2002 Aston Martin Vanquish First Drive

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2002 Aston Martin V12 Vanquish Coupe

(5.9L V12 6-speed Automated Manual)

There's a tired word for you: awesome. It's been overused and abused ever since Sean Penn uttered it, in full stoner-boy melodrama, after Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) cold-cocked a liquor-store bandit at the end of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Most children of the '80s have learned to curtail their use of the word over the last 12 years, lest they appear hopelessly stuck in that so-called decade of decadence. But words learned during young, impressionable years are hard to stifle, especially when extreme circumstances leave you convinced that no other term will suffice.

And so it was that I found myself piloting a $228,000 Aston Martin Vanquish through a sweeping corner at 70 mph in second gear. The 460-horsepower 6.0-liter V12 engine was belting out a low-frequency rumble that was on par with, but completely different from, anything wearing a prancing horse. The tach was reading just under 6,000 rpm, but the V12 felt completely happy at this engine speed, and indeed redline was still 1,000 rpm away. All the while, my hands gripped a fat three-spoke steering wheel that was gathering information on every subtle nuance of the pavement below before transmitting it directly into my cerebral cortex.

And yes, despite my best efforts, I simply couldn't contain it: "awe-some!" (Hey, at least I didn't follow it up with an equally tired, "Totally awesome!").

If that word is simply too haggard for you to take seriously, I've got several more. How about controlled? The suspension system Aston Martin uses for its Vanquish incorporates an all-aluminum double-wishbone design, front and rear. The car sits on 19-inch 12-spoke alloy wheels that are 9 inches wide up front, 10 inches wide in back. Tires are by Yokohama, with the 255/40s directing the car and 285/40s putting power to the pavement. An on-board tire-monitoring system keeps track of the individual pressure and temperature at each wheel. While ride quality could be described as stiff, it never felt abusive. So for those who want to know, yes, the Vanquish is fully capable of serving daily-driver duty.

But don't make the mistake of confusing livability with lifelessness. A torque peak of 400 pound-feet at 5,500 rpm means controlling the V12's power in city driving takes a lot of restraint. Aston Martin has done its part by providing a limited-slip differential that works with a traction control system to keep the car pointed where the driver intends. The system can be switched off, for those who define sliding the rear end of a quarter-million-dollar car as a good time. It's easy to do because of the engine's seemingly infinite mid-range power. Roll into the throttle while exiting a corner, and with traction control off, its easy to reorient the car's nose. Again, whether or not this is something you enjoy doing likely depends on your total net worth and your insurance agent's level of trust.

I limited my sliding to the kind you do after opening one of the Vanquish's aluminum doors. Slipping into this supercar requires no more work than your typical exotic, and once inside, you are treated to a collection of leather and aluminum that could set new standards for material quality in the automotive world. Alcantara suede lines the roof while brushed metal surrounds a center stack that is, unfortunately, chock full of Jaguar (and even Ford!) switchgear. If you can ignore the Blue Oval parts bin raiding and, instead, focus on the gauge cluster, you'll be treated to white-faced instruments with green printing in a shade that could only come from jolly old England. In a welcome break from Aston Martin tradition, the primary and secondary controls are, for the most part, logically placed and easy to use.

Despite the ease of entry and functional interior, this is not a car you simply hop inside and go. In case the quarter-million-dollar price tag isn't enough to intimidate you during your first time behind the wheel, there is the small matter of getting that V12 started. The Vanquish is equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, but with only two pedals to operate, it becomes readily apparent that Aston Martin didn't just throw the DB7 unit into its premier performance car and call it a day. In a nod to cross-town rival Ferrari, the Brits decided to go with a similar paddle shifter system as that used on the 360 Modena (first seen on the F355). The system requires the driver to place his foot on the brake and pull both paddles back at the same time. This puts the Vanquish in neutral and, assuming the ignition key is turned to the "Start" position, lights up the large red "Engine Start" button located in the center stack. Press that button and 12 cylinders spring to life in a healthy roar that will have neighborhood car guys sprinting toward your driveway and calling out, "What's that? What's that?"

A round indicator, about the size of a golf ball and located between the tachometer and speedometer, tells the driver which gear is engaged. Using the right paddle for upshifts and the left paddle to drop a gear, this transmission is not a glorified automatic, like that found on Porsche's Turbos equipped with the "Tiptronic," but a true manual transmission utilizing an electro-hydraulic clutch and pressure plate. Upshifting with the paddles under full throttle produced a slight lurch, yet at light-to-medium throttle, the gearchanges proved downright silky.

But it's only after downshifting that the system's "F1" moniker makes complete sense, for no other experience will so quickly give you visions of slingshot passes and last-lap lead changes. Tug on the left paddle while braking for a corner and the V12 engine blips satisfyingly as the red gear indicator drops. No chassis wobble as engine and driveshaft find a happy medium, no contorted foot action as you try to match revs, just a seamless rise in rpm as the engine takes advantage of a lower gear. Roll into the throttle, hear the deep grunt of 12 cylinders powering you through the corner, and suddenly Michael Schumacher doesn't seem so tough.

That addictive music continues to envelop you as the revs rise and fall between each corner, but keep the windows up and you'll only hear a small portion of it. As our photographer noted while shooting photos toward the end of our canyon run, "Every time you came past me, the exhaust roar was bouncing off these canyon walls and it sounded soooo cool."

I was sort of bummed that I had forgotten to put the windows down and enjoy the V12's symphony during my brief time behind the wheel of this newest supercar, but I really respected our photographer, another child of the '80s, for not using the word awesome at that particular moment.

A special thanks to Penske Jaguar-Aston Martin in West Covina, Calif., for offering us some seat time in this 2002 Vanquish.

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