October 19, 2008
October 20, 2008
Steveston, British Columbia – British upscale sports car builder Aston Martin has certainly had its share of ups and downs in recent times – perhaps not a “roller coaster ride,” but something pretty close. After several years of stability under Ford Motor Company, the brand was “put on the block” and the rumour mill worked overtime, speculating wildly on who would end up owning the operation. It was finally bought by a UK consortium headed by David Richards, best known for his involvement with Prodrive, which runs the successful Subaru World Rally Championship Team and other racing operations worldwide.
One thing the Ford ownership must have done was to stabilize the design and development process associated with these once-quirky automobiles. Enthusiasts may mutter regretfully when large automakers take over classic makes, but there’s no denying the benefits of highly-sophisticated research and development resources of the kind Ford must have made available. These benefits will surely be felt for generations of Aston Martins to come and no doubt the new owners have a few cards to play too.
One Ford legacy must be in the pricing department, because it was a surprise to me to find that you can buy a 2009 Aston for as little (forgive the use of the word “little”!) as $131,500 – that’s a ten thousand dollar drop from the base price of the 2008 Vantage Coupe. Like most other people, I’d gotten used to thinking $250,000 – $350,000 when Aston Martins were talked about, but right now, the basic list price for a V8 Vantage Coupe is the aforementioned hundred and thirty grand – a figure topped by several models from Mercedes-Benz and Porsche for starters. What we have here is an Aston at a very competitive price in its admittedly-lofty market slot.
My most recent Aston Martin experience was with a V8 Vantage Roadster, which expectedly costs more than its coupe equivalent – but not that much more. Competitive price or no, this is very much a classic Aston Martin design, which means it ranks with the world’s finest sporting cars, regardless of nameplate. It looks, perhaps, like a Jaguar XK that’s read a few Joe Wieder weightlifting manuals.
The Vantage is built at Aston Martin’s new worldwide headquarters facility at Gaydon in the UK midlands. As enthusiasts will know, Aston Martin’s ancestral home is Newport Pagnell, but that’s now all part of history.
Superb styling is one thing, of course, but engineering is the key when it comes to “proper” sports cars and the Vantage doesn’t disappoint. It’s built almost entirely of aluminum, but when I suggested to an Aston Martin executive that they’d been looking over the shoulders at their opposite numbers over at Jaguar with their XK sports car and XJ sedan (also all-aluminum), he emphasized that the Vantage uses different technology and was developed separately.
The body structure uses a combination of aluminum pressings, extrusions and diecastings to create a very strong and rigid shell. Many of the body components are bonded together, aerospace style. The nearest automaker that uses this kind of fabrication technology is Audi with its Audi Space Frame (ASF) system. By way of comparison, many aluminum-bodied cars like the (now discontinued) Honda NSX are built more or less like steel vehicles with welded-together stampings. The Vantage also uses a wide variety of composites for structural applications around the vehicle.
The power-operated top is nice and snug when lowered, but there is some cargo space sacrifice, as might be expected. Even so, there’s enough room for a bag of golf clubs in the back. The Coupe is a hatchback and thus has very good luggage room for a car in this class. As always, Aston Martin will sell you a set of fitted cases for either car, but these are quite expensive.
As its name implies, this is the Aston with a V8 rather than a V12 and for 2009. My 2008 tester had a 4.3-litre unit developing 380 horsepower and 302 lb-ft of torque, but 2009 Vantage models have been upgraded to a 4.7-litre V8 with 420-horsepower and 346 lb.-ft. of torque. As might be expected, even the 4.3-litre unit is a potent, responsive unit and under full throttle, makes a most un-Aston-like roar which will delight enthusiastic drivers. The latest version of this V8 is built at Aston Martin’s engine plant in Cologne where a small team of specialists build them one at a time – just like the cars. The current engine was upgraded in just about every aspect about a year ago – partly to deal with the extra power and torque it has compared to its predecessor. The earlier engine block was shared with Jaguar, but the 4.7 is unique to Aston Martin.
Buyers can choose from two transmissions – a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed Sportshift auto/manual with steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. If you choose the Sportshift (my tester was equipped with this) there’s no traditional shifter at all, modes being selected with a row of dash-mounted buttons.
The Sportshift proved very effective with smooth, seamless manual shifts and the ability to drive the car in fully automatic mode. For the record, the Sportshift is made by the same outfit that builds Ferrari’s F1 transmission, but Aston Martin people claim (naturally enough) that theirs is better.
Serious sports cars always feel just as safe at race speeds as they do on the freeway burbling along at 100 km/h. With its healthy torque figure, the Vantage can get under way very quickly indeed and the transformation to high speeds from back road dawdles is both swift and free of fuss. The car inspires great confidence and seems to want to just get up and go, rather than cruise gently along. I’m sure a race car driver could get astonishing performance out of a V8 Vantage. Aston Martin quotes a zero to 100 km/h figure of 4.9-seconds and a top speed of 288 km/h.
The interior of the car is a total delight with superb leathers almost everywhere, a perfect driving position and a general feeling of being part of the car. It is a tad on the snug side, but this is all part of the experience. The trim is very well done with fine leather just about everywhere. Among much fine detailing, there’s even a nifty recess for a Lamy pen on the dash. The elegant nose with its classic Aston Martin grille seems to stretch way out in front and care has to be taken not to grind it over those concrete parking markers that always seem twice as high as they need to be.
Best of all, the V8 Vantage follows a long tradition at Aston Martin of building cars that are true sports cars and not just attractive boulevard cruisers. It’s certainly true that there are few places around the world to exploit the performance of a car like this, but it’s good to know such automobiles exist should we ever be fortunate enough to afford one.
The base price of the Vantage V8 Roadster has dropped from $155,700 in 2008 to $146,800 in 2009, which seems quite reasonable for an exotic convertible like this.
Aston Martins are very much hand-built, even though they feature very advanced performance and safety technology (the brakes are awesome, for example). Each one is “signed off” by a key employee at the manufacturing plant and a plaque noting this inspection process is the first thing you see when opening the hood. For my test car, I have to thank Martyn Askill. Great job Martyn!
Pricing: 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage roadster
2008: $155,700 (2009: $146,800 )
Manufacturer’s web site