2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage

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.

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