My bum hurts. It's been sitting on a narrow, medium-frame seat for more than 500 miles, and it feels baboon-red at the end of day two. My brain has switched to overload, vexed by at least six dozen radar traps and three unmarked police cars. But my eyes still glow with excitement like candles in the dark, and that's even before the first pint of Guinness arrives. We have just completed a remarkable tour through the English heartland-up north from Birmingham, then from sea across to peat-brown sea, and back again. Although time was tight, we swapped the busy highways for lightly trafficked byways wherever it made sense.
The car we used was the awesome new compact coupe from Aston Martin. The V8 Vantage is the third sports car from the company since Ulrich Bez took charge. Of the three, we admire but could never aspire to own the butch and mean Vanquish. We adore the more accessible and less uncompromising DB9. And now we have fallen in love again-even though the latest object of desire has only eight cylinders instead of twelve and not quite as much grunt as the baddest beasts from southern Germany and northern Italy. But in terms of sense and sensibility, the V8 Vantage delivers the full Aston Martin experience in a way that is positively addictive. Hop in, pull the belt tight, and brace yourself for an eye-opening ride that has all the ingredients of a thriller: speed, suspense, and an unambiguous ending.
While even Aston aficionados find it hard to tell a Vanquish from a DB9 and vice versa, it is more difficult to confuse the V8 Vantage with its bigger brethren, except when you meet one head-on or try to keep up with its voluptuous behind. The marque's main visual characteristic is massive width: at 79.6 inches, even this smallest member of the family eclipses the flared Porsche 911 C4S by a whopping 6.7 inches.
Inside, only the proportions distinguish the V8 Vantage from its siblings. The most controversial element is the giant center console and transmission tunnel, which steals precious legroom and is an ergonomic anticlimax. The two main instrument faces look like bijous designed by Aston's Swiss watch partner Jaeger-LeCoultre, and they are about as easily legible. This doesn't matter much, however, since a digital speedo steps in for its analog colleague, and a large, red, F1-style upshift warning light makes the rev counter redundant. The cockpit is unique and reflects all the craftsmanship behind it.
When you push the backlit, etched-crystal starter button, the front-mid-mounted engine shakes itself into action. At idle speed, all you hear is a busy but subdued hum. The clutch action is light and deep, a meaty counterweight that makes it pleasantly easy to find the sweet spot. The six-speed gearbox is harder work. Its throws are short, and the gates are well defined, but the lever moves through them like a Shimano bicycle shifter-from cog to cog-rather than slicing through them. At the other end of the relatively long-legged transmission sits a V-8 that started life at Jaguar. To teach the aluminum unit Aston-specific manners, the displacement was increased to 4.3 liters, new cylinder heads were fitted, and the intake and exhaust were tuned to deliver the right mix of grunt and spine-tingling acoustics. Redlined at 7000 rpm, and thus higher-revving than the supercharged 4.2-liter V-8 from Jaguar, the 32-valve unit produces 380 hp and 302 lb-ft of torque at a tall 5000 rpm.
As we head north on the M6, sixth gear at 3000 rpm equals just under 80 mph. Every half hour or so, a gap opens, and the Vantage closes it like a zoom lens-fast, effortless, and with absolutely no need to change down. What's the added benefit of a V-12, you ask?
The smallest Aston will top 175 mph. That's fast but not fast enough to eclipse the 355-hp 911 Carrera S. Acceleration is a similar story. The car from England does the 0-to-60-mph job in an explosive 4.8 seconds, but its German rival is 0.2 second quicker. So could we please have a Vantage S with an extra 50 hp to settle this issue? "It's coming," promises Bez, "perhaps as early as next year. But we are always taking one step at a time." Also coming-as an option in early 2006-is a six-speed ZF manu-matic that offers a choice of fully automatic or paddle-shift operation.
The adrenaline shifts into overdrive the instant we turn off the motorway. The Vantage uses the so-called VH platform, which provides a light and rigid backbone to which the suspension, the drivetrain, and the body panels are attached. Made of 150 different aluminum castings, extrusions, and sheet sections, the VH structure makes extensive use of adhesive bonding.
The route to Scarborough takes us through farmland dotted with heather and fern, the rolling hills separated by valleys of varying depth and width. The few villages look more like small stone fortresses, each built around a church, a school, and a pub. Up here, the roads are typically lined with one of two dramatically different surfaces: shiny asphalt and coarse tarmac. Both surfaces tend to feature a raised centerline that drops away toward the ragged edges, so that you get a full spectrum of camber changes in addition to the usual mix of longitudinal grooves, potholes, transverse ridges, and cattle grids. The test car is shod with Bridgestone Potenza RE 050A tires, 235/40YR-19 in the front and 275/35YR-19 in the back. These sizes read like a recipe for tramlining, but the Vantage is actually not too bothered by the footprints of trucks and buses. It tracks as a matter of course, requiring few corrections at the wheel. The ride comfort is fine on most pavements, but a combination of low speed and certain corrugated surfaces submits the beefy body structure to irritating oscillations. No, this is not a big issue for a sports car, but it clouds an otherwise spotless picture.
To sample the old-world charm of Scarborough, we head to North Beach, where our Aston Martin is the undisputed star of the busy rush hour, garnering plenty of thumbs up and even a heart-stopping pat on the roof. On the street-cred scale, the chunky V8 Vantage is every bit as good as the even flashier Vanquish. But it also scores on the back roads, mustering a clear weight and size advantage that compensates for the power and torque deficit. At 3462 pounds, the Vantage is 330 pounds heavier than a Carrera S, but it undercuts the DB9 by more than 500 pounds. The notably lighter front end, which turns in more eagerly and is less prone to mid-corner understeer, makes a big difference in the handling of the car. On the debit side, the excessive turning circle is a sometimes embarrassing trait seemingly common to all Astons.
The route to Blackpool takes us through the picturesque Yorkshire Dales. This area has it all: 125-mph straights, first-gear hairpins, fast sweepers, slow dips, and crests so dramatic you'll reach for an airsickness bag. The V8 Vantage excels in this demanding habitat. The talents of the multifaceted engine are one reason. It's all muscle and compressed energy below 2000 rpm, then starts delivering a serious punch at around 3500 rpm. At 5000 rpm, the torque peaks, and maximum power erupts in a simultaneous sensation of noise, magic, and thrust. A generous 2000 rpm later, the climax is red-flagged, inviting the next gear to slide in and the performance to start again, only on a speedier plateau. No, the V-8 is not as smooth, creamy, or cultivated as the V-12. But it spreads its goods over a wider rev range, it is even better at understanding throttle orders, and it plays a greater variety of tunes to delight your eardrums.
The steering is a little heavy around town. At low speeds, it transmits a subtle sequence of monochrome action and monochrome response. But as soon as load transfer starts to work the rear wheels, the helm fills with life, your hands begin to feel the road, and the interaction between man and machine gets up to speed. The V8 Vantage is an accurate sports car that begs to be pointed and aimed. It rewards precise inputs with precise execution and prefers carving and small exact moves to sliding and spectacular grand gestures. There is plenty of grip, and the transaxle layout also delivers strong traction, although a heavy right foot on slippery blacktop and through tight-radius turns invariably will bring out the ESP brigade.
We zigzagged through the Dales and clipped the Forest of Bowland before descending to Blackpool. Some roads were too narrow to give the car full stick, but others were wide and panoramic and long enough for the Aston to develop a rhythm. It's mainly third- and fourth-gear stuff, 70 to 110 mph, rarely flat out but always pressing on. The V8 Vantage is not keen to waste time sampling varying degrees of understeer or oversteer. It much prefers to get the job done in a fast and fuss-free manner. Although it tends to be slot-racer perfect most of the time, there is enough compliance in the rear suspension to talk you through the difficult bits.
Composite brakes are not in the pipeline for the V8 Vantage, but this is not a major deficit, since you would have to go to a track to discover the true limits of the fat, ventilated cast-iron rotors, which are straddled by fire-red Brembo calipers. The engineers opted for a nicely progressive action that requires a firm right foot before the system will pull out all the stops. Riveting deceleration, plenty of staying power, and pedal travel that is long enough to let you modulate the performance are the strong points. Like the handling balance, the brake balance does not favor one particular pair of wheels. As a result, the car feels extremely well tied down even when excessive speed needs to be squashed pronto in the middle of a corner. Its controls may be a little on the heavy side, but for a sports car that wants to be kept on a short leash, this is exactly the right calibration.
The V8 Vantage is a tool for talented drivers, the incarnation of challenge and reward, a new fixed star in sports-car heaven. It doesn't win pole position in every discipline, but it is true to the promise made by the in-dash display that lights up when you insert the ignition key: power, beauty, and soul.
Unlike Porsches, which have become a ubiquitous commodity of the rich, and unlike Ferraris, which are too loud for their own good, an Aston Martin is the perfect underdog for anglophile connoisseurs.
Those considerations aside, the new Aston Martin V8 Vantage is competitively priced at about $100,000, its production rate of only 3000 units a year means exclusivity, and the convincing driving experience is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.