When you think about the ultimate cars, what comes up to your mind? Probably supercars, such as Laferrari, 918 Spyder, McLaren Senna, or the finest track cars, like Porsche GT3 RS, Lamborghini Huracan Performante. For me, it has always been a bit different. I crave grand tourers, naturally aspirated engines, and manual gearboxes. Why? Well, I love driving. The idea of a long road trip, through amazing sceneries has always had a special appeal to me. Then, of course, who would want a boring drive? I want the most involving driving experience. And how do you do that? Easy. Put three pedals and a stick shift in the middle, plus not too much electronics or assistances. And finally, naturally aspirated engines. Me, old school? Maybe. I like some cars with turbocharged or supercharged engines, such as the Ferrari 288 GTO or the Cadillac CTS-V, but I prefer them raw, with no artificial tweaks. So, when the offer to get out for a drive two of greatest Grand Tourers, both with naturally aspirated V12s, and both with manual gearbox presented itself, I had to jump on it. Text: Mickael B. © Photos: Thomas Z., Mickael B. ©

This article is dedicated to my father, without whom all of this would never have been possible.

“Would you say they are the same cars? Well, you would be wrong. Very wrong.”

Where to start? When you have to talk about these two cars, so different yet so similar, it’s hard to find a beginning. The Aston Martin V12 Vantage Carbon Black and the Ferrari 550 Maranello. One is a pure english thoroughbred, while the other was the most famous Italian brand’s flagship in its day. And yes, both are V12s, both naturally aspirated, and both have manual 6-speed gearboxes. Is this were similarities stop? No. Both are front engined, both have a near 50:50 weight distribution between front and back, both weigh in the 1700 kilograms (1695 for the Aston and 1690 kg for the Ferrari to be precise), both are strict 2 seaters, both would do a 0 to 100 km/h in the 4.5 seconds and have a top speed of over 300 km/h. They have as well the exact same maximum torque with 570 Nm. So, would you say they are the same cars? Well, you would be wrong. Very wrong. Even on a technical side, there are some important differences. One of the 12 cylinders eats 5.5 liters (the 550) of petrol and air while the other gets 5.9 liters (the Vantage). The Aston’s the shortest, with 4.38 meters long while the Maranello is 17 centimeters longer and 7 centimeters wider, but interestingly the 550’s wheelbase is 10 centimeters shorter than the Vantage. The british is slightly more powerful with 517 horsepower compared to the “only” 485 ponies from the Italian. The Aston as well has bigger brakes, which are carbon ceramic. A funny difference is in the fuel consumption too. As the Maranello has a smaller engine, but gets an average fuel consumption of 22.9 liters per 100 kilometers – yes that is a lot of petrol gulping – you would expect the Aston to be worse, but the british brand claimed the Vantage would average 16.4 liters for the same distance.

“Both cars were born under the impulsion of their respective genius men: Luca di Montezemolo for the 550 and David Richards for the V12 Vantage.”

One other big difference is in the way they look. While the 550 Maranello was designed by Ferrari’s historical studio Pininfarina designers Lorenzo Ramaciotti, Elvio D’Aprile and Maurizio Corbi, it was also developed to have from its start the big F133 internal code name V12 engine during three years from 1993 to 1996. The 550 Maranello was a bold move from the prancing horse’s brand, and under the volunteer of one man, Luca di Montezemolo, reintroducing to the market its legendary front-engined V12 GT architecture, unseen since 1973 with the production stop of 365 GTB/4 Daytona and the introduction of the 365 BB flat-12. The Aston Martin V12 Vantage is another man’s crazy idea: David Richards, Prodrive president and founder, who is part owner of the British car manufacturer too. His decision to shoehorn the big 5.9 liter V12 from the DBS at the time in the V8 Vantage was pure genius. The original concept car, called V12 Vantage RS, even had the DBR9 engine, featuring 650 horsepower. The V8 Vantage, designed by Henrik Fisker, was developed with a 4.3 liter V8, so you can imagine that putting an engine with over 37% more displacement can be quite a challenge. And indeed it was. There is no place left in the engine compartment, and the number of modifications to the original V8 Vantage is consequent. The car had to be fitted with extra air intakes on the bonnet just to ensure proper cooling of the V12, which made it look like cheese. A bigger, wider duct tail was added for additional downforce. The result is a car which philosophy has a hint of the original Cobra, with its huge engine in small body.

“Carbon black or Grigio Titanio? Both colors have amazing reflections and depth.”

Although both cars have amazing colours, the Ferrari being Grigio Titanio and the Aston Martin being Carbon Black, the latter being my favorite color for a modern Aston Martin, my personal preference goes for the 550’s color. The Titanio has such depth, not showing as your boring VW Golf grey and having some light blue hints with sunlight, it is fascinating. Moreover, it fits the car perfectly, showing just how well the magnificent curves and shapes of the Maranello have aged over two decades now. A Maranello has to be elegant, and I never appreciated the numerous standard Rosso Corsa ones I encountered on the road. The Carbon Black was, in my opinion, the most special paint available for Aston Martin in the past decade, and only available for the namesakes special editions of the V12 Vantage and the DBS. Apart from the special paint, one of multiple amazing black paints in the Aston Martin range – Onyx Black, Jet Black mainly – what did differentiate this special edition to the standard version ? Well, you had a few additional carbon bits and pieces, such as door sills and side strakes, leather and alcantara black interior with silver coarse stitching, and special diamond turned wheels mostly. The Carbon Black was very limited production with only one per dealer available. The 550 Maranello is no special edition, and does not have much options. Does that make it any less special? Absolutely not. And current value of these cars tends to show this. There are two options though I wish this car had. The diamond cross for the roof-lining and rear luggage compartment as well as the official Schedoni luggage set.

“Bad quality plastics and nineties Fiat components in one, Volvo GPS and unpractical small buttons in the other.”

Get inside, and the differences continue. The Maranello’s interior is the oldest, and the quality of the materials, specially the plastics, could have been improved for sure, as they tend to get sticky if you leave your car in the sun, but I personally think it is the one which has aged the best, despite the terrible Fiat components you can find everywhere. The V12 Vantage has just too many buttons, and a Volvo GPS that will get you lost while driving on a highway. Both cars will get you the impression you want though. That you are in something special. Maybe the British car does this a hint better, thanks to the low front windshield giving you the true sports car visibility you ever imagined, and the piano black center console bringing that James Bond classy-ish feeling to life. The item which really stands out in the Maranello is the stick-shift grilled aluminum gear-lever proudly sitting in the middle of the center console. You see it, and you know instantly – INSTANTLY – that you are in a special car, moreover a Ferrari. The 550’s seats are as well more comfortable, more suited for long distance road-trip. The smell of the Italian leather and the prancing horse proudly displayed on the steering wheel adds the final touch to this unique environment.

“The Maranello’s V12 is more metallic, mechanical while the Vantage has a deeper, more profound sound.”

24 cylinders roaring to life. Quite a sound, not one that you get used to, and one that you feel very privileged for. In the Aston Martin, you need to take the ECU, short for Emotional Control Unit, the piano black and sapphire key, and stick in the hole on the central console. The Maranello, is much more old fashion. Just a simple key to turn clockwise once you deactivated the alarm. The V12 of the Vantage bursts to life in a big rev very pleasant for the ears while the italian engine is much more quieter. The sound level of the Maranello has been a consistent complain from many owners, but aftermarket solutions exist (such as the infamous Tubi exhaust) and if you are envisioning buying one and using it as a grand tourer, I would highly recommend keeping the stock one actually. Both cars sound very good, specially amidst the new noise level regulations coming from the EU regulations, with as well substantial difference between the two cars. While the italian has a softer, quieter, more metallic and mechanical sound, the british automobile has a deeper, more profound sound, which is very pleasant to listen to, whatever engine rpm, but especially while driving in its Sport mode which opens the exhaust flaps to fully let the engine speak out.

“The 550 is a raw, difficult experience, but a highly rewarding one.”

Get rolling, and the character of each car unveils itself fully. On that day, I begin with the Ferrari 550 Maranello. The steering and the clutch are particularly hard, in addition to the already sharp and heavy gear lever. I have not even driven one kilometer and already an impression strikes me. This is a proper man’s car. This feeling is accentuated by the long – very long – bonnet, which increases the general apprehension of driving it, specially at low speeds. Of course, as every old Ferrari, second gear is almost impossible to get while the car is cold. Try the sport mode, and you would get an almost barely perceivable increase in throttle response, and suspension stiffness. Once you get the car going on some backcountry roads, and temperature starts to be hot, the 550 Maranello is a pure joy to drive. It’s a sensation you don’t get in much cars. Even at high speeds, it is a difficult car, but it’s also a highly rewarding one. The satisfaction from just mastering a gear change is huge, from your left foot reaching for the clutch, your right hand grabbing the aluminum lever, hearing the bare metal against metal sound as you move it to the next gear and your right foot accelerating the V12 to prepare for rev matching. The direction of the Ferrari is precise but fully mastering its proportions to enjoy it on a mountain pass requires time and effort. There is as well some noticeable body roll, as the suspensions could have more stiffness, specially by modern standards. Same things with the brakes, which are standard stainless steel. Let’s not forget though that this old automotive lady is 22 years old. The Maranello is clearly a Grand Tourer in its philosophy, more a car to eat kilometers on highways and wide opened roads than one to be on twisty backcountry roads and racetracks. The 550 is a raw experience that needs a lot of driving parsimony and caution to be fully enjoyed, or being a racing driver, maybe?

“The Vantage could do it all. Traffic jams, highway cruising, mountain passes, or lap times. It’s spot on.”

The V12 Vantage, seems like a piece of cake, once you’ve driven the Maranello. Steering and clutch are much lighter, for a start, and the gearbox requires less effort, although the gear-lever is quite massive. As the car is – and feels much more – smaller, you get confidence much faster than with the italian car. The direction is sharper, the suspensions are stiffer, and the Aston just feels lighter and nimbler than the 550. The driving experience might be less rewarding, but the pleasure you get is the same, if not better. The Vantage could do it all. It just is an easier car, and a great car to be in. You could be in traffic jams, cruising on highways, tackling narrow mountain passes or chasing lap times, it feels spot on. The great balance of the original V8 Vantage is preserved, but the extra torque and power from the V12 adds a bit of spiciness to the mix, with the car feeling a bit rough and harsh once driven on the edge. The carbon brakes are one of the best I’ve ever driven, and feel they could last an eternity, almost never losing strength even after intensive track use. The engine’s character substantially differs from the 550. The Maranello feels very exponential in its power delivery with peak power achieved at 7000 rpm – rev line at 7500 rpm – while the AM11 engine from the Vantage gets maximum power at 6500 rpm – rev line at 7000 rpm – and has a more linear behavior. The Aston Martin provides a unique experience, but one that can be enjoyed by many, if you get the chance.

“These cars are a rare breed. A dying one, which deserve to be driven.”

In terms of value, both cars are pretty similar, specially since the Maranello’s value surged back in 2015, and I believe both will rise, due to the simple fact of what they represent. A rare breed, and a dying one. I do not recall actually of any new front-engined, V12, manual gearbox cars today. The Aston Martin’s value will always be tricky due to the fact that some people will always prefer the more elegant DBS, which was a James Bond car, but with only around 1400 units ever produced, it is a rare sight, and even rarer in Carbon Black limited edition. The Ferrari’s value will be topped by the price of the 575 M manual, which have increased dramatically in the past few years, and with 3083 cars produced is a more common sight than the british car. Still both cars will get tremendous interests I reckon over the coming years, as they are the last analog ones before cars started becoming more digital, switching to turbocharged engines, automated gearboxes, and lower exhaust volumes due to the new European regulations. You should, of course, not get them as pure investments, as these cars really deserve to be driven, shown around to remind people what a true driving machine is, and they will provide yourself with amazing memories, wherever you decide to go.

“In the end, which one would I choose? Both of them. They both have this ability as you drive them, to move you out of the ordinary.”

In the end, Aston Martin V12 Vantage Carbon Black or Ferrari 550 Maranello? Which one would I choose? It’s a tough choice, and I admit that if this question was brought to me, I would be very embarrassed. Both represent the ultimate definition and version of the automobile. A naturally aspirated one, with a manual gearbox, associated with an analog, mechanical driving experience. Both look gorgeous in their own way. The Carbon Black keeps the elegance of Henrik Fisker’s design while adding various sports oriented elements like the carbon fiber front splitter and rear diffuser, increasing the car’s sharpness and making it that more special. The 550 Maranello has a design that I feel, if presented today, would still look modern. That’s just how well this car has gracefully aged. It looks stunning, specially in this staggering Grigio Titanio livery. In terms of interior, I would rather spend my time in the Aston, I have to confess, because the quality of materials is higher and has that special inimitable british touch, even if the Ferrari is roomier and in the end, more comfortable on long drives. Once you start driving though, they are again tie. The Ferrari provides a pure, more involving, driving experience, and the Aston is an exciting car to drive whatever circumstances. Both of them are fantastic. They have this ability, to make you feel that you are living a special moment, something out of the ordinary routine, out of space and time. You just have to look at them, get in them, smell the leather, touch their steering wheel and gear lever, look around, see the curves in the rear view mirrors, start their engines, and drive. And both cars will grow your envy to do that, more and more. Drive.

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