I'm driving the luscious Aston Martin V8 Vantage from L.A. to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, just loping along, not really paying attention as I click off miles. Cresting a rise, I spot a black-and-white in the hollow below, facing me with a radar gun visible in the windshield. I start pulling over even before the trooper flips on his lights, and I've already climbed out of the car by the time he parks behind me.
"Any idea how fast you were going?" he asks me.
"Not exactly," I say, trying not to cringe too obviously.
"Does 80 sound familiar?"
To be honest, 80 sounds like a godsend. If he'd nailed me a few minutes earlier, he would have been saying, "Hands on top of the car!" and escorting me to the nearest town for an unpleasant meeting with the local magistrate. But it's a measure of just how powerful and capable the Aston is that I was doing 80 when I honestly thought I was barely pushing the speed limit.
The V8 Vantage is not only the newest Aston Martin but it's also a new kind of Aston Martin. Significantly smaller and less expensive than the V-12-powered DB9 and Vanquish, the two-seat Vantage is designed to be an exclusive sports car rather than a genuine supercar. Granted, 380 horsepower is no longer stop-the-press material, but a top speed of 175 and a claimed 0-to-60 mph time of 4.8 seconds aren't shabby. Coupled with a taut chassis, stunning looks, and a price tag of $110,000, the car is a legitimate challenger to its acknowledged target, the Porsche 911.
The car had arrived at my house that morning in an enclosed trailer, which struck me as a bit precious for something that's supposed to be a Carrera-fighter. But when the Aston was disgorged, I had to admit that it would have seemed at home on an auto show platform, with a bevy of models aspiring to be the next Bond girl draped over it. From the flush door handles to the dual exhaust tips integrated into the voluptuous rear end, it looked more than a one-off than a production car.
The Vantage benefits from the classic long nose, short deck proportions that have defined the sports car since the Stutz Bearcat. It's lithe and sleek, yet at the same time, its prominent haunches and aggressive stance make it look muscular and masculine. This is what the new Jaguar XK ought to look like-except, of course, for the distinctive grill that's been Aston Martin's signature since Sean Connery had a license to kill.
While the Vantage is drop-dead gorgeous from any angle, the view is even nicer from the cockpit. The interior motif - and many of the components - have been lifted from the DB9, and that's a good thing. Big thumbs up for the beefy steering wheel, the jewel-like gauges (including a tachometer that winds in the wrong direction), the raised stitch leather, the well-bolstered seat, the alcantara headliner and the exquisite sound system. Aside from a pair of parts-bin stalks on either side of the steering column, it could pass for a bespoke interior.
Press the push-button start and the V-8 burbles to life. The clutch doesn't provide much feedback, but with more than 5000 miles on the odometer, I attribute this to a lot of smoky burnouts by joy-riding journalists. But this doesn't explain the lackluster six-speed gearbox. Not only does it seem clunky, but it has an odd spring-loaded feel as you go through neutral.
On the other hand, this is the kind of car that doesn't require a lot of shifting. With 302 lb-ft of torque producing plenty of low-end grunt, you could easily get by without ever spinning the engine more than 3000 rpm. But why deny yourself the pleasure of winding out this baby? Based on a Jaguar design, the 4.3-liter engine benefits from Aston tweaks ranging from a unique 32-valve head to dry-sump lubrication. It starts to roar at about 4500 rpm. And by the time you reach 7000 rpm redline, it offers the hint of another Ford product - the Cosworth DFV Formula 1 engine of yore.
Despite gargantuan 19-inch Y-rated Bridgestone Potenzas, 235/40 at the front and 275/35 at the rear, the ride is relatively supple, with little or no tramlining or pounding over expansion joints. Rear visibility could be better, but still, the Vantage is perfectly capable around town, and it gobbles up highway miles effortlessly. In fact, I make such good time up I-5 on my way to Monterey that I decide to forgo Highway 46, the fast but boring way to cut across to the 101, and continue north to Coalinga.
At Coalinga, I head west on Highway 198, which features a long stretch of rising and descending switchbacks, with a handful of long straights for carbon-clearing blasts at exorbitant speeds. The Vantage always seems to be in the heart of its power band, and the chassis always is equal to the task. Fashioned out of aluminum extrusions, castings, and pressings and bonded with aerospace adhesives, the chassis is remarkably stiff, and gigantic front and rear antiroll bars help keep the car planted under all circumstances.
With aluminum control arms all around and the engine mounted behind the front axle line to optimize weight distribution, the Vantage features cornering limits so prodigious that it's a challenge just to get the dynamic stability control to kick in. This is just as well, because with the DSC disabled, the car is a handful at the limit, and there are certain attitudes from which even Carroll Shelby - who co-drove an Aston Martin DBR1 to victory at Le Mans in 1959 - couldn't recover. Still, the stopping power of the quartet of four-piston Brembos should help if you get in trouble.
At 3461 pounds, the Vantage is by no means a tank. But it's more than 300 pounds heavier than the Carrera S, and the wheelbase is nearly ten inches longer. As a result, it feels like a much bigger car - never ponderous but you're always aware of its heft. Strictly from a dynamic standpoint, the Porsche is more rewarding, providing better feedback to the driver and responding more enthusiastically to inputs. But just because it's quicker on the Nordschleife doesn't mean it's preferable on Rodeo Drive.
When it comes to panache, exclusivity and that elusive but unmistakable attribute known as star quality, the Vantage makes the 911 look second-rate. And while image isn't everything, it sure doesn't hurt when you're spending $110,000 for transportation. Thanks to the rear hatch, you even get a bit of storage area along with your cachet. Granted it's not big enough to justify getting rid of the Range Rover. But when you want a space out front of Spago Beverly Hills, the Vantage is just the ticket.