While the title might not be as catchy as "Three V-10s to Yuma," we didn't go to Yuma, and we didn't drive V-10s. We went to Creston, and we drove V-8s. So where the heck is Creston, you're probably asking? It's a little cowboy town in California's Central Valley, and it happens to be near one of the most challenging, tight and twisty roads known to man. This slithery stretch of blacktop offers everything from blind turns over rises to bumps, jumps and the occasional sand-strewn apex. What better road, then, to take four of the very best sports cars in the world on.
And since we happen to be Americans living in America, we decided to include only sports cars with our favorite type of engine: the normally aspirated V-8. We can't get enough of a well-bred V-8, the louder, the more powerful ... the better. After all, what's more American than a burly, throbbing, rip-snortin' V-8? So with four thrilling sports cars in hand -- the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Audi R8, Chevrolet Corvette and Ferrari F430 -- we attempted to answer this question: Who makes the best V-8 for your sporting pleasure?
Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Even Before Ford sold Aston Martin to David Richards and company, there was no doubt this British brand was heading in a bright new direction -- the V8 Vantage was living proof, because it's the lightest and smallest Aston in years, two parameters of sports-car design that usually lead to high performance and big thrills on the road. To that end, Aston added a 380-bhp V-8 to the recipe, pretty much ensuring the car's success.
While some might believe that this dohc all-aluminum 32-valve mill is simply a rebadged Jaguar unit, the reality is that the only common component with Jaguar is the block, and even that was modified for Aston's use. For all intents and purposes, the Vantage's engine is entirely Aston's own -- it was designed, developed and is built by Aston Martin, at the company's dedicated engine plant in Cologne, Germany, where all of Aston's engines are hand-built.
This 4.3-liter V-8 uses variable intake timing, a resonance induction system and an active exhaust bypass valve to achieve both its power and its absolutely marvelous sound. While it isn't big on torque -- 302 lb.-ft. at 5000 rpm -- the Vantage rips out V-8 noises that are almost sinful. Actually, the car's exhaust is so loud that as soon as you tip into the throttle, it seems a bit un-Aston-like; not quite as dignified as one might expect a fine British motorcar to be. The raucous note seems "manufactured" solely for the sound, kind of like a Ford Mustang GT with an aftermarket exhaust.
Although the Vantage's exhaust talks a mean game, we were a bit let down by its actual performance, lagging behind the (admittedly top-notch) competition we brought before it. Its 0–60-mph time of 5.3 seconds was a full second off the nearest competitors (the Vette and the Audi) while also 0.6 sec. off the previous mark we set with this car in Europe. We're chalking part of that up to the unusually hot temperatures we experienced on test day (though it was the same for all), but throughout the test the Aston was easily outdistanced on straightaways.
Said Road Test Editor Jonathan Elfalan, "The Aston has a great engine and exhaust sound, but its bark is a far cry from its bite. Just to get it to power oversteer you have to wring its neck." Part of that is due to the Aston's great traction, which lets you put the power down early and hard exiting corners.
The Aston also doesn't have as forgiving a powerband as, say, the Corvette or the R8, causing Steve Millen, race-car driver fantastico, to comment, "The Aston's engine doesn't pull as strongly in the higher rpm as it does in the midrange -- it seems to run out of breath." He went on to say that he felt that it's best "to leave it in a higher gear and use the bottom end of the engine."
Since the Aston's engine requires more attention to rpm, that also means it requires more shifting. No problem here, as the Aston's 6-speed manual gearbox is quite good. Throws are fairly short with reassuringly positive gates, even emitting an occasional "clink" as you snick between gears, as if it had a metal shift gate like the R8's. And when we did wring the Aston's engine out to its fullest, we appreciated the handy red shift lights in the instrument panel.
A true sports car isn't just about raw speed; it also needs to be able to get around corners quickly. Here, the Aston was far more brilliant. Although the car feels even weightier than its 3605 lb., partially due to its heavy steering, its suspension (unlike the Corvette's) works so well at maintaining control when the going gets bumpy that most everything we mentioned previously is forgiven. Noted Assistant Road Test Editor Calvin Kim, "You can do some seriously good back-road work with this car; its only glaring fault is lack of power, and that's only because of the cars we're comparing it to."
In terms of instrumented handling numbers, the Vantage is right there with the competition. Its slalom time of 69.4 mph is slightly quicker than the Vette's, while also not far off the Ferrari's and Audi's; its 0.91g skidpad number is more than respectable. And the Brembo-sourced brakes -- with 14.0-in. rotors at the front and 13.0s at the rear -- provided the best pedal feel next to the Ferrari's mega-expensive carbon-ceramic system.
The Vantage is also a terrifically appointed grand tourer, with super-tightly-stitched (and abundant) leather along with a beautiful Alcantara headliner. The Vantage surely displays the finest British tradition. In case you're not familiar with British traditions, that's another way of saying the Vantage is quirky. Things like the counterclockwise-rotating tachometer needle (while the speedo moves clockwise), the power seat controls located near the driver's right leg and the odd-to-operate parking brake seem to be done in a way just to be different. And the Vantage gets away with it ... simply because the car is British.
Let's see if we can follow Audi's logic with the R8: First, design a completely original semi-exotic that looks out of this world, but starts just barely north of $100,000. Next, stuff one of the world's best V-8s (from the RS 4 sports sedan) into a spot just aft of the driver. Give it the famous Quattro all-wheel drive. Then, adorn it with the same name as one of the most successful endurance racing cars in history. Works for us.
And the R8 does work, almost sublimely so, and it all starts with the engine. This all-aluminum 32-valve dohc 4.2-liter V-8 includes direct injection, Nikasil-coated cylinders, four chain-driven camshafts (each with its own hydraulic valve-timing actuator) and an extremely high compression ratio of 12.5:1. The result is 420 bhp at 7800 rpm with 317 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500.
Out on the road, it's pure magic. The engine is at all times ultra-smooth and powerful. It sounds better the higher and harder you rev it, and since it makes great power up top, you don't pay a penalty for taking it there. The sound is terrific, a slightly muted rumble, but honestly ... it should be louder. The intake noise is fine, but the exhaust doesn't rip enough for a car of this caliber.
Unlike the Aston, which sounds better from inside the car than from out, the R8 is the opposite, the noise better for onlookers than for the car's occupants. The car's tune rang home for Steve: "The R8 sounds like a Trans-Am race car with mufflers, like a huge-displacement pushrod V-8."
The R8 can be ordered with either Audi's R tronic paddle-shift manual or a gated 6-speed manual like our test car. There's something about operating the clutch yourself, and something even cooler about clinking through the R8's gated gearbox, which works quite well and is especially positive in normal driving. But if we rushed shifts during aggressive driving, it became a bit clumsy.
Although the heaviest car of the group, the R8 put up impressively quick acceleration times (0-60 mph in 4.3 sec., matching the Vette), no doubt helped by the car's catlike all-wheel drive. In real-world acceleration (in other words, without a drop-clutch launch), the R8 is slower than the Vette, shown by its 0.3-sec.-longer trip through the quarter mile. But we just can't get over how eerily smooth and flexible the R8's engine is, or its willingness to rev to its 8000-rpm redline. "It clearly doesn't have as much top end as the Ferrari," Steve remarked. "But it's a very forgiving engine. If you find yourself in too high of a gear exiting a corner, it still pulls away very strong."
The R8 isn't exactly shabby in the handling department either, posting just shy of 1.0g around the skidpad along with a 71.1-mph run through the slalom cones. The car's natural handling state is trace understeer, which is safe, but with the ESP stability system turned off, the R8 can be provoked into power-on oversteer as you exit corners. Great fun!
The R8 is so splendid and comfortable as an everyday car, it almost feels wrong to say anything bad about it. So we'll let Steve say it: "The R8 is very nice for touring but when pushed hard, the weight of the car doesn't allow it to be as nimble as the Ferrari."
Jonathan also found limited minuses: "It's like trying to find an ugly spot on Jessica Alba -- it just doesn't exist! But the Ferrari definitely felt sharper on twisty roads. The R8 at times feels too safe in its handling manners, if that's possible, and because of that the Ferrari is more of a driver's car."
An issue that did crop up for the left-foot-brakers among us was that the car doesn't allow for throttle and brake overlap, condemning us with an unusually long penalty of power loss if we did so.
Inside the R8 lies one of the world's best interiors, made even more exotic by the optional $2200 Carbon-Fiber Everything Package (okay, that's not really what it's called). As with recent Lamborghinis, the R8 uses traditional Audi switchgear, but in the R8 this seems perfectly in keeping because a) it's an Audi and b) the interior is a completely original and thoroughly modern design.
As much as we all loved driving the R8, Calvin did feel one thing was missing from its driving experience -- soul. The R8 is almost too clinical in its ability to do everything well. Calvin offered: "Maybe the car's soul will shine through after a few thousand miles of ownership ... if Audi wants to leave me an R8 for a few months, I could investigate this issue better." The mark of an intrepid journalist.