I recently had the chance to drive a 2003 Aston Martin Vanquish, also known as the “first-generation” Vanquish, relative to the second-generation model that’s currently in production. The current Vanquish is gorgeous, but the original model was truly special — and it’s an absolute bargain on the used market.
Here are the basics. The Vanquish — I borrowed this one from a viewer in northern New Jersey — was first sold throughout the mid-2000s, with the first model year being 2003. Early Vanquish models had a 460-horsepower V12, but that engine gave way to a 520-hp V12 when the Vanquish S debuted mid-way through the car’s production run. Unfortunately, every Vanquish came with a sequential manual transmission, essentially a clutchless manual, which was considered excellent technology for the early 2000s — but which is considered abysmal and uncomfortable by modern standards.
Fortunately, Aston Martin has developed a program in recent years to fix that: If you pay enough money, you can have the Vanquish sent back to the factory in the UK, and they will convert the car from the crappy, old sequential manual into a real, actual manual, with three pedals. I specifically selected this particular Vanquish to review because it went through this costly conversion.
The conversion is shockingly thorough. I say this because a cupholder, mounted in the center console, becomes the shift lever — and it seems like that’s where it was always designed to go. More impressively, a new center control stack is installed, which removes the cars shift buttons, previously placed near the climate control vents. Of course, a clutch pedal is also installed and the shift paddles are removed from the back of the steering wheel. It is indeed thorough — but, more importantly, it’s also professional, and it truly looks like the car was built that way in the first place.
For the most part, it also drives like it was built that way. The biggest drawback with this conversion is the space in the pedal box, which is unusually narrow, and which wouldn’t have been designed that way from the factory — obviously due to the fact that it was designed for two pedals, not one, so adding a third one in there tightens things up a bit. The other drawbacks are a somewhat stiff clutch and a rattling sound on the gear lever that comes from the metal gear pattern icon attached on top — though it’s conceivable that this rattling sound could’ve developed on an original factory gear lever, too.
The benefits, however, are significant. The original automatic transmission in a Vanquish is slow and lurchy, with awkward shifting that seemed revolutionary 15 years ago, but now seems laughable in a world with dual-clutch automatics. The manual gets rid of that problem, which is basically the Achilles heel of the entire car, and puts you in control, allowing you to shift gears to your heart’s content. It’s wonderful.
And, indeed, I mean wonderful. Few things are as gloriously excellent as driving through corners rev-matching in a V12, with the exhaust screaming and the engine speed changing with dedicated moves of your foot and hand, bringing the car to the exact RPM you want to. A Ferrari gated shifter is more satisfying; a Porsche clutch is easier to operate — but just knowing you’re piloting this beautiful machine with three pedals is a joy.
I stress “beautiful machine” because, to me, the 2003 Vanquish really is one of the most beautiful cars ever built, at any time in history. The lines are perfect, the rear fenders are aggressive, and it stands out — even in Aston Martin’s recent blitz of gorgeous cars. Unfortunately, the interior is a bit of a letdown, with some Ford switchgear and features that now look old — like large buttons and an old-school pixellated screen for the “infotainment” system.
But the car is beautiful, and so is the drive. The Vanquish really feels fast, despite “only” 460 horsepower, which is nowhere near the realm of modern exotic cars. Zero-to-60 came in about 4.8 seconds back in 2003, but it feels faster than that — possibly bolstered by a better transmission. More importantly, you hear the V12 wail, and you really think you’re hauling, which could be the culprit for the unusually fast feeling. Handling, too, is surprisingly impressive, especially for such a big car; the steering feels direct and tight, and the car punches out of curves with zest. I’m surprised how much you feel like you can throw it around, given both its size and its “grand tourer” status. This isn’t a car that seems like it’s intended to be driven in that manner — but it’s rewarding nonetheless.
I’m not sure how reliability fares on these, and I suspect I wouldn’t want to know the answer, but I’m happy to say that the Vanquish is one of my favorite cars from its era: Gorgeous, fun, fast, thrilling. And given all that, it’s also a bargain at $85,000 — about a quarter of the price of a new one. And, yes, you can get one with three pedals for about the same money: The owner of the one I drove picked it up for very little premium over a “regular” Vanquish, which is both impressive and tempting. Very, very tempting.