If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Porsche must be feeling rather chuffed right now. Aston Martin, that eccentrically English marque, has just unleashed the V8 Vantage, a car that pays homage to the seminal 911. The engine is in the front, not the rear, but conceptually, this small, everyday sport coupe is a match for the Porsche.
The similarities are far from coincidental. Aston Martin's CEO, Dr. Ulrich Bez, used to work for Porsche and it was under his watch that the 993 was produced, the car that most 911 fanatics regard as the finest of the breed. Bez is therefore better placed than most to take on the latest incarnation, the mighty 997.
Designed to sit below the DB9 in the Aston lineup, the V8 Vantage will cost from $110,000, although the price could rise as high as $120,000 by the time desirable options such as a navigation system and full leather trim are added. That's about $20,000 more than a fully loaded 911 Carrera S, but Aston buyers will be assured of greater exclusivity.
Aston will build just 2,000 Vantages each year in its factory in Gaydon, England. For many, this alone will be enough to tempt them toward the winged badge, and Aston's order books are full for the next two years.
A Supermodel Supercar
And if the extreme exclusivity isn't enough, just look at the thing. The new Vantage is possibly the only car in the world that can make the gorgeous DB9 look less than perfect. The basic silhouette and most of the design details are shared between the two — this car couldn't be anything other than a contemporary Aston Martin — but the Vantage still manages to assert its own identity.
It's shorter, squarer and tauter than the DB9 and the basic proportions are even better. Aston likes to suggest that it has the looks of an athlete in Lycra and for once, the marketing mumbo jumbo is spot on. You could park this car on your driveway and call it an ornament.
A Volante (convertible) version of the Vantage is in development, but the hardtop's lines are so right we almost wish Aston wouldn't go there.
The V8 Heart of the Vantage
The Aston's firepower comes courtesy of a 4.3-liter V8 engine that's built in Germany. Don't even begin to suggest that this is a version of Jaguar's V8 unless you want to incur the CEO's wrath. Although a handful of components, such as the variable valve timing system, are shared between the two, Bez is adamant that this is a bespoke Aston design. And there is plenty of evidence to support his claims — even the block is different.
The V8's output is also way beyond that of any normally aspirated Jag. This motor troubles the dyno with 380 horsepower at 7,300 rpm and 302 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. These figures are impressive — a 911 Carrera S produces 355 hp and 295 lb-ft — but at a hefty 3,483 pounds, the Aston weighs 331 pounds more than the Porsche. The Vantage's all-important power-to-weight ratio is therefore marginally inferior to that of the German.
Bez was anxious that the Vantage should have a different character to the DB9 and Vanquish, and much of this is derived from the engine note. The V12s fitted to the larger cars produce deep, melodious symphonies. The V8, by contrast, is more highly strung and more urgent. The deep bass burble gives way to a baritone cry.
It sounds very different, but that's no bad thing. At cruising speeds, it's quiet enough to be civilized, but open the throttle at 4,000 rpm and the variable valve timing, coupled with the opening of an exhaust valve, turns up the volume by several hundred percent. On the open road, you will hear a V8 Vantage coming long before you see it. Inside the cabin, the noise doesn't sound quite as rich as a 911's, but it's certainly charismatic. No BMW ever sounded this good.
The Aston is a heavy car and at first acquaintance it doesn't feel as rapid as Aston's figures of zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and a 175-mph top speed suggest. You need to rev this engine hard to deliver its best, the instantaneous low-down thrust associated with the V12 is lacking. But to drive it hard is to discover the depth of its talent.
To do this, you must make violent use of the six-speed manual gearbox, which transfers the power through a carbon-fiber driveshaft to a limited-slip differential. The shifter is well located and although it's not super-quick, it's less notchy than a 911's. A light clutch is indicative of the Aston's everyday appeal.
If you're left-foot-challenged, Aston will introduce a clutchless manual version of the V8 next year.
By introducing a dry sump oil system, Aston's engineers have been able to mount the engine low in the chassis. It also sits behind the front axle so this is very much a front-midengined car. The weight distribution is an encouraging 49-to-51 front to rear.
On the road, this makes a tremendous difference. While the DB9 always feels as though it's pivoting about its nose, the Vantage turns in much more crisply than its big brother and it's also much, much more agile. This car is pointy like no Aston before it, and this characteristic is enhanced by steering that's better weighted than a DB9's. A 911's steering is even more communicative and its chassis a little more responsive, but the Vantage is far from disgraced in its company.
Aston's engineers were stung by criticism of the DB9's ride quality and they've responded with a better setup for the V8. Although this is officially the most sporting interpretation of the brand, it actually rides better than the DB9. It never feels less than firm compared with, for example, a Jaguar XKR, but the high-speed body control is excellent.
Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, but our test car rode on optional 19-inch rims and Bridgestone rubber sized 235/40ZR19 front and 275/35ZR19 rear. The first production models will be highly specified and feature the 19-inch rims. Aston also expects most customers to opt for these in the future and much of the development work was focused on the 19-inch option.
The brakes, which consist of four four-piston calipers and four vented and grooved steel discs (14-inch diameter in front and 13-inch diameter in the rear), offer plenty of feel and although the pedal isn't as firm as some enthusiasts might like, it's easy to modulate the pressure. Ceramic brakes aren't even an option at present, although Aston is considering introducing such a system on the next-generation Vanquish.
A Bespoke Cabin of Beauty
Aston's contemporary cabins are a world away from those of yesteryear, which were a patchwork of parts pinched from Ford. The new Vantage shares its fascia architecture with the more expensive DB9. The exquisite instrument cluster remains and so does the crystal starter button that glows red when engaged. There are few obvious signs that the Vantage cabin has been detuned relative to that of the DB9. Fanatics might spot that the stereo is no longer made by Linn, but there's little else to complain about.
Indeed, some of the detailing in the Vantage is actually ahead of the early DB9. Aluminum heater controls, for example, have replaced the cheap-feeling plastic alternatives. The fit and finish of these early cars also suggests that Aston has learned some important lessons of late. A 911 might still feel marginally better built, but its Teutonic cabin lacks the charismatic appeal of the Aston's. This Vantage feels like an expensive, high-quality object.
There really is little to criticize. The center console is still packed with too many identical buttons that have been arranged without recourse to ergonomic theory. The switches for the interior lights, for example, reside alongside those for the (optional) satellite navigation system. Tall drivers might also find that the Recaro-sourced seats lack under-thigh support, but at least the wheel moves in four directions to help optimize the driving position.
The only real evidence of parts-bin plundering concerns the key, which mixes Volvo with Ford. Bez reckons that he'd rather "spend 1 million pounds on 10 more horsepower than a new key," but it's a shame that the most tactile element of the whole car is also its weakest link.
Whereas the DB9 has a couple of token rear seats suitable only for go-faster babies, the Vantage is a strict two-seater. The shelf behind the seats is reserved for bags and complements the well-shaped 10.6-cubic-foot trunk. Access to the latter is aided by the Vantage's hatchback rear door, but Aston's claim that it can accommodate two sets of golf clubs must be taken with more than a pinch of salt.
A Sell-Out Success
Given the level of Ford's investment in Aston, the company's engineers needed to produce a car that could stand toe-to-toe with Germany's finest. And they've succeeded. In some key areas, such as the steering, the 911 still has the edge, but you need to make no excuses for choosing the 2006 Aston Martin V8 Vantage. On a fast, flowing road, this car would keep pace with a Carrera S which, for Aston, is mission accomplished.
Moreover, the rapid development of the company's dealer network has made this car a viable, if costly, everyday proposition. Aston Martin, that English curiosity, is becoming a serious player on the world scene.
Long may it continue.