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.