Aston Martin builds manly automobiles. From the way the doors thunk when closed to the heft of the steering, the front-engined British sportscars don't carry the same delicate, light feeling you experience in a Ferrari. We think this is a good thing. It's nice that Aston's recent success is a result of excellent design and engineering perfectly in line with the history of the near 100-year-old company, not a carbon copy of the Italian's business case.
In a comparison test between the 2008 Aston Martin DBS and 2008 Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano in the July 2008 issue of Automobile Magazine, we gave the nod to the car from Maranello but the purity and gruffness of the English car left a lasting impression. But, at $266,350, the top spec Aston is a true exotic. The entry-level car, the V8 Vantage, is gorgeous and sounds fantastic but we've always felt let down by the lack of power provided by the Jaguar-derived 4.3-liter V-8. With the buzz from the DBS experience still fresh in our heads, we hopped on a plane to Germany for a drive in the tweaked for 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
At first glance, nothing is new. If you ignore the nineteen-inch aluminum wheels, nothing is new on the outside. Aston really didn't need to change a thing as the V8 Vantage already was blessed with near-perfect proportions and amazing road presence. Inside, there is change but the additions are far better in theory than execution. The old car used a key that utilized a mixture of Jaguar and Volvo parts. It really wasn't good enough for a $100,000 car. Now, the V8 Vantage uses the same setup as the DBS. The ECU, or the emotion control unit as Aston insists on calling the new key, is inserted in a slot where the starter button used to live. Though the ECU ignites the engine more consistently in the V8 Vantage than in the DBS, you can still catch it out at inopportune times, forcing you to remove the ECU and start the procedure all over again. Also from the DBS is the ergonomically compromised center stack and optional satellite navigation. Switching between the integrated iPod interface, the navigation system, and Bluetooth makes BMW's iDrive look impressive. Finally, a taller center armrest was introduced last year and it makes shifting the wonderful, racecar-positive six-speed manual gearbox a chore as your elbow drops into the integrated cupholders while changing gear. We're hopeful these complaints are something that buyers are able to get used to or at least live with, but we feel that it's a case of the styling department leading the show and not the engineers. Chief designer Marek Reichman told us that anyone who is bothered by armrest should just order the improved but still slightly clunky paddle-shift sequential manual transmission. We don't like that answer. We prefer the words of an Aston product guy. He told us that they're aware of the armrest design issue, he's not nuts about it as well, and they are working on a fix. In the end, we just want Aston to concentrate its resources on pure, driver-focused function instead of questionable interior design as the V8 Vantage is a car you want to drive and hear.
And boy does it still sound fantastic. Only now, the extroverted music is accompanied by impressive speed. That's the big news for 2009; the V8 Vantage now has the pace to match the looks. The old engine couldn't be pushed past 4.3-liters and Aston CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez is outspoken in his love for normally aspirated engines. The best solution was a new engine block, allowing the powerplant to grow to 4.7 liters. The change yields a bump of 40 horsepower for a total of 420. More importantly, torque jumps by 15 percent. Where the old car always felt quite flat and a bit of a let down when the muffler bypass valves opened up at around 4000 RPM, it now feels like the Aston engineers added power exactly where it was missing. Midrange punch is vastly improved and the pull up to the 7200 RPM rev limiter is strong. We pushed the new V8 Vantage past 160 mph on the Autobahn with little effort, making Aston's claim of a 180 mph top speed seem accurate.
When we turned off the German highway system, things continued to impress. New Bilstein dampers, revised suspension geometry, and an available stiffer sport suspension are all new for 2009. Where the old car always felt outshined in outright handling by a Porsche 911 and in ride quality by the Jaguar XKR, the new car is an improvement in both areas. It still has a stiff low-speed ride, especially with the sport suspension fitted, but it's perfectly in line with the character of the car. All these revisions turn the Aston into a real back-roads weapon. The rear end feels much better planted over road imperfections and the steering is meaty and responsive. The combination of the refined chassis and screaming V-8 make the baby Aston a car that you want to drive and drive hard all day long.
Despite our gushing, one improvement we'd like to see is more supportive seats to match the upgraded performance. Aston offers aggressive yet cosseting one-piece carbon-fiber sports seat in the DBS in Europe but they aren't available in the USA due to the lack of side airbags. We'd love to see Aston design a hardcore sport seat for the U.S. market and offer it on both the DBS and V8 Vantage. Our only other complaint is that the stability control system is slightly over eager to come into play when driving the V-8-powered Aston quickly. The DBS offers a sportier, more tolerant stability control mode and this feature would be a welcome addition to the V8 Vantage as well.
As before, buyers can choose between a V8 Vantage coupe or roadster. We'll give the nod to the hardtop for its gorgeous silhouette, focused character, and cheaper price but the drop-top gives up very little in handling up to eight or nine tenths and allows the sound from the tailpipes to enter the cabin on a near-religious level.
On paper, the not so successful interior changes, the upgraded chassis, and the larger engine don't look like much. But the end product is a fantastic automobile and exactly what the V8 Vantage should have been when it was first launched in 2005. Plus, at an estimated price of $120,000 for the coupe, it carries a balance of gorgeous design, hand-built charisma, and outright performance that is tough to beat. Finally after three years, the baby Aston is a true competitor for both the Porsche 911 Turbo and the Audi R8.