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To sports car lovers, the name Aston Martin conjures images of super-fast exotic machinery, unique British engineering, race victories at Le Mans and the personal transportation of one James Bond. That machine-gun equipped car in "Goldfinger," the one with the ejector seat? That would be 007's Aston Martin DB5.
Those who really know Aston Martins of years past have a broader picture. This one includes finicky carburetors, painful idiosyncrasies and distaste for rain.
The 2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage promises a difference. While it's the least powerful car in Aston Martin's current lineup, it's also the least expensive car the company has sold in decades, and it will be built in far greater numbers than any before it. More important, it's designed to be driven everyday, if an owner is so inclined, with the ease of use and practical function (a relative term) that auto enthusiasts expect in off-the-rack sports cars like the Porsche Boxster or Nissan 350Z.
Don't get the wrong idea. With the price of admission starting well over $100,000, the V8 Vantage is anything but cheap. And it's gloriously fast (is 174 mph fast enough?). It accelerates with the enthusiasm of a cannon shot, turns with the agility of a figure skater and stops like an F14 Tomcat landing on the USS George Washington. In short, the 2006 V8 Vantage is as sexy as anything with four wheels has a right to be. It's the kind of machine every car enthusiast should be able to drive at least once in a lifetime.
Buying a car like the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is anything but a purely rational decision, so comparisons with other exotic sports cars like the Ferrari F430, Ford GT or even the Porsche 911 might be moot. Yet more than 400 miles at the wheel of a V8 Vantage, including some driving the typical sports car owner might consider abusive, suggest that this could indeed be an Aston Martin for everyday. The V8 Vantage is, however, more of a sports car than the DB9, which is more of a grand touring car built on a longer wheelbase. The V8 Vantage driver feels more connected to the road, the ride has a harder edge, and more noise comes into the cabin. That said, the V8 Vantage is not a minimalist sports car.
The 2006 V8 Vantage represents a new direction for Aston Martin, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Co. Previous V8 Vantages in Aston Martin's 91-year history (in the late 1970s and the late 1990s) were the most powerful cars in the company's lineup. The new V8 Vantage is the least powerful and least expensive. The idea that a $110,000 car might be entry level is ridiculous, to be sure, but the V8 Vantage is priced about $60,000 less than the DB9, which is next up the Aston Martin pecking order. It will be built at the rate of 3000 per year. Aston Martin built more prototypes to test and develop this V8 Vantage than it did copies of the original over its entire production run.
Styling is the most subjective of all automotive characteristics, but it's hard to imagine anyone will think the 2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage is anything less than gorgeous. This low-slung sports car was designed by Henrick Fisker, best known for creating the limited-production BMW Z8 roadster.
The V8 Vantage looks classic and contemporary at once. The long hood, low roofline (just 49.4 inches at its tallest) and large, steeply sloped rear glass create a familiar profile, but the details are unique. Bulging rear fenders cover extra-wide rear wheels (the front wheels are 8.5 inches wide, the rear, 9.5 inches). This high-performance setup helps the V8 Vantage turn power into quicker acceleration and balances tire grip front and rear for high g-force turning. The standard 18-inch wheels are handsome, but the optional 19-inchers further enhance the V8 Vantage's dynamic look. All tires are Z-rated, the highest speed rating available for street use.
From its sneering, bull nose grille rearward, the V8 Vantage makes it absolutely clear as to what kind of car it is. The family resemblance to Aston Martin's current DB9 and Vanquish S is obvious, and AM aficionados will be able to trace this car's lineage back through the decades. The V8 Vantage has a more obvious handcrafted quality than some other high-performance sports cars, including the Porsche 911. It's apparent in the details: the complexity of the surface curves, the wire mesh screens behind the front wheel wells, or the way the hood stretches all the way to the top of the grille, without a filler piece in between. The body is a mix of steel, aluminum and resin composite. Each panel is cold bonded (glued) to the frame.
The V8 Vantage's classic front-mounted, longitudinally oriented engine was the only option for creating Aston Martin's familiar long-hood proportions and the center of inertia designers wanted, according to the engineers who worked on the car. Nonetheless, with all its cylinder bores behind the front axle, the V8 Vantage is by definition a mid-engine car. The gearbox (actually, a transaxle) is mounted in back, connected to the V8 by a carbon fiber drive shaft inside an aluminum torque tube. This creates near perfect weight distribution, with 51 percent of the mass over the rear wheels and 49 percent over the front.
The V8 Vantage is 172.5 inches long, or three inches shorter than a Porsche 911, a car more familiar to American consumers. Yet the Aston Martin's wheelbase is ten inches longer (102.4) and its track is three inches wider. The dimensions confirm what the eye suggests: The V8 Vantage's wheels are pushed further to the corners of the car, with minimal front and rear overhangs.
A rear hatchback allows easy access to storage behind the rear seats, and the boot area measures an impressive 10.6 cubic feet (compared to 4.76 cubic feet in the 911's front luggage compartment).
Some of the most interesting features lie under the V8 Vantage's body. Its frame is built aerospace style, with extruded aluminum box sections and precision castings at key points like suspension attachments. All the pieces are hot or cold bonded, with no conventional structural welds. Aston Martin's engineers claim that glue has better vibration-dampening properties than conventional welding. They also claim the V8 Vantage frame is more resistant to bending or flexing than anything in its class.
Forget for a moment the science of ergonomics or even objective analysis. The same handcrafted quality apparent outside the Aston Martin V8 Vantage applies inside, only more obviously. The cockpit impresses, not necessarily for its switch placement, but for the feeling it inspires. This car surrounds its driver and passenger with a sense of achievement, well-being, even wealth, and there's not a shred of trendy carbon fiber anywhere.
The upgrade full two-tone leather in our test car was marvelous. The headliner is alcantara; the balance of the soft panels, including the dash and doors, are thick, burnished, hand-stitched leather. The seat belt buckles are sheathed in leather, and the three climate control knobs are machined from solid aluminum. The decorative trim in this car, starting with details such as the polished aluminum ring around the shifter, no doubt costs more to produce than the full instrument panel in a typical compact car.
Not that the V8 Vantage is an ergonomic disaster. Indeed, in the scheme of the traditional British sports car, or even contemporary high-end sports cars, it's very good. The aluminum-backed gauges impress not only for their beauty, but for their legibility. The primary stereo controls could be a bit larger, but they are exactly where we like them, at the top of the center stack. Those expensive climate control knobs are big, and easy to find without distracting oneself from the task at hand. The same applies to switches underneath them controlling flashers, traction control and door locks. The biggest gripe falls on some too-small ancillary switches arrayed on either side of a gorgeous analog clock. In total, the dash is elegantly designed, exquisitely finished and straightforward in function.
The V8 Vantage's cockpit is intimate, certainly, but not cramped. There's enough room for the passenger to stretch legs and lower the seatback past 45 degrees. The seats are impressive: firm and supportive, with all the bolster needed anywhere but on a race track, and comfortable for the long haul. There's also a decent amount of space behind the seats, and it's easy for the driver to reach. A very large briefcase or good-sized shopping bags are no problem here. The V8 Vantage is about as practical as cars of this ilk get, and just sitting inside can make you feel like a millionaire.
The engine under the hood of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage is a gem: A high-revving 4.3-liter V8 with 305 pound-feet of acceleration-producing torque and the latest technology. This includes racecar style features such as dry-sump lubrication, which allows the engine to be installed much lower in the car for a lower center of gravity, and ensures proper oiling under very high g-loads.
There's a glass button resembling the face of a fine watch at the top of the center stack. In common parlance it's a start button, but it's also a one-touch ticket to a good time. Turn the ignition key and the start button glows red. Press the button for a second and the V8 burbles to life, idling in a low vroooom that sounds as sweet from the driver seat as it does standing outside the car. The low, rumbling sound beckons the driver to kick that gas pedal and send the tach needle up toward the redline.
Kick we did, burning through two 20.2-gallon tanks of gasoline on a trek through eastern England and Wales with no particular destination: On motorways, sometimes traveling twice the speed limit posted on American interstates, and following some amazing two lane roads amongst the sheep in rural Wales, free of traffic, narrower than some suburban driveways and glass smooth. When we were finished with the V8 Vantage, all we did was wish we could afford our own.
This Aston Martin exhilarates. As it is with one of our favorite sports cars, the Porsche 911, the V8 Vantage's engine is impressively tractable. Its 380 horsepower peaks at 7300 rpm, and while torque peaks at 5000 rpm, variable intake valve timing broadens the power curve nicely, so the torque flows freely almost from idle. This even power delivery allows a driver to be lazy with the shifting. Gear selection is almost inconsequential in a casual drive.
In a spirited drive, the Aston Martin V8 likes it best at the high end, where it delivers a more pronounced punch to the small of the back than the 911's horizontally opposed six-cylinder will. It's also smoother bouncing around near 8000 rpm. The V8 Vantage accelerates quickly, to be sure: This car will easily get to 60 mph in less than five seconds. Yet the acceleration is almost secondary to the pleasure of running the V8 to the rev limiter, gear after satisfying gear. And oh, the sound. It's intoxicating and addictive. We often found ourselves accelerating hard just to hear the sound and feel the thrust.
Aston Martin has also taken a page from Porsche with its traction- and skid- control electronics, which is to say that it has programmed them with room to drive. The V8 Vantage electronics have two modes: on or off, with no intermediate stage. But even with the stability control engaged, it allows enough latitude to work the tires and suspension. The electronics allow enthusiast drivers to snap the tail and turn the car a bit with a deliberate shot of power before the engine throttles back, or to slide the front tires a little before the inside wheel gets an application of brake.
The V8 Vantage is supposed to be an Aston Martin that can be driven everyday, from Beverly Hills to New York or anywhere in between. To that end it should be comfortable, easy to drive at less than breakneck pace and neither intimidating nor finicky.
It is, and it isn't. Visibility from the driver's seat is good. The A-pillars are constructed so the driver looks through the narrowest section. The rear glass is expansive, with no obstruction. The blind spots lie over the shoulders through the rear roof pillars, and they're an issue more when turning left or right, as from a parking lot onto the roadway. When changing lanes, large side mirrors compensate well.
In some situations the V8 Vantage was a bit more intimidating than a Nissan 350Z or even a 911, but the intimidation might have been a lack of familiarity, or a function of hustling a left-drive version around right-drive Britain. Yet even with the
The 2006 V8 Vantage is a spectacular performer, but it's also well balanced in broad terms, and a driver's appreciation for its balance is likely to increase as the miles accumulate. The V8 Vantage separates itself from the Aston Martins of yore, and largely backs up the company's marketing pitch, because it could very well serve as daily transportation. It's easy to get in and out of, easy to see out of and easy to drive around town. It has more room to carry stuff than most sports cars, and it's not finicky.
J.P. Vettraino filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Wales.
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