We're not normally given to believing everything company chairmen say about their products, but the best description of the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage comes from Ulrich Bez, Aston's boss. Instead of saying it's the best car of its type in the world, he declares, "It's a true Aston Martin but not yet fully grown up."Despite sharing its extruded-aluminum platform, gearbox, suspension, and myriad subsystems with the DB9, the Vantage is a much sharper, more raw-edged car. It will be less costly and smaller than any production Aston in decades and the first strict two-seater in nearly half a century (the Vanquish offers a rear seat as an option). It's also set to be the most overtly sporting Aston Martin production car since the first V8 Vantage back in 1978.
Aston engineers get very exercised when you mention that the Vantage's engine is essentially the same as Jaguar's DOHC 4.2-liter V-8 and swiftly retort that the cam covers are the only components the two engines share. They also point out that the Vantage has a unique capacity (4.3 liters) and a rather more compelling 385 hp. (It's worth remembering that the DB7 also used adapted Jag power twelve years ago.)
Even from the passenger seat during hot-weather testing in the Arabian desert, it wasn't difficult to see the engineers' point: people are going to be talking about this engine for some considerable time. The purpose of the trip was to see if the V-8 would break in 120-degree heat at 155 mph or while sitting in heavy traffic for five hours. Aston Martin had come to the only place on earth that offers a more reliable source of car-busting heat than Death Valley.
The V-8 took the torture without complaint, but what surprised were its distinctly un-Aston-like manners. It's possible that the fabulously raucous note in this preproduction prototype will have been quieted a shade by the time it has actually complied with noise regs, but not by much. Aston's chief development engineer, Chris Porritt, is adamant that the hard-edged snarl is here to stay. Right now, it's more reminiscent of a race-tuned small block than anything from Aston Martin, and it suits the car's character to perfection.
While the V8 Vantage may be 65 hp down on a DB9, it weighs 3308 pounds, or 500 pounds less. Do the math, and you'll see their power-to-weight ratios are very similar. Since DB9s (all automatics) have no problem popping from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds, it's reasonable to expect a stick-shift Vantage to come home in the mid-fours, before topping out somewhere beyond 180 mph. Certainly, its acceleration showed no sign of trailing off at 155 mph, the engine howling happily at 5600 rpm in sixth. If it could reach its 7000-rpm redline, that would equate to 194 mph. The Vantage may be small and cheap by Aston standards, but it's definitely not slow.
The Vantage has a character that recalls As-tons of an even earlier era than the one patronized by Her Majesty's most famous secret agent. It's actually the spiritual successor to the DB2. In the snugness of its cabin, its taut feel, and its urgency, the V8 Vantage reveals itself as a sports car pure and simple: light of weight, short of wheelbase, and long on power.
This also should be the best Aston to drive yet. If you wanted to improve further the already impressive dynamics of the DB9, you might do something like this: Cut 5.5 inches out of its wheelbase to make the chassis stiffer, lighter, and more agile. Retain the double-control-arm suspension for ultimate wheel control. Choose an engine short enough to fit entirely behind the front axle line rather than hanging partially over it. Abandon the speed-sensitive power steering because your front-axle loadings are reduced enough to do away with it. Finally, drop curb weight by 500 pounds.
Out in the desert, the roads are too straight and the prototype too valuable to go exploring the outside of the dynamic envelope. But even so, you can feel the car's slight rearward weight balance, courtesy of its short, light engine and rear-mounted transaxle. Traction is truly phenomenal for a rear-wheel-drive, front-engine car. The desert roads are all coated with a fine dusting of sand, but even full-throttle exits from traffic circles in second gear fail to wake the traction control system.
It's impossible to get an accurate impression of the V8 Vantage's ride quality, because all the desert roads appear to have been laid yesterday, but it's likely to be even stiffer than that of the DB9, a car that has attracted its fair share of criticism for uncompromising spring rates. Aston's gamble is that younger owners will accept and even seek a degree of firmness and that the level of expected comfort will be consequently lower.
Porritt is clearly proud of the car and the job his team has done bringing it to market. "In theory," he says, "it should be a very straightforward development process, because so much of the basic engineering already has been proven in the DB9. In practice, though, there's always something unexpected to keep you on your toes."
To make sure there aren't any unpleasant surprises, the Vantage isn't just being given a roasting in the Middle East. As our time in the desert comes to an end, so does a 5000-mile, flat-out test around the fearsome Nrburgring Nordschleife with veteran racer and test driver Dirk Schoysman at the wheel. Neither the car nor the driver put a wheel out of line.
The V8 Vantage will go into production in June in the same factory as the DB9, with first deliveries due in Europe late this summer; U.S. sales start late this fall. This will complete the transformation of Aston Martin from a tiny niche maker into a 5000-unit-a-year business, which will make the company numerically more productive than Ferrari. The V8 Vantage will account for 3000 of those sales, so its importance is clear. It will bring Aston Martin to the attention of a less-moneyed and younger audience who will, it is hoped, trade up to a DB9 or even a Vanquish in later years.