John Barker, Contributor
The 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage N400 is vivid proof of the can-do culture that exists at Aston Martin. Far from being unsettled by the recent and much publicized takeover last year by a private equity company, Aston Martin CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez and his boys from Gaydon are in a buoyant mood, and with good reason if this high-performance V8 Vantage is anything to go by.
The story of the 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage N400 actually began back in 2006, when a small team of engineers and technicians were handpicked from within the Gaydon workforce and tasked with building a special V8 Vantage to tackle the Nürburgring 24-hour race. The car scored a tremendous result, completing 130 laps and claiming 24th place overall among 220 starters. This accomplishment spawned the subsequent N24 racecar program, which has led to Aston Martin's presence in Europe's GT4 racing series for production-based sports cars.
So when Paul Barritt, program engineer for the V8 Vantage, suggested to Aston CEO Dr. Ulrich Bez that the company should celebrate its achievements at the Nürburgring with a sportier V8 Vantage road car, Bez gave an immediate and enthusiastic go-ahead to build a series of coupes and roadsters.
Maybe the fact that Bez co-drove the 2006 entry at the Nürburgring has made him a little more receptive to this idea.
The Total Package
Barritt's plan has had timing on its side, for a new Sports Pack had just been signed off as an option for the 2008 V8 Vantage, and this complement of bits has become the core of the N400. It comprises a comprehensive package of chassis upgrades that includes stiffer springs, new Bilstein dampers and a stiffer rear antiroll bar, then adds the front and rear wishbones of the V8 Vantage Roadster, and concludes with 19-inch wheels that have a graphite paint finish.
In addition to the chassis upgrades, the 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage N400 also features a more powerful version of the 4.3-liter V8, which now develops 400 horsepower at 7,000 rpm and 310 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm (up from 380 hp and 303 lb-ft). The performance boost comes from a recalibration for high-octane fuel, plus a pair of air ducts with variable intakes (taken from the DBS) that sit low behind the front bumper on either side of the front grille and improve the engine's aerobic fitness above 5,000 rpm.
And that, at least as far as hardware changes go, is that. No shiny new engine internals, no performance exhaust system, no uprated brakes or track-day tires. There aren't any significant visual changes either, save for bright silver mesh on the grille and a pair of more sharply sculpted rocker sills. Indeed, the casual observer of the N400 could simply think this is a V8 Vantage with optional wheels.
Making a Statement
This car is No. 001 of 240 N400 coupes, and it wears a dazzling coat of Karrussell Orange, the brightest of the three special paint colors introduced for this limited-edition model. It certainly makes a statement, although those of a less extroverted persuasion might prefer Bergwerk Black or Lightning Silver. (Presumably the marketing types didn't like the way Steilstrecke Silver trips off the tongue.)
Inside you get any color so long as it's black (call it the Henry Ford option), although this can be personalized with contrasting stitching in a range of colors. Features unique to the N400 are perforated leather seat upholstery and a special "micro-spin" aluminum trim for the center console with a map of the Nordschleife.
With an asking price of $132,900 for the coupe and $145,900 for the roadster (plus a further $6,000 if you opt for the Sportshift automated manual transmission), the N400 appears to be a lot more expensive than the standard V8 Vantage, which starts at $111,300. Since most Aston buyers load up their purchase with options worth as much as $20,000, we think the bottom line is reasonable. That's a view apparently shared by others, as all 240 N400 coupes have already been snapped up without so much as a test-drive.
The Great British Road
There's a brief but enduringly satisfying ritual to starting the V8 Vantage, and the N400 is thankfully no different. Insert the key and twist, then push that big start button. The engine fires and flares with the moment of unrestrained revs that is Aston's hallmark and then quickly settles into a gentle burble.
This car is equipped with the Sportshift single-clutch automated manual transmission, so instead of slotting the stubby gearlever into 1st you simply hook the fingers of your right hand around the lightly sprung paddle on the steering wheel and pull back. Unlike other automated manuals, the Sportshift has been engineered so it'll creep forward like a conventional automatic with a torque converter.
It's with no little anticipation that we head out through the gates at Gaydon, short-shifting up through the gears while the engine's vital fluids gain some useful operating temperature. Paul Barritt has warned us not to expect a radical change in the dynamic character of the V8 Vantage, as the chassis modifications have simply made an already sporty car that little bit more focused. Yet within just a few miles covered at modest pace, the N400 feels like the best V8 Vantage we've ever driven.
Compliance With Control
As the traffic thins and the road becomes more challenging, the N400 reveals a new and satisfying level of feedback and response. You really sense the structural rigidity of the aluminum chassis, and you can also feel the suspension working and the tires biting through the winter grime to generate truly impressive levels of grip.
With a 40 percent increase in the front spring rates and a 30 percent increase for the rears together with that stiffer, rear antiroll bar, the 3,594-pound N400 coupe feels noticeably firmer, yet still compliant and controlled rather than stiff-legged. The N400 reacts not just consistently, but also consistently well.
Better, the nose and tail now work in harmony. The front end of the standard V8 Vantage has always felt supremely well tied down, but the tail has a tendency to bound over every seemingly innocuous bump in the road, creating an unsettling sense of disunity. In contrast, the N400 gives a real sense of precision and control as you slice along a fast and difficult road.
It's not all grip and no fun either, for although the 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage N400 generates unshakable levels of road-holding even in wintry conditions, such is the level and detail of feedback flowing through the steering wheel and seat cushion that you are constantly involved in the action. It's not raw, but instead as if the inputs have been filtered and refined to remove any distracting information. To make a descriptive analogy, a Porsche is a pint of real ale, while this Aston is a double shot of triple-distilled vodka.
Give Us the Power
Like the chassis modifications, the engine tweaks have brought significant gains without any penalties. The V8 pulls just as smoothly and sounds just as hearty through the low- and midrange, and then, just as the exhausts open up and treat you to the full booming soundtrack, the V8 pulls even harder, sending the silver sliver of a tach needle racing round the dial with an insistence the standard car could never muster.
Consequently, where you'd normally shift up at 6,000 rpm or thereabouts to tap into the midrange torque, you can now hold the intermediate gears for longer, reveling in the sharper and more aggressive response and enjoying the added reach it brings, particularly into 3rd gear. In short, where the original car sometimes leads you to question whether it does indeed have the full quota of 380 hp, the N400's keener state of tune feels good for the lot.
Aston quotes acceleration to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds (about 0.3 second quicker than the standard V8 Vantage) and it doesn't quit until it reaches 177 mph. Aston's Barritt tells us that a back-to-back test between the N400 and a standard V8 Vantage at the long, circular test track at Nardo in Italy revealed that the N400 was 1 second quicker from 15 to 100 mph.
Give Us the Money
With most every 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage coupe and roadster already sold, we're hoping the mechanical improvements find their way into the standard cars.
It turns out that the Sports Pack suspension is scheduled to join the new car options list in the summer (and as a retrofit option from late autumn). There's no official word from Aston Martin about the engine, but we suspect it will become standard equipment in the V8 Vantage within the next 12 months.
Just as they say, racing improves the breed.
Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.
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