between the extreme Valkyrie and the supercar Vanquish. "Now, I haven't heard anybody say it's crazy that Aston does a mid-engine car, because we have been signaling that to the market for a long time. And so, what's satisfying today is that finally, the painting is painted."

All exciting stuff. But the AM-RB 003 and the new mid-engine Vanquish are both slated to use a new Aston-developed V-6 engine with varying forms of hybrid assist. Where does that leave the stalwart 5.9-liter naturally aspirated V-12 that's been in Aston's lineup basically forever? "It's not dead yet," Palmer said. "I mean, it's a tough gig. The V-12 will continue in its bi-turbocharged form, which is the engine we use in the DBS. But obviously, we do have the naturally aspirated engine and I think there's one or two more last hurrahs before emissions kill it. The starting point for the electric Lagonda was, basically, we needed something to offset the V-12 emissions. That's the half-empty view. The half-full view is that's allowed us to create a brand, Lagonda, which is fully electric."

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And this wouldn't be a Road & Track interview if we didn't ask about manual transmissions. "We will launch Vantage manual shortly," Palmer told me. "I promised that we'd have it. Oddly, the biggest demand for the manual comes from the US."

I register my surprise at this.

"I thought it would be obvious to you, but it was surprising to me for sure," Palmer replies. "The second or third day that I joined the company, I went to the US and met the dealers, and the dealers asked that we maintain the the manual and I promised them we would. We introduced the seven-speed manuals to the last Vantage against the V12. And we promised that within the new Vantage, we will have manual. That's the first, but it's not necessarily the last, and assuming, as we get through the engineering, we can find a means to execute a manual transmission, why not? Our intention is, we'll be the last sports car company to have a manual."

The current Vantage uses a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V8 from Mercedes-AMG, an engine that has never been offered with a manual. Does that present a challenge? "Yep," Palmer replies, "particularly around electronics, 'cause obviously, there are electronics at play there to manage the engine, and we're sitting in a car that sits on a Mercedes electronic system. So yes, you have to create your own control electrics and then you have to go through, essentially, a translation terminal that communicates with the Mercedes system.

"It's complex," Palmer says. "Doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, though."

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Aston Martin

Geneva is traditionally a supercar show. This year was no different, and Aston played a huge part in that. I ask Palmer whether the supercar is still relevant in a world headed toward efficient and/or zero emission mobility. "I think they are more and more relevant," he says. "You talk about electric cars. Let's agree on the hypothesis that the electric car is the future. There are two key things that batteries really, really hate: drag and weight. So drag, obviously, aerodynamics. And weight, obviously the use of more exotic materials; aluminums and carbon fibers and magnesium and all that. Guess what? Sports car companies are really good at those two things. We have a number of EV startup companies beating a path to our door, because they really don't understand the issues of how you create a lightweight body or a stiff body, or indeed, how you create a body that allows to you minimize the drag. So that knowledge is born out of Formula One and sports cars and, as such, they are quite useful to the industry."

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