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Few automakers have ridden a rougher roller coaster than Aston Martin. The venerable British brand has been insolvent seven separate times during its 91-year history, and at one point, back in 1977, its very survival hinged on the sale of a single car to a wealthy Londoner whose taste for good wine an Aston salesman skillfully exploited.
A decade later, almost on a whim, the struggling company was purchased by Henry Ford II, but even then, the company’s fate was uncertain. By 1992, Aston’s global sales had plunged to just 42 cars, and due to quality problems, the factory was forced to buy half of them back.
By all rights, Aston should have long ago been banished to the rust heap along with so many other British nameplates. Yet somehow, the brand has managed to pull though every crisis, much like super-sleuth, 007, the secret agent with whom the brand has long been associated.
Indeed, Aston Martin’s recent revival might seem the stuff of a Hollywood fable. With the assistance of its American parent, Aston has posted a profit for the first time in its entire history. Sales soared to a stunning 2500 in 2004, and if Ulrich Bez, Aston’s energetic chairman, has his way, the numbers will double again within the next year or two. At that level, Aston would actually push past that most successful of ultra-luxury brands, Ferrari.
The key to the turnaround is, of course, product, starting with last year’s launch of the DB9 sports car. Now comes what is arguably the most important new model in Aston’s nine-decade history, the V8 Vantage. Sharing platforms with the DB9, the new two-seater takes the Ford subsidiary into entirely new territory. At $110,000, the Vantage challenges the king of the hill, Porsche’s 911.
To see how the new Aston compared, we headed over to Italy, for three days driving through the verdant hills of Tuscany. The narrow roads, with challenging turns and fast straights, provided a tough trial for the new sports car, yet as we grudgingly handed back the keys, we had to conclude that Aston had designed one of the best sports cars ever to hit the road.
Pulling into the courtyard of a small villa outside Sienna, we got our first look at the new V8 Vantage. There was an immediate sense of déjà vu, and for good reason. Aston faithfully stuck with the shape of the striking concept car it first rolled out on the auto show circuit in 2003.
The wheel arches bulge out, front and back, accentuating the muscular nature of this sports couple. But the Vantage is no bulldog, the lines flow gracefully, front to back, a study in perpetual motion. Get a good look at the yawning Aston grille as the V8 charges towards you. You won’t get to look at it long. Soaring past, the sweeping hatchback flows into a high deck lid, with an integrated spoiler designed to maximize downforce at high speed.
Under the sexy skin, the Vantage has much in common with the DB9, though with a wheelbase of 102.4 inches, the platform has been shortened a bit and there’ve been very minor changes made to the overall layout. But both share the same bonded aluminum structure. To put the benefits into perspective, the approach helped Aston double the structural rigidity compared to the old DB7, while cutting the weight of the chassis in half. Add a mix of steel, aluminum, and composite body panels, and weight is held to a modest 3461 pounds, or nearly a ton less than Bentley’s Continental GT.
Lift the hood and you’ll under the aluminum crossbraces, Aston has jammed in an all-alloy, quad-overhead-cam, 32-valve 4.3-liter V-8 with variable inlet cam timing. Dry sump lubrication helps lower the engine and the overall center of gravity. The beast pumps out an impressive 383 brake horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to launch the coupe from 0-60 in an impressive, if not benchmark 5.0 seconds. (And stay tuned, the ever-restless Bez hints that a track-tuned “R” edition may follow, pushing output up to the range of 100 to 120 hp per liter — normally aspirated.)
We couldn’t resist the temptation to fire up that big V-8. Getting into the Vantage, you discover one of the more subtle but intriguing design elements carried over from the show car. Since the handles lay flush with the exterior panel, it takes a moment to figure out how to open the door. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s elegantly simple.
Unlike the DB9, Aston chose to make no pretense of a back seat with Vantage. Instead, there’s a small but quite useful storage area complimenting the car’s modest but useful cargo compartment — which is large enough to contain a long weekend’s needs, or a pair of golf bags.
The interior of our car was a gray-black monotone, elegantly laid out but a bit more sparse than we’d have expected. The headliner was a slick suede, the standard navigation system tucked away when not in use at the top of the center stack. But the feel of the instrument panel was just not quite as sophisticated as in the DB9, with its intriguing selection of materials, such as bamboo.
A minor quibble, of course, but some room for improvement. And while we niggle, there are other slight shortfalls for a car of this price tag, such as the lack of power-up windows. Launching out of a tollbooth, with our accelerator foot flat to the floor, we want both hands on the steering wheel, not the window button.
That said, we found the seats comfortable yet extraordinarily supportive, even under the most aggressive driving. And the overall layout of the cockpit seemed both more intuitive and comfortable than the DB9’s.
We slipped the key into the ignition and pressed the “start” button that dominates the center console. Our reward was immediate, a deep roar as the big V-8 came to life. Aston’s carefully tuned powertrain delivers a resonant baritone that has more in common with the classic American muscle car than the high-tech whine of a Porsche or Ferrari.
The 6-speed manual transmission — the only gearbox offered on the Vantage — slipped smoothly into first, launching us out the villa’s long driveway and onto the sweeping back road towards Sienna. The shifter proved silky sweet, with extraordinarily short throws and a clutch that felt absolutely intuitive.
As we wandered through Tuscany, during our three-day sojourn, we had the chance to test the Vantage in virtually every possible condition, from busy urban driving to open highways.
Under hard acceleration, we found power came on a little bit slower than with a 911 Turbo, perhaps no surprise comparing the normally aspirated Aston with Porsche’s blower. But it would be hard to complain about performance unless you’re comparing the two cars at a stoplight. Once the Vantage got going, it didn’t want to stop, power coming on smoothly until we reached our own limits — well over 125 mph during one smooth and open stretch of back road.
Under most conditions, the independent double wishbone suspension delivered as promised, with assistance from the rear spoiler, planting the Vantage down hard onto the tarmac. But on a few stretches of particularly rough and undulating pavement, it did seem to loosen up a bit at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Even then there was never a sense of losing control.
Steering was as good as it gets, turn-in quick and precise, the Vantage comparing favorably to the Ferrari F430 we had driven just a week prior. Blasting along the narrow roads of Tuscany requires a high degree of faith in the car you’re driving. You often need to skitter out of the way of oncoming traffic, and the best way to describe the Vantage is intuitive.
Braking proved equally impressive, the oversized rotors and discs firmly and confidently scrubbing off speed in an instant.
Our co-pilot, photographer/writer Winston Goodfellow, is convinced the new V8 Vantage is the best sports car on the road today. Considering the range of options, we’re reluctant to assign that superlative, but it is a tempting description that would be difficult to debate against.
Whether Aston will be able to convert loyal Porsche owners remains to be seen, but there are plenty of other aspirants who’ve got the money and are ready to move up. For them, the new Vantage is going to be a tempting attraction. The car is strikingly attractive, reasonably roomy and incredibly fun to drive. At $110,000, it is — in this class — a bargain. Add the allure of the Aston name and we wouldn’t be surprised if the British maker achieves its admittedly aggressive sales goals.
This is the car we expect to firmly plant Aston Martin’s flag in the competitive supercar segment. For decades, the automaker was a quirky alternative. With the debut of the V8 Vantage, it is a serious challenger to the established order — and certain to ensure Aston’s long-term survival.
2006 Aston Martin V8
Base price: $110,000
Engine: Quad overhead, 32-valve 4.3-liter
V-8 with variable inlet cam timing, 383 hp/302 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 172.5 x 73.5 x 49.4 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 3461 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 12/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags; four wheel anti-lock brakes, alarm and immobilizer
Major standard features: Power windows, doors and mirrors, power seats, 160-watt audio system with CD player, trip computer, and navigation system
Warranty: Four year/50,000 miles