Alan Judd

The Aston challenge

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We don’t often get second chances. Education, the direction of your career, first love, life itself — they’re none of them dress rehearsals, unless you’re lucky with the first two. And if they were, would we do any better? Best not ask.

That’s one reason why it’s always so much more cheering to think about cars. They’re repeatable, easily obtained and easily disposed of provided you don’t dwell upon the loss. If you can’t quite recall what it felt like to drift-slide your first Hispano-Suiza out of a tight right-hander, you can simply borrow, buy or pinch another. Or sometimes even get the old one back (that beats most first loves).

So when Aston Martin asked if I’d care to spend Easter with a V8 Vantage, I felt a simultaneous lightening of the heart and a deepening appreciation of life’s motoring munificence. I was at the launch of this vehicle in Siena last year, where I fell in love with a beautiful septuagenarian baroness who thought Aston Martins were cigarettes (Arts, 24 September 2005). The car was unaccompanied this time but at least I would spend more time with it, revisiting first impressions, and I would have it to myself.

I was wrong about the last. So many friends I didn’t know I had, so many I did know who just happened to pop round and suggest we might just nip out for a quick spin if I wasn’t too busy over breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. Aston Martins must be one of the three or four most iconic cars on the planet. What is it about them? They won only one Le Mans, so far as I recall (with a DBR1 in 1959, though they’d already three times come second), and it couldn’t all be down to the cinematic James Bond’s choice of a DB5 (the Bond of the books drove a Bentley). Nor do the Astons of recent decades — before Ford ownership — have the best of reputations for reliability. It must be something to do with the cars themselves. After all, in more than 90 years of production there have only ever been 27,000 and 75 per cent of them are still on the road. They must have been special from the start.

Despite being the £79,995 entry-level model, the Vantage soon shows you why. ‘Feel’ in a car is hard to define but there’s no doubt that driving this one would bring a smile to the most car-weary face. It’s a muscular beast, good-looking, with a refined pugnacity in its graceful but strong lines. The VH (vertical/horizontal) architecture of the chemically bonded, extruded aluminium underpinnings is as flexible in application as it is rigid in performance. It is used across the new Aston range (seven variants in two and a half years), including the DBR9 racing car.

The Vantage, however, is in some ways a very traditional sports car: two-seater, conventional manual gearbox (six-speed), a fairly simple dash, front engine, rear drive with the 4.3-litre chain-driven V8 set low behind the axle and the gearbox to the rear of the seats to give a 49–51 per cent front-rear weight distribution. The turn-in from the steering is so direct it feels like a mid-engined car; brakes, clutch and gear-change are on the masculine side. Very satisfying if that’s what you like. Some cars invite you to drive them, some simply wait to be driven, this one challenges you to drive it. It wants to be used hard, with the full 302lb.ft of torque not available until 5,000rpm and the maximum 380bhp at 7,000rpm. Yet it’s also a tolerant car, permitting you to go from virtually standstill to 100mph in third. Almost a shopping or commuting car.

But not really. The head-turning it provokes, the V8 yowl above 4,000rpm, the eagerness, the handling and the sheer, grinning pleasure it brings to motoring make it an occasion each time you open those solid, upward-swinging swan’s-wing doors. And once inside with the cosseting leather seats, aluminium knobs, glass starter button and the all-round integrity of the fittings, you begin to see and feel what’s special about Astons. Those of the motoring press who tested this car on tracks where you can legally push it to its 175mph limit reckon that, at the outer edge of performance, it can’t quite match the Porsche 911. But none of them minded that because they all loved the car, they all said there’s nothing else like it. There probably isn’t.

And so, second time round and bereft of baronesses, did it live up to those memorable first impressions in the Tuscan hills? Emphatically yes, with only one minor reservation: the speedo and rev dials are attractive but still slightly hard to interrogate at a glance, though the former is supplemented by a digital display that catches the eye more easily. I’m not quite sure what needs to be done — something subtle and slight, just enough to set them off a little more. That said, you don’t want too much to distract your eye from the road when you’re behind this particular wheel.