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From its jeweled HID headlights back, this Aston Martin V8 Vantage is aimed at capturing new customers without alienating old ones. (Photos by Charles Best)

Aston Mainstream: The gorgeous V8 Vantage has the 911 in its crosshairs


ON SALE: January 2006
BASE PRICE: $110,000
POWERTRAIN: 4.3-liter, 380-hp, 302-lb-ft V8; rwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3461 pounds
0 TO 60 MPH: 4.9 seconds (mfr.)
FUEL MILEAGE (EPA COMBINED): 16.0 mpg (est.)

Gwynedd County, Wales, on the fringe of the Cambrian Mountains: Blame it on a curious photographer, or the locked gate across a narrow dirt road—a path, really—bisecting pastures full of sheep. Here was an Aston Martin, 18-inch wheels and fat Z-rated Potenzas scratching for grip, emasculated by the low friction coefficient, flinging dirt, rocks and bits of sod up and around the rear wheel wells, side mirrors a foot from the adjacent hedges, backing uphill through bends for the better part of a click in search of space wide enough to turn around in, awash in the acrid scent of vaporizing clutch pad.

The typical, well-adjusted automobile enthusiast would cringe. The Aston-Martin Owners Club would petition the Queen to have the perpetrators banished from the realm. Not a typical sports car test, this, but demanding nonetheless, and perhaps in some inadvertent fashion, appropriate.

The 2006 V8 Vantage is not the familiar Aston Martin, if we’re to believe the folks at AM HQ in Gaydon, Warwickshire. If it’s not exactly the Aston Martin for Everyman, it’s the one for everyday. The new Vantage mixes Aston Martin’s unique brand of performance with a talent for squeezing into little parking spaces in London or Beverly Hills. It melds proper British design, finish and club-room ambience with the wash-and-wear dependability Porsche 911 owners have enjoyed for decades.

That’s the shtick, anyway. If the sheep could talk, they’d say, “So far, so good.”

THE NEW V8 VANTAGE RUNS BACK- ward to Aston Martin’s 91-year history, at least to the predecessors sharing its name. The 170-mph V8 Vantage Series One was the world’s fastest road car when launched in 1977, and left its mark as Britain’s first “supercar.” The V8 Vantage of the late ’90s had a supercharged engine that generated up to 600 hp, and remains the most powerful Aston Martin ever built.

In contrast, the 2006 V8 Vantage is the least powerful, least expensive car in the AM line. At $110,000, it will be—if such a concept is not completely ludicrous—the entry-level Aston Martin. The new Vantage is the pure sports car in an Aston Martin scheme that closely replicates Ferrari’s in concept: It is to the flagship Vanquish S and the V12 DB9 2+2 as the F430 ($180,785) is to the 575M Maranello and 612 Scaglietti.

The 380-hp V8 Vantage is the product of a different Aston Martin than the one that created its namesakes. This AM is fully integrated into Ford Motor Co.’s global blueprint and is expected to generate some unspecified return on Ford’s 18-year investment. AM execs say Ford requires them to meet three basic objectives, which they will not identify. If they achieve those goals, Aston Martin gets keys to Ford’s global array of advanced engineering, design and materials research, wind tunnels, dynos, Crays, etc., with full autonomy and no oversight. The company’s small production volume allows it to apply technology that Ford’s advanced research might learn about—things Fomoco can’t risk when tooling vehicles for production in the hundreds of thousands.

The other side of that coin: Within two years, AM expects to increase annual production to 5000, up from roughly 1200 in 2005, already 24 times as many as it built in ’92 (50). The V8 Vantage will account for 60 percent of the projected volume. It’s a plan full of promise and risk, but no one in Gaydon sounds anything less than confident.

“We are in a great place,” says Jeremy Main, development director. “We are expanding, but not too quickly. We understand our customers and can capture select new ones without alienating the old ones.”

NEARLY ALL OF ASTON MARTIN’S operations are now centralized on a campus shared with Jaguar and Range Rover at Britain’s Heritage Motor Center in Gaydon, which also hosts V8 Vantage production. The new facilities are crucial to a new process at AM.

Shown as a concept at the 2003 North American International Auto Show, the V8 Vantage went from approval to production in 34 months. That may not be the industry’s benchmark development time, but it’s lightning fast by Aston standards, and Main expects it to get shorter. With engineering, finance, production and marketing in one location, answers are never more than a walk away. Decisions can be made on the spot. More computer resources allow more math-modeling before prototypes are built.

“Aston Martin owners are devoted, but a DB9 is a fourth or fifth car that only occasionally goes out, and never in the rain,” Main says. “The Vantage is meant to be parked on the street with everything else. Put simply, it was built to be a daily driver, whether it actually becomes one or not.”

To that end, Main’s crew set some development hard points. The V8 Vantage had to be easy to drive, and linear in all its responses. It had to be easy to climb in and out of, with excellent visibility from the driver’s seat and a low intimidation factor. It needed space for a briefcase and other accoutrements behind the seats, with room for at least a couple of decent-sized suitcases. It had to be “safe,” measured by first-rate crash protection and advanced electronic driving aids. Finally, it had to be reliable.

Beyond the 911 and F430, Aston Martin benchmarked sedans like the Audi A8, and undertook an unprecedented development program. It built 78 prototypes (more than twice the production run for the ’77 Series One). It ran the 4.3-liter V8 three times longer on the dyno than the DB9’s V12, and accumulated more than a million development miles. Venues included the Nord-schleife in Germany, Nardo in Italy and the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Main’s favorite test was 12,000 miles near terminal velocity (published at 174 mph) on a public highway traversing Dubai, air conditioner running full-bore. Ambient temperature routinely approached 120 degrees, he says, while the V8 Vantage’s body surfaces cooked at 190.

ONLY ASTON MARTIN’S CLASSIC front-longitudinal engine allowed both the long hood proportions and the center of inertia that engineers wanted, according to Main. With all its cylinder bores behind the front axle, the V8 Vantage is by definition a mid-engine car. The transaxle is in the rear, connected to the V8 by a carbon fiber driveshaft in an aluminum torque tube. This creates 49/51 front/rear weight distribution, so engineers can tune for the ride/handling balance, rather than to compensate for an inherent imbalance.

At 172.5 inches, the V8 Vantage is three inches shorter than a 911 on a wheelbase 10 inches longer (102.4) and a track three inches wider. Its frame is a mix of extruded aluminum box sections, stamped floorpans and precision castings at key points like suspension attachments. The windshield header is a single aluminum casting, the door frames are magnesium. Everything is hot- or cold-bonded, aerospace style, with minimal application of self-piercing rivets and no conventional structural welds. Glue, the company says, allows cleaner production processes and better vibration-dampening properties than conventional welding.

The shape was penned by Henrik Fisker (best known for his BMW Z8), who has since left AM and gone independent. The panels are a mix of aluminum (doors and hood), steel (side panels and rear fenders) and resin composite (front fenders and rear hatch), all cold-bonded to the frame. The rear hatch allows easy access to storage behind the rear seats, and the cargo hold measures an impressive 10.6 cubic feet (compare with 4.76 cubic feet in the 911’s front compartment). For all the mass-trimming design in its frame and body, the V8 Vantage weighs 3461 pounds, or 330 pounds more than a Carrera S. That gives the 911 the better power-to-weight ratio and inspires a new appreciation for what Porsche does entirely with steel. That said, with 20,000 lb-ft of torque required to generate one degree of flex in the V8 Vantage frame, Main claims his car is far more rigid than anything in its class, including the F430.

The V8 Vantage is suspended with aluminum double wishbones and coil-over shocks front and rear. Even the shock casings are aluminum. The steering rack is solid-mounted and facing forward, race car style, and in imitable AM fashion, the brake rotors are grooved rather than cross-drilled. The grooves cool and clear water as well as holes do, according to Main, and more effectively clear brake dust.

Gaydon is a bit sensitive when it comes to the origin of the V8. Main concedes that it starts with a Jaguar (corporate) block and bore centers, but says the casting is slightly different and the machining entirely so. Every other part, including the heads, pistons and con rods, is unique to Aston Martin, and the company has its own engine assembly plant in Cologne, Germany.

AM’s 4.3-liter V8 features dry-sump lubrication, improving oiling under high g loads and lowering the engine’s mass such that the crank balancers rotate four inches above the ground (a thought lost on us on dirt roads in Wales). The 380 hp peaks at 7300 rpm. Peak torque (305 lb-ft) comes at 5000 rpm, but variable intake valve timing broadens the curve nicely. Main says 85 percent is available from 1500 rpm. The V8 Vantage will be launched with only one transmission: a conventional six-speed manual.

GIVE THE PEOPLE IN GAYDON credit. Manufacturers tend to introduce high-performance cars to the press in as controlled a fashion as they can manage. That can mean a limited number of laps on a racetrack, a prescribed road route or even convoys. Aston Martin had enough faith in its work to hand over the keys to a left-drive V8 Vantage and say, “See you in 48 hours.” Naturally, good sense and decorum demanded some close pre-drive inspection.

From its sneering, bull-nose grille back, the V8 Vantage shows absolutely no equivocation as to what it is. The bright red brake calipers are trick, as are the cantilevered side mirrors, though we can’t fathom why the thin struts aren’t painted to match the car. The V8 Vantage has a more obvious handcrafted quality than a 911, seen in the details: the complexity of curves in the front fenders, the wire mesh screens behind the front wheel wells, or the way the hood stretches all the way to the top of the grille, with no filler in between.

The same applies inside, only more so. The cockpit impresses, not necessarily for its ergonomic perfection (it’s not bad that way, either), but for the feeling it inspires. It surrounds you with a sense of achievement, well-being, even wealth, and there’s not a shred of carbon fiber anywhere. The headliner is Alcantara; the balance of the soft panels, including the dash, is in hand-stitched leather. The seatbelt buckles are sheathed in leather, and the three climate-control knobs are machined from solid aluminum. Main claims the polished aluminum ring around the shifter costs more to make than the full instrument panel in a typical compact car.

The glass start button resembles the face of a good watch, right in the middle of the V8 Vantage’s center stack. It glows red when ignition is switched on, and blue-green when the V8 fires. The burbling idle sounds pleasant enough from the cockpit, much better from outside.

So it began. It continued through two 20.2-gallon tanks of petrol ($5-plus per gallon), over heck and half of Wales: on the motorway and tracing some of the most amazing two-lanes, often deserted, narrower than some driveways and glass-smooth.

And yes, there were off-road excursions in search of the mythical perfect photo backdrop—through weedy fields and up farm trails. Add long periods of idling, repeated starts and stops, reverse, forward, reverse, forward, inches at a time, positioning between boulders. It was treatment no owner is likely to subject a car to, and the V8 Vantage never missed a beat. The temperature gauge never moved past center, idle speed never wavered and the clutch never overheated. Another wash-and-wear hi-po sports car? So far, so good.

Visibility from the driver’s seat is good. The A-pillars are turned in a fashion that lets the driver see past their narrowest section. The rear glass is large, with no obstruction. The only blind spots lie through the rear roof pillars, and large side mirrors compensate well. The seats are firm and supportive, with all the bolster you’ll need, and comfortable for the long haul. Interior noise levels will not disturb at triple-digit speeds.

Oh, yeah. The go. Even with the seatback nearly bolt upright, none of Vantage’s long bonnet is visible from the wheel. On narrow Welsh roads it can feel pretty wide, and that’s a double-edged sword. It never feels less than planted, but at least through a significant learning period, placing the front tires demands some degree of faith.

The V8 Vantage exhilarates when given the spurs. Similarities to a 911 include an impressively tractable engine. While the V8 spins happily to nearly 8000 rpm, torque spurts freely almost from idle, to the point where gear selection during lazy drives is almost inconsequential. Yet AM’s V8 likes it best at the high end, where it delivers a more pronounced kick in the seat than the 911’s boxer six. It’s perceptibly smoother bouncing around near the rev limiter.

Aston Martin did nicely with its traction- and skid-control electronics. There are two modes: on or all the way off (handy when backing uphill on dirt roads). With the electronics engaged, there’s enough latitude to snap the tail a bit and countersteer before the engine throttles back.

The ride is hardly stiff—in our estimation, quite comfortable. Its steering is also exceptionally communicative. The Aston Martin may actually turn in more crisply than a 911, and its steering feels more linear, in that wheel angle remains more consistent to the amount of input lock-to-lock. It is inherently more neutral, too, less prone to tail-wagging. The V8 Vantage is sweetly balanced in the broadest sense. It’s not likely to blow anyone’s knickers off in any particular way (except, perhaps, with its looks), as a Vanquish S or even a Viper might. Nor is it likely to disappoint in any way, and a driver’s appreciation for its symmetry will grow as miles accumulate.

IN A PARKING LOT IN DOLGELLAU, Wales, an English tourist approached the car and bubbled: It’s gorgeous! Her husband has always aspired to an Aston Martin. Maybe some day… and how much is it? About £80,000. Oh. This must not be the one.

There is that, even if it’s hard to imagine how a $110,000 automobile might devalue a brand. And in the States, that price makes the V8 Vantage a relative bargain. At today’s exchange rates, the British retail price actually converts to $143,000, and U.S. cars could come with more standard equipment. Base content and option prices remain to be sorted, but the V8 Vantage will be available with a full complement of stuff, including heated seats, reverse sensors, HID headlights and nav system. The first European cars will be delivered in October; U.S. sales begin after the first of the year.

The Aston Martin V8 Vantage will play at least as well with well-heeled sports car enthusiasts as it does with sheep.
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