Reviewers have long cut Aston Martin too much slack. They'd concentrate on the cars' hand-built nature and thoroughly British pedigree as if that excused lousy quality, extreme weight, disappointing performance, inhumane ergonomics, trucklike chassis and hideous expense. Then, using the hoariest cliché, they'd apply the rhetorical coup de grace by reminding readers that James Bond drove one and that that pretty much sealed the greatness deal.
The new 2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, however, is a no-excuses two-seat sports car. It's beautifully built, performs brilliantly and while the ergonomics aren't perfect, they're not bad. All Aston had to do to achieve that was give up some Britishness.
And at $119,340 the Vantage is a bargain.
As a sculpture the V8 Vantage is one of the most stunning sports cars of all time; the body is tautly stretched over the 102.4-inch wheelbase with minimal overhangs, the fenders cover the 19-inch Bridgestone Potenza tires with devastating sensuousness and the windshield is fitted into its one-piece aluminum frame at such an extreme angle that the car's profile is practically ballistic.
But this isn't a car that only looks good from 50 feet away. It's actually more beautiful up close. The detailing is all very restrained and tasteful, but the body is undeniably provocative — the automotive equivalent of Kate Beckinsale in a skintight Versace gown. And it makes cars like the scoops-laden Ferrari F430 seem almost vulgar in comparison.
It says "Hand Built in Great Britain" right there on the Vantage's door sills, and this car proves the label should no longer make you wince. If you're thinking a frame built by carpenters using fresh-hewn ash and metalwork with "close enough" panel fit, get over it; those days are long gone.
The "VH" (Vertical Horizontal) structure that underpins the Vantage is an intricate assembly of aluminum extrusions, steel and magnesium castings and composite body panels, all bonded together with advanced adhesives, self-piercing rivets and welds so beautiful you can run your fingers over them and never feel a bump or joint. Some of the aluminum extrusions, like those framing the engine bay and bolstering the cockpit structure, are so luscious the designers decided they were better off not covering them at all.
Throw in details like ventilated disc brakes clamped by perfectly detailed Brembo calipers and the result is a car that is thrilling to behold in every conceivable way — and stops from 60 mph in just 113 feet. It's a $107,400 semi-exotic ($119,340 with 19-inch wheels, satellite navigation and a few other options) that packs both the visual firepower of a $250,000 super-exotic and the restrained elegance of a Porsche 911.
That's a neat trick.
Leveraging the network
Aston Martin is now owned by Ford and this dinkiest division of the Blue Oval has put the resources of its parent to good use in the V8 Vantage. For instance, the DOHC 32-valve V8 itself is based on the same block castings and general design used in both Jaguar products and the Lincoln LS, but has a personality all its own.
Assembled in Aston's engine workshop in Cologne, Germany, (as all current Aston engines are — there goes some Brit content right there) the V8's 89mm cylinder bores and relatively short 86mm crank stroke result in a nominal 4.3 liters of displacement (the 4.2-liter V8 in the Jaguar S-Type has 86mm bores and a 90.3mm stroke). That short stroke design combined with Aston's own cylinder heads, variable valve timing on the intake valves and a dry-sump lubrication system results in a V8 that revs with astonishing eagerness and a sound that's somewhere between the growl of a panther and a Jack Roush NASCAR machine.
In a world of 400-horsepower "base" Corvettes and 1,001-hp Bugatti Veyrons, the 380 hp available in the V8 Vantage seems almost modest — particularly since that power peak occurs at a screaming 7,000 rpm. That's deceptive. Stirring the rear-mounted six-speed manual transaxle takes some muscle and the Vantage rips to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and consumes the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds at 106 mph — quicker than the last base C6 Corvette we tested. And it does that with ease, grace and straightforward technique.
Beyond 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration, this engine is both easygoing and flexible. While the 302 pound-foot torque peak occurs at a rather lofty 5,000 rpm, there's grunt available from just off idle right up to the redline. Yes, there are faster cars, but there aren't many that feel so eager or are more fun to play with.
The V8 Vantage's seats aren't for the wide-of-butt, the window switches are mounted a bit awkwardly on the doors and the crystal start button doesn't change the fact that it would be more convenient to just twist the ignition key, but the glamour factor of the Aston's interior overwhelms those hiccups. What it can't disguise is that the thick suede-covered A-pillars restrict vision, particularly when diving toward the apex of a corner.
With the speedometer needle sweeping clockwise and the tachometer's pointer heading counterclockwise, the Vantage's cockpit is always a high-drama environment. The steering wheel is exactly the right diameter and the shifter rises up on the center tunnel to perch precisely where the driver's right hand naturally falls. Throw in the glorious sounds rising from the exhaust and this car envelops the senses in a way that cars running paddle shifters and other electronic interferences can't approach. As refined as the Vantage is, there's also something very elemental about it.
Thanks to its dry-sump system, the Vantage's power plant sits low between the front suspension's wishbones — just as the transmission's mass similarly sits between the rear suspension's wishbones. The result is a very balanced chassis with very little body roll, even when diving into off-camber corners at extreme velocities. It ripped through the slalom at a thrilling 68.6 mph. The rack and pinion steering isn't as quick as a Ferrari's or as precise as a Porsche's but it's plenty good and provides significantly more accurate feedback than the heavier steering in a Corvette or Mercedes SL.
Aston packs the V8 Vantage with such technologies as ABS, electronic brake assist, traction control, stability control and positive torque control, but they all operate almost transparently. Turning off the traction control only amplifies the car's reflexes; it doesn't turn it into a crazed tail-wagger.
This isn't a luxury car with sporty overtones, but a sports car. It rides rather stiffly but offers immediate turn-in, tenacious grip and unflappable transitions in compensation. It is as engrossing to drive as practically any other car in production.
Best Aston ever?
With the V12-powered DB9 and Vanquish positioned above it, the V8 Vantage is as close as this tiny, ancient company has ever come to producing an "entry-level" model. But the Vantage will redefine Aston Martin for the 21st century by moving it from the lunatic supercar fringe and positioning it as a sophisticated alternative to high-end Mercedes sports cars, low-end Ferraris and, most directly, the Porsche 911. In Southern California, where 911s are more common than house cats, the V8 Vantage is as conspicuously imperious as a British lion (with a German heart and American financing) strolling up Rodeo Drive.
It may be a little less English than before, but the Vantage V8 is the sort of world-class product that puts the Great into Britain. No excuses need be made. No slack need be cut.
Senior Road Test Editor Josh Jacquot says:
The beauty of Aston's V8 Vantage is in the details: the tiny chrome button that releases the hatch, exhaust tips that exit through the body and titanium-colored bodywork with curves in more places than Jessica Biel. Don't forget the engine note that, above 5,000 rpm, is an anthem of flat-plane exhaust pulses combined with a distinctly British intake trumpet. This is a uniquely understated machine that justifies every penny of its $107,400 asking price — even if all you got for that sum were its looks.
But there's so much more than exquisite aesthetics. The chassis is a marvel of lightweight aluminum extrusions and castings that, should its body be removed, are equally easy on the eyes. The engine — 4.3 liters, four cams, dry-sump lubrication and variable valve timing — is every bit as modern and powerful as the class requires.
The Vantage speaks volumes for how a relatively heavy car (3,461 pounds) can be pleasing with enough development. You never feel its weight. Transitions are confident and there's a huge gap between the limit of adhesion and the limit of control. It slides confidently and returns to its intended path with little drama. The Vantage is what it looks like: A stonk-fast sports car that delivers on the promise made by its wide tires, gorgeous sound and exotic proportions.
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I love watching a brand revive itself. Whether it's Nissan or Harley-Davidson, there's undeniable joy in watching a former-great-turned-dog finally have its day again. Aston Martin has a history most marques would kill for, but for much of the past three decades it's been stuck in a funk that almost made me forget the Le Mans-winning, Bond-toting glory days. Now it's got a roster of all-star players, any of which are worthy of the world's most popular secret agent.
This latest addition, the V8 Vantage, continues Aston Martin's recent tradition of bringing unrivaled style and uncompromised performance together in a tightly wrapped, competitively priced package. The interior and exterior designs are among the most compelling I've experienced, and the V8's soundtrack proves you don't need 12 cylinders to induce giggles in middle-aged men. I would prefer slightly lighter steering, and I'm still not sold on the "backwards" tachometer (it rotates counterclockwise as revs rise), but I would likely learn to live with both of them if my garage, and take-home pay, had room for this car. And because the target V8 Vantage buyer won't have those issues to wrestle with, I'm sure this model will be another unmitigated success for the revived British brand.
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