In Praise of Aston Martin’s Borrowed Engine

McLaren F1. Lotus Elise. Saturn Vue Red Line. They’re all mashups—cars that borrowed somebody else’s engine and made magic. Or at least a quicker Saturn Vue.

I used to be a snob about these kinds of cars. It seemed like a shortcut, a copout. But now that factory engine swaps are increasingly rare, I find myself drawn to these corporate mashups. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side of consolidation and electrification, the two major factors conspiring to deny us our sweet mechanical crossbreeds. Delectable mutants like the Elise or the Jensen Interceptor depend on a vibrant ecosystem of manufacturers—it’s just not the same when Jeep grabs a Fiat engine from the other side of the building. Likewise, nobody’s going to borrow somebody else’s electric motor. And even if they did, who cares? It’s not like you’d notice.

The 2020 Aston Martin Vantage is the rare modern mashup, a British car with a German V8—namely, AMG’s twin-turbo 4.0-liter, tuned to 503 horsepower. When I heard that Aston was stuffing Benz power in the new Vantage, I thought it a strange move—after all, surely their own V-8 could be coaxed into making sufficient power? And it probably could, but significantly rejiggering an engine takes big money, money that I’d rather see Aston spend on more Aston-y things, like hood releases buried in the passenger-side footwell and glass dash buttons that allow you to activate the seat heating and cooling at the same time. (Why? Because I like to party.)

I like to party.

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And, as it turns out, AMG makes a damn fine British V-8, the kind of thing that Aston would make, if it could. The engine’s actually kind of peaky, lazy till the turbos spool and then zinging to its 6,000 rpm power peak. Aston claims it did some proprietary tuning but it’s hard to tell the difference here from an AMG GT, other than the extra power (the version in the standard GT makes 469 horsepower). There’s no Benz-style active exhaust button, so you uncork the rowdiness by selecting Sport Plus or Track modes, either of which will announce your arrival with a triumphant fanfare of snarls and Lars Urlrich double-bass thunder. There is a quiet-start mode—hold down the start button as the car fires up—but I never tried it, since I’m cool.

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Under the hood, the 4.0-liter looks just about the same as it does in an AMG, minus the flourish of the build plate. Where an AMG would have a signed badge certifying that the engine was hand-built by a meticulous Fritz or Olga, the Aston’s badge simply reads “Aston Martin Vantage” and “Final Inspection by MVEC Operations.” The engine’s still hand-built, but they’d rather imply that it was the handiwork of someone named Simon.

Hand-built by… someone.

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All that giddyup is stuffed into an unquestionably gorgeous car. At 76.4 inches wide (excluding the rearview mirrors), the Aston is slightly wider than a Corvette but half a foot shorter, giving it a pugnacious stance. And yet it doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard—I only noticed the width as I was toweling off the hood and realized that I could barely reach the middle, despite my Inspector Gadget-length arms. It’s a car of subtly beautiful details, the Vantage. I love the doors, which swing up as they open, to avoid curbs, but aren’t Lambo-ostentatious about it. Even the rear hatch hinges are delectable, a multilink mechanism that looks vaguely aeronautical, the kind of piece you ponder on the door to a Boeing 787 as you wait to step into the fuselage.

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Unsurprisingly, the Vantage—$184,017 as seen here—isn’t as of-a-piece as an AMG GT. It feels like what it is, which is a small-batch exotic with a big-budget engine. The V-8 is relentlessly polished, but the key that starts it is large, light and flimsy—pour some out for the old crystal Vantage fobs, or at least glue a chunk of rebar inside of this one. There’s Benz switchgear scattered here and there, which gives me pleasure, since it’s fun to see how off-the-shelf pieces are integrated outside of their intended home (OK, that’s fun for me, the guy who was delighted to see Dodge’s navigation system in the first Ferrari FF). And that passenger-side hood release is fantastic, proclaiming as it does that the steering wheel is mounted on the left only begrudgingly and at the behest of the reprehensible colonists.

Crack the bloody bonnet, you wanker.

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But when you let ’er rip, it all coalesces beautifully. Angry big power in a beautiful small coupe is perfectly Aston, with the added benefit that in 20 or 30 years it’s going to be way easier to keep this car running than it would be if it had a low-volume Aston V-8. And I’m not saying that Aston’s in-house engines are unreliable (as far as I know, they’re pretty stout), just that procuring parts will be difficult when the production numbers are so small. This point was raised to me, strangely enough, by a Polaris dealer, when we were talking about the new Slingshot. The old one used a GM 2.4-liter four-cylinder; the new one is powered by a 2.0-liter of Polaris’ own design. “I don’t think I ever had one of those GM engines come back with a problem,” he said. “But even if they did, it’s all common stuff you could get from any Chevy dealer. Now, who knows?” Come to think of it, the Slingshot is another mashup gone.

So celebrate, don’t denigrate, Aston’s engine-borrowing strategy. It was good enough for the McLaren F1 (BMW), Pagani Zonda (Mercedes) and Fiat 124 (aka, the turbocharged Miata that Mazda doesn’t build). You want the most interesting dog, get a mutt.

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