All-Star: Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Ever since interest in front-engine, exotic sports cars revived, we've been waiting for a truly memorable automobile, something that would capture the spirit of our time, just as the Ferrari 365GTB/4 Daytona did in its time. The Aston Martin V8 Vantage is that car.

Ironically, the V8 Vantage comes from a company that has reinvented itself expressly in Ferrari's image. Sometimes we all forget that Aston Martin skittered on the brink of bankruptcy for much of the last sixty years and survived only thanks to the support of wealthy enthusiasts such as David Brown and Victor Gauntlett. But when Ford took full ownership of Aston Martin in the early 1990s, things began to change.

Like Ferrari, Aston Martin embraced its heritage and cherished the cars of its past. Like Ferrari, Aston Martin developed a V-12 engine and a bold styling philosophy. And like Ferrari, Aston Martin proved itself through racing.

All of this might seem like nothing more than a cynical marketing plan, but it has been perfectly executed in virtually every detail. The reward is reflected in the skyrocketing values of Astons on the classic-car market.

Yet the real success of the marque is best measured in the V8 Vantage. It takes the Aston Martin design vocabulary and strips it down to a taut, athletic core. When you take a seat behind the wheel, you find yourself in the kind of sensible, relaxed driving position that only front-engine cars seem to have, and even Aston's characteristic slitlike windshield and fussy, wristwatchlike instrument display can't annoy you. You spin the Vantage's 4.3-liter V-8 to 7300 rpm to reach its comparatively modest peak of 380 hp, yet this engine has both a sharp exhaust bark and a crisp bite of throttle response that together deliver far more soul than you'll find in the DB9's elaborate, 450-hp V-12. Meanwhile, the high-tech aluminum skin and spaceframe make the car rigid but not too heavy, and the position of the dry-sump V-8 behind the front axle line combined with the rear-mounted transaxle helps deliver a package that has both delicious balance and quick responses.

Truth to tell, most exotic sports cars such as the Vantage are terrifying on the kinds of roads we drove in southeastern Ohio, so large and overpowered that they're best suited only to short, top-speed blasts on deserted freeways. In contrast, this Aston Martin is a real car meant for real driving by real people. It carves through corners with such precision and confidence that you become a more precise, confident driver.Although Aston Martin is about to find new ownership because of Ford's financial difficulties, Ford deserves credit for transforming Aston into a brand that is capable of designing and building a car like the V8 Vantage.

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