First Drive: 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Click above for a high-res gallery of the 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

2003 BMW M5.
2005 Lotus Elise.
2008 Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

What do these three vehicles have in common? They all occupy a space in my dream garage. Sure, I could've added a few more fantasy slots for a Ferrari 250 GTO, a Land Rover 90 and everything in between, but the Bimmer, the Lotus and the Aston exemplify all I've ever wanted on four wheels: a powerful sedan, a competent track tool, and an elegant coupe. No matter the occasion, I'm covered.

But there's a problem. While I've spent a fair amount of time in and around the Elise and M5, I've never had the opportunity to drive the Vantage. The Aston holds a spot on my lottery list on looks alone, so I arrived in San Francisco with a fair amount of trepidation. Will the V8 Vantage be everything I've dreamt about or will it be the automotive equivalent of meeting my hero?

It's finally time to find out.

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For 2009, Aston Martin took some sage advice from current Vantage owners: don't screw with the exterior. Aston's current lineup will undoubtedly go down in history as some of the most beautifully crafted machinery ever to roll on public roads, so there's no sense in messing with perfection or waxing poetic about the proportions. To that end, Aston is taking up the mantle formerly held by Porsche – a low-volume purveyor of specialty sports cars – leaving the exterior intact and only changing the design of the 20-spoke, 19-inch wheels. Some might call it lazy; we'll go with restrained.

Any effort on Aston's part to refresh the Vantage on the cheap was immediately dispelled by the right people -- engineers. Instead of wasting manpower and capital on improving a timeless design, Aston's boffins took ye old 4.3-liter lump, bumped up the bore and increased the stroke to net 4735cc of stately displacement. Part of the increase was achieved by pressing thinner cylinder liners into the pre-machined aluminum block, while efficiency was boosted with new forged steel con-rods and cast aluminum pistons matched to a forged steel crankshaft with channels drilled into the counterweights to reduce rotating mass and improve cooling. Got all that? There's more. The dry sump lubrication system has been revised with a new casting and fitted with pick-up points mounted fore and aft of the sump, while the intake valves have been increased by 1mm with a modified manifold to match.

All those tweaks bring output to 420 bhp and 347 pound-feet of torque, an increase of 11 and 15 percent, respectively. On paper, the extra 40 hp is only good for a 4.7-second sprint to 60 (.1 second off the outgoing model), but the 45 pound-foot increase in twist will impress the most.

But the changes don't stop there. The rear-mounted, six-speed gearbox is still available in either manual or sequential flavors, but the clutch and flywheel have been modified to cope with the extra grunt. On manumatic-equipped models, Aston implemented a system dubbed "Engine as Slave" that allows the transmission's computer to control engine output. The computer takes information from steering wheel, brake and throttle sensors, then dolls out power to limit the herky-jerky movement of its predecessors. A delightfully simple button on the dash allows the driver to choose from either "Sport" or "Comfort" gearbox maps, with the former quickening shifts to 200 ms and the latter slowing shifts and swapping gears at lower RPMs. And here's a novel idea: the computer remembers what transmission setting you were in last, so you can hop in and head out without having to navigate through endless menus. Deutschland, take notice.

The suspension also benefits from some revisions, most of which have carried over from the roadster to the coupe. The '09 model receives stiffer front and rear springs (11 percent and five percent, respectively), and Bilstein dampers are now standard on both the coupe and cabrio. An optional sport pack retunes the Bilstein units, uprates the springs, adds a stiffer rear anti-roll bar on the coupe, and rounds out the package with a lightweight set of five-spoke, 19-inch hoops.

It's all trick kit, and the interior provides a suitable place to work it all out. The revised center stack takes cues from the DBS, ditching some of the previous model's dubious switchgear and including Aston's regrettably named "Emotion Control Unit" or ECU. The stainless steel and polycarbonate key fob slots into the central dash, and a quick push breathes life into front-mounted mill.

I began my time behind the wheel of a yellow, sport pack-equipped manual model, and navigating through the tight confines of SF proper proved to be a lesson in forearm aerobics and Max Mosley-levels of perverse punishment. While clutch uptake was easy to modulate, the gates of the shifter aren't well defined. Swapping cogs is both notchy and vague, and the low seats and high center console conspired against my elbow on almost every shift.

Once I headed north across the Golden Gate and into the hills lining the coast, the sports pack's presence went from distinct to distressing. The upgraded suspension might be all that and a side of chips on the track, but navigating everyday roads at anything beyond 5/10ths takes serious intestinal fortitude. The chassis is remarkably stiff on its own, so the $3,785 option is best left unchecked unless you're making regular pilgrimages to Laguna or the autobahn.

Needless to say, things weren't going well. I'd met my hero and he'd abused my elbow and taken his frustrations out on my kidneys. Why do the ones we love hurt us? Surprisingly, consolation came in the most unlikely of places: a non-sports pack roadster... equipped with an automated manual transmission.

While it pains me to say it, the $4,000 Sportshift is where it's at. Depress the brake, press "D" and you're on your way to polished automated bliss. With the 'box set in "Comfort" mode, the computer keeps shifts below 2,500 rpm, making low speed cruising a smooth, natural affair. Bucking and lurching is virtually non-existent, and with the top down and an arm on the windowsill, things were beginning to look up. Another press of the "Comfort" button to switch to "Sport" and things got better.

The "Sport" mode not only quickens shifts, it can detect whether the steering wheel is turned and then hold the gear through the corner, keeping weight transfer in check and maximizing engine braking. The result is impressive and engaging. And the steering wheel-mounted paddles add to the allure. Upshifts are dispatched with effortless efficiency and a burbling blip compliments downshifts.

You've undoubtedly heard the 2005-2008 Vantage's V8 singing at full song. Thankfully, the extra displacement hasn't spoiled the most rousing rumble ever to come out of England. It's an aural masterpiece that needs to be sampled and incorporated into a set by the New York Philharmonic -- we'll settle for a ringtone in the meantime. Peg the throttle into the floorboard and Jaguar's old adage of "Grace and Pace" is easily trumped by its former stepbrother. The power surges, the exhaust wails and the horizon beckons. Acceleration isn't neck snapping, but it's enough to get your attention, while assuring you that things won't get out of sorts.

Bombing along Highway One, the weighty steering clearly communicated breaks and undulations in the pavement, save a dead spot on center, and the brakes never exhibited anything resembling fade. While we couldn't push the Aston close to it capabilities, it continued to impress with its combination of civility and sport. But it's an odd combination.

Aston's aim has been to make the V8 Vantage a competent contender to take on the rest of the $130,000 sports car set. The Porsche 911 is the yardstick and the Audi R8 has proved to be a formidable opponent. But while all three vehicles go about delivering luxurious thrills in decidedly different ways, the 911 and R8 are true sports coupes, whereas the Vantage errs on the side of grand tourer – a sports-tourer. For hardcore thrills, the 911 reigns supreme. For daily livability mixed with exotic flare and rock solid performance, the R8 may have the upper hand. But neither holds a candle to the Vantage's sheet metal and raucous engine note. It's rolling art, from the delectable haunches to the front-mounted V8, and while it might not stack up on spirit, the Vantage's presence makes up for any dynamic shortcomings. Is it still on my list? Absolutely. But when my lucky six numbers are called, I'll have to opt for the 2009 model – with the Sportshift.

Lodging for this review was provided by the automaker.

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