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Aston Martin V8 Vantage - The Outsider from Newport Pagnell

The association of a handsome château and an Aston Martin seems natural, given the brand's undeniable aristocratic connotations.

From its origins in 1913, through the long period under the inspired aegis of Sir David Brown, to the difficult years of the 70s and 80s and their repeated bankruptcies, Aston Martin limited itself to marketing very small series of exclusive, high-quality automobiles, the astronomical price of which was reserved for the very wealthy.

The 2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage in today's test drive doesn't look out of place parked in front of this castle. Yet it was the first Aston in history to break the mould by offering itself at a price modelled on that of models from more mainstream brands, with the aim of competing with the Porsche 911.

Aston Martin DB7

Saved for the umpteenth time from bankruptcy by Ford in 1987, Aston Martin was to benefit simultaneously from the investment capabilities of this industrial giant and Ford's takeover of Jaguar in 1989. To overcome the many financial and other problems previously encountered, Aston Martin decided to offer a more affordable car than the traditional, expensive V8 Virage.

A new model is designed using Jaguar mechanical components, in particular the XJS platform and the AJ6 in-line 6-cylinder engine, both highly modified. The result was the DB7, launched in 1994, of which 7,000 were produced until its replacement by the DB9 in 2004. No Aston had achieved such figures before the DB7.

Aston Martin Vanquish V12

In the meantime, the Vanquish V12, the first all-new Aston designed like the DB7 by Ian Callum, topped the range in 2001, replacing the big V8s.

But the real event was the presentation of the DB9 in 2003, followed by the AM305 concept at the Detroit Motor Show, which foreshadowed the future V8 Vantage to be marketed in 2005.

Official presentation of the AM 305 concept at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show

The V8 Vantage is positioned within a limited range comprising the DB9 and the prestigious Vanquish. As an attack model, it is destined to take on a market that Aston Martin had not previously addressed, that of mid-range sports GTs, occupied at the time by the Porsche 997 or, to a lesser extent, the Maserati 4200 GT, for example.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage

However, this positioning does not make the car accessible to everyone. It does, however, give Aston Martin access to a new, broader customer base. The result will be convincing, as 24700 V8 Vantage models and derivatives will be sold between 2005 and 2018. A first for Aston Martin! However, these production figures remain those of a confidential brand when compared with the 20,000 Porsche 911s produced each year during the same period. In other words, exclusivity has been preserved.

Aston Martin DB9

Taking up the stylistic themes of the DB9 initiated by Ian Callum, the lines of the V8 Vantage are claimed by Henrik Fisker, who took over the reins of Aston Martin design in 2001. It has a very compact, squat appearance without losing its undeniable elegance.

Overhangs are short and height is limited to 1m20. The clean, fluid lines, with no frills, are immediately appealing, and seem to stand the weight of time very well. A certain refinement emanates from the many meticulous details, such as the elegant recessed door handles or the slender mirror brackets.

Aston Martin's signature styling cues are reflected in the shape of the inverted-T grille, trimmed with polished aluminum crossbars, reminiscent of the big DB4 sisters of the late '50s and the DB5 and 6 of the '60s. The side gills, crossed by a line of aluminum, are another evocation.

From a design and technical point of view, the Aston V8 Vantage is an entirely new car, with no elements carried over from previous generations. Developed in conjunction with the DB9, it shares the latter's innovative VH (Vertical/Horizontal) modular platform. This spaceframe-like platform is precision-engineered from ultra-light extruded aluminum components assembled by riveting and bonding with aeronautical resins. The result is a lightweight, highly rigid structure.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage - VH modular platform

The body, too, is made entirely of aluminum. It's a strict two-seater with a practical tailgate.
Distantly derived from the contemporary Jaguar V8, the engine retains few of its features apart from its architecture and 4 overhead camshafts. Unlike the Jaguar block, whose long stroke favors torque and smoothness, here we've opted for a super-square bore/stroke ratio, conducive to high revs. Lubrication is by dry sump, a costly solution rarely used on road cars. The advantages of this system are that it eliminates any risk of oil dipping during horizontal acceleration, and lowers the engine into the chassis, thus lowering the car's center of gravity.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage - 4.3 L V8

With a displacement of 4.3 l, this V8 delivers 385 bhp at a high 7,300 rpm and 410 Nm of torque at 5,000 rpm. Without doubt, these are the characteristics of an engine with an assertive sporting temperament.
In order to obtain the most favorable weight distribution for the car's good balance, the engine is positioned in the front center, just behind the wheel axle, and the gearbox is pushed to the rear, next to the axle. The result is an ideal weight distribution of 49% front and 51% rear. This transaxle layout is complemented by a carbon-tube drive shaft linking the engine and gearbox. Two types of gearbox are available: a 6-speed manual and a 6-speed robotized Sportshift, also designed by Prodrive (optional from 2007).

A mechanical self-locking differential is fitted as standard, and the rack-and-pinion steering is hydraulically assisted, while the suspension features aluminum double wishbones at all four corners. Braking is not to be outdone, with four good-sized discs (355 mm front and 330 mm rear) squeezed by four-piston Brembo calipers and, of course, ABS. Electronic stability and traction control complete the picture.

Brembo brake discs and calipers

All these features are indicative of the great care taken in designing the new V8 Vantage, and clearly demonstrate the brand's determination to offer a well-rounded car in this new market segment for Aston, with no small savings and solid arguments.

Owning an Aston Martin remains a privileged experience.
Even if, in this case, it's the most modest and most produced Aston.
The V8 Vantage remains a rather rare car, and rediscovering its natural elegance is always a pleasure for the eyes. The supple yet muscular forms are skilfully dispensed with any unnecessary decoration or ornamentation that would have weighed down the purity of the design, and the charm is still very much at work.

Despite their excellent styling, the flush-mounted door handles are perhaps not the most practical, and you're sometimes tempted to press down with one hand and then pull the lever with the other. Another peculiarity is the door kinematics, which rise as you open them. Perhaps to avoid scraping the sidewalk, or maybe it's just a styling effect?

Aston Martin V8 Vantage interior

At first glance, the interior gives a vivid impression of a quest for refinement.

The smooth, perfectly stretched leather is of the highest quality, and covers the entire interior and dashboard, with the exception of the roof lining in light alcantara.
Slide into a well-designed, electrically-adjustable seat, and you're confronted by an instrument cluster crafted from aluminum like a piece of jewelry. It's magnificent but, let's face it, not very easy to read.

AM V8 Vantage meters

Aluminum is omnipresent in the interior, as it is in every aspect of this car. The door armrest supports, part of the center console and the cup holder are made from this noble material.

The climate control knobs, also in aluminum, resemble the knobs on older Scott amplifiers. A few plastic elements and other mass-produced accessories have crept in here and there, but these are discreet enough not to detract from the overall luxury of the finish.

Unless you're a die-hard Porsche 911 fan (997 at the time of this Aston), you have to admit that the Aston exudes a special charm and exclusivity that a 997 just doesn't offer. This will give you good reason to forgive a few minor faults, such as the lack of legibility of the meters and the small central display when the sun comes out.

Getting to grips with the V8 Vantage is a breeze. You quickly find the right setting, and the driving position is beyond criticism, although visibility is not quite as good due to the rather high beltline.
The engine wakes up instantly with a natural, raging sound typical of a sporty V8. As we shall see, the engine's soundtrack is one of Aston's best features.

Aston Martin V8 Vantage

The model we're testing is equipped with the Sportshift robotized gearbox, whose selection controls are positioned at the top of the center console, as on all Astons since the DB9. This unusual solution proves practical in use, as the buttons are in your field of vision and aligned in the usual order of clutchless gearbox controls, i.e. R-N-D, interrupted only by the engine start button. On this 2008 model, you still use a traditional ignition key, which will be replaced on subsequent versions by the elegant crystal key inserted where the start button is. If you want to keep control of gear selection, the paddles are ideally sized and attached to the steering column, as befits a sports car.

The first impression when setting off is that the clutch is a little soft, slipping a little too much, and shifting up a gear is a little slow. Does this confirm the criticisms heard about this Sportshift gearbox?

As you pick up the pace, it becomes clear that this is not the case, and that gear changes become increasingly rapid as engine speed rises during gear selection - a remark that also applies to downshifts, which are particularly rapid during sporty driving.
In the end, this robotized gearbox doesn't give much back to its competitors of the time.

What might have been mistaken for softness in quiet driving is perhaps simply the result of the search for a certain smoothness that was particularly lacking in Maseratis equipped with the Cambiocorsa gearbox, for example. Aston's desire to preserve the GT ambience of this V8 Vantage in everyday use could also explain this choice.

On the other hand, the car's downright sporty temperament becomes apparent as soon as you pick up the pace. In addition to the increasingly rapid gearbox shifts, the engine demonstrates a pronounced taste for high revs, pushing like a little devil up to 7,500 rpm with almost astonishing vigor. There's no kick in the butt here, but a straightforward, linear thrust accompanied by a frankly addictive sound typical of a sporty V8.

Handling is in keeping with the engine's temperament, and the little V8 is far more agile than its larger siblings. The suspension does its job very well, and the well-calibrated steering feels natural. All in all, a pleasant surprise, and a lot of fun behind the wheel of this Aston.
At the very most, the suspension can be criticized for being a little stiff at low speeds on poor road surfaces, slightly counteracting the GT spirit when driving at a leisurely pace.

Similarly, the robotized gearbox in automatic mode D is not without its critics. It systematically upshifts and downshifts unevenly, and sometimes randomly, during acceleration. In such cases, it's best to opt for manual mode, and use the practical paddles to lock in the right gear.

On the other hand, the smoothness of the powertrain didn't seem to fail us, contrary to certain criticisms made in the past. From the lowest revs, acceleration is satisfyingly linear, if not immediately vigorous.

The question that arises at the end of this test drive is whether the Aston V8 Vantage is a sports car or a GT. In fact, it is more likely to be a rather successful compromise of the two, combining Aston Martin's typical tradition of elegance with the desire to offer the brand's first "small" sports car, offering a temperament in line with the targeted marketing positioning. The result was convincing, and even today, choosing the exclusivity of an Aston for the same price as a more common Porsche 997 can be tempting, as the car proved to be free from design flaws and reliable over the long haul. This generation of Astons has undoubtedly benefited from Ford's investment in industrial processes, design and development.

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