May 17 (Bloomberg) -- My pal Jake has ridden in the latest Nissan GT-R, a Porsche 911 and BMW 3 Series. He now says he would gladly trade all those cars for the Aston Martin Vantage V-8 roadster.
A car lover, he lives down the road from our country house in Eastern Pennsylvania and seems pretty pleased to have a guy who writes about cars as his neighbor. Jake is 12 years old.
For me, it’s both fun and instructive to see my test cars through his innocent eyes. Today we’re both admiring a flash, white, 2012 model-year Vantage.
Aston Martin counts the Vantage V-8 as its entry-level car; costing $119,000 for the coupe, $133,000 for the convertible.
Manual transmissions are standard; automatics cost more. Buyers can also opt for more powerful S versions, and also a Vantage with a V-12 engine, which makes the loveliest noise imaginable.
The Vantage we’re testing costs around $158,000, including $6,300 worth of carbon fiber on the body, with a sexy, 10-spoke graphite wheels option worth $3,785.
As I trigger the automatic top to lower the canvas roof, Jake plops into the leather passenger seat and is already smiling deliriously. “Way nicer than the GT-R,” he says.
On the Road
We creep out cautiously along the neighborhood dirt-and-gravel road. I’ve got to mind the carbon-fiber front fascia, which seems destined to find rocks or curbs and cause pricy damage.
As we pull onto the main road, a warbling, curving example of backcountry excellence, the naturally aspirated V-8 cracks the still air. The sound of an Aston Martin is distinctive and unique, conveying warmth, power and emotion.
Jake becomes quiet, his eyes focused on the asphalt straight ahead.
I’m thinking too. The Vantage costs as much as many Porsches, Mercedes-Benz AMGs and Audis. To me it’s the most beautiful. When it comes to the battle of technology, however, the Vantage is losing the war.
This Vantage is outfitted with a seven-speed, single-clutch automated manual transmission, replacing a six-speed, but it is easily two generations behind other top-tier sports cars. Clunky and ponderous, it takes far too long to accomplish downshifts.
The new transmission is one of the 2012 model’s raft of incremental improvements. Other changes include bigger brakes and wider tires. The chassis and steering column are also rewardingly reworked.
Some of those tweaks pay dividends on the road. Others simply highlight how far Aston Martin lags behind the competition.
The Gaydon, U.K.-based carmaker was sold by Ford to a consortium in 2007. Today the company finds itself in a tight spot. Development of new engines, transmissions and lightweight materials is incredibly expensive.
While a massive company like the Volkswagen Group can spread costs among its many brands like Porsche, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Audi, Aston Martin has no such luck.
That explains the glacial evolution of models like the Vantage, which debuted all the way back in 2005, and “new” models like the Virage, a V-12 coupe which looks strikingly similar to its cousins, the DB9 and DBS.
The base 4.7-liter V-8 gets 420 horsepower and 346 pound feet of torque, without the aid of turbochargers or even direct injection. Not what you’d call gobs of power in today’s horsepower-saturated sports-car market.
Then I glance over at Jake and my gripes evaporate. His teeth glint in the sunshine, his expression a certifiable perma-grin.
I relax a little and get lost in sound of Vantage’s engine, the perfection of its steering, the way the car sweetly hews to my commands. It drives far better than the previous versions, and makes the hard stuff look easy.
It’s all finesse and glide, even around off-camber corners. The steering wheel talks to me quietly about the quality of the asphalt and degree of traction.
Take a Seat
It’s not the fastest car, but quick enough. And it’s nicely balanced, great to look at, and wonderful to sit inside. What more can you ask from an impractical, two-seat convertible, anyhow?
After all, the company only makes about 4,200 vehicles a year, of which fewer than 1,500 are Vantages. You’re lucky to see one on the road, let alone experience its awesomeness from the inside.
We approach a dead end road and Jake says, “Let’s not stop. Let’s keep going.”
Eventually all good things end and we return to his house. Jake reluctantly exits and his dad, Dale, looks in. He’s a motorcycle rider and all-around, super-capable guy. His eyes glow like a kid’s.
“Want a ride?” I ask.
Of course he does. Don’t we all?
The 2012 Aston Martin Vantage V-8 at a Glance
Engine: 4.7-liter V-8 with 420 horsepower and 346 pound- feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed, single-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 4.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 14 city; 21 highway.
Price as tested: $158,000.
Best features: Beautiful exterior, balanced handling.
Worst feature: Clunky transmission.
Target buyer: The kid in us all.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on art and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.