In the past, a plaque on the doorsill of an Aston Martin that advertised "Handbuilt in England" would have been a warning. But now that Aston has moved from its traditional home in Newport Pagnell to its high-tech factory at Gaydon in the English Midlands, persistent quality problems have been left behind. The renowned sports-car maker has made a remarkable transition from hopeless cottage industry to high-tech, top-class niche manufacturer.
In a summer rich with new upscale ragtops such as the Ferrari F430 Spider and the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, the Aston Martin DB9 Volante tops the heartbreaker charts, looking equally addictive with the top up or down. This car radiates an infallible sense of occasion, and yet it is neither loud nor lascivious. The Volante has great centerfold appeal-just look at the perfectly sculpted body panels; the polished, multispoke, nineteen-inch alloy wheels; the trademark grille; the lateral air vents; and the concealed pop-up door handles. It's a lot of car for what is essentially a two-seater with a tiny 6.1-cubic-foot trunk, but then there are twelve cylinders to be accommodated and almost two tons of weight to carry.
Since it is the only convertible currently to wear the winged AM badge, this particular DB9 cannot be confused with the slightly smaller V8 Vantage or with the slightly bigger Vanquish. The snug fabric roof creates a couple of larger-than-life blind spots, but it is extremely well insulated, features a heated rear window, is fully power-operated (the whiz-and-whir show takes seventeen seconds), and it will disappear beneath a solid cover when folded. When erect, the soft top adds a few decibels of wind noise and is tight for headroom, but the mohair and Alcantara-lined top cocoons the occupants and is color-keyed to perfection.
Supersized people will find the Volante an even tighter fit than the coupe. The cockpit is a slim-line affair that boasts a superwide center console, scant legroom, a windshield frame that arcs down to meet your forehead, and a beltline so high it mimics an Italian motor yacht. It's the usual fashion dilemma of drop-dead gorgeous to look at but just a tad impractical to wear. The tiny rear seats come with belts, headrests, and pop-up protectors but are-at best-scaled for preschoolers.
Aston certainly knows how to get the best out of its materials. The leather still looks, feels, and smells like the real thing. The wood has been treated with care rather than with paint and lacquer. The anodized aluminum is delicious to the touch. Aston's newfound self-confidence manifests itself the instant you turn the weighty ignition key. In the left instrument display, the Aston Martin logo lights up proudly. Simultaneously, in the right cluster, a moving dot matrix presents the message "Power, Beauty, Soul." You've got to love the crystal starter button, a rev counter with a needle that swings counterclockwise, and the truly intuitive controls-you can button-shift from D to R in no time at all, unlike in a Ferrari. There are some niggles, though, such as the handbrake hiding out of reach in the canyon between the cushion and the sill and the way the main dials are obscured behind the fat-rimmed steering wheel. And it seems crazy that you need genetically modified fingertips to operate the buttons on the pretty but overstyled center console.
In a Chevrolet Cobalt or a Honda Civic, such things might matter, but in a DB9, they are quickly overwhelmed by the car's grace and grandeur. On the road, the Volante is less aggressive than the coupe, which tries to fishtail out of every tight corner. The topless DB9 is a little heavier and not quite as stiff structurally as the fixed-head version, which ensures a more compliant ride. But the dialogue between the front and rear suspension is occasionally blurred. You experience some cowl shake and some instability on roads that are not flat and straight. The steering response has been toned down from razor-sharp to superquick, and, as a result, the open-air Aston is no longer an oversized sports car but a more predictable and softer GT-yet still mighty fast cross-country. The brakes aren't as compelling as the coupe's-or a 911's-but they're still strong.
If you want to cover long distances effortlessly at the kind of speeds only Germany still tolerates, the Volante will answer. The 5.9-liter V-12 engine delivers 450 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque, so you certainly don't need to depend on sky-high revs and frequent gear-changes. The six-speed manu-matic transmission with paddle-shift actuation cuts the generous twist action into big slices that overlap like the layers of a stacked club sandwich.
The Volante will thunder from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, the Bridgestones intermittently yowling for grip. If you need to, it will reach a top speed of 165 mph, which is a good 21 mph less than the coupe's top speed, presumably so the convertible top doesn't take off. More in line with the car's character, however, is to swap the rock sound track for a classical one, staying in the flat upper reaches of the torque mountain. You can even resort to automatic mode by pushing the D button on the dashboard, without sacrificing much urge. Driven hard, we recorded sub-10-mpg fuel economy, somewhat below the official combined 17-mpg figure.
The Volante strikes a compelling balance between perfection and emotion, as it should for more than $173,000. At the end of a long, hot day, tanned from the pitiless summer sunshine, it was almost impossible for us not to succumb to the many charms of the fabric-top English beauty. The DB9 Volante is almost the perfect Hollywood car-sporty enough for high-speed runs up Mulholland Drive or over Angeles Crest Highway and stylish enough to stand out on Rodeo Drive without looking pretentious or gaudy. That takes class.