There's an undeniable swagger around Aston Martin at the moment. Not so long ago the cars, covetable though they were, were using old technology in familiar designs. Now, with some proper backing and under the guidance of Andy Palmer, the progress is ferocious. And tremendously exciting.
The Valkyrie on road tyres will be as fast as an LMP1 car. A brand new factory in Wales is tooling up to produce an Aston Martin SUV. The aim with Lagonda audacious; indicative of this ever-growing confidence. A mid-engined 488 rival is coming, money is rolling in, and the new Vantage - launched 15 years after that stunning first V8 concept - is sold out for the whole of this year.
Where to begin? To these eyes, it's a stunningly attractive shape. Even in hi-vis green. Perhaps not classically elegant like the old car, but instead a form that's brimming with purpose and intent, yet also features some lovely details. It's compact, punchy and modern, while still retaining familiar sports car proportions and a sense of Aston style. Crucially, too, given the last decade or so, it looks different to everything else in the range.
That's really about as big as the gripes get for this Vantage, though. Before anybody drives the car there's an explanation from Matt Becker of his influence on the design and what's underneath it - a worthwhile 15 minutes if ever there was one. Becker uses the word "unapologetic" to describe the Vantage's focus on the 911, even the Aston's brake feel is modelled on that bloomin Porsche - he mentioned it first, OK, not us - because he liked it so much. (A bigger master cylinder aims to improve that). Torsional stiffness is up 8,000 Newton metres per degree over the old Vantage to 35,000 (with body in white saving of 20kg), it generates genuine downforce now (77kg at the rear at top speed) and there's a shorter final drive for the eight-speed auto than in the DB11 (now 2.7:1, down from 2.9) for more excitement through the gears.
How does that translate in reality? Absolutely superbly on this experience, enough to turn the prospect of driving one again into an agonising, how-many-more-sleeps-must-it-be wait. The first exposure on the launch is around Portimao circuit, with all test cars running the optional ceramic brakes, forged wheels and sports exhaust (identified by four exhaust outlets; the standard set-up has two). So the optimum circuit configuration (and already a fairly expensive one), yes, but by gosh does it work.
The Vantage isn't quite a 911 on track, that pesky Porsche still a tad more nimble, resilient and poised. Blame the weight advantage as much as anything: a Vantage with the ceramic brakes (saving 24kg) and forged wheels is 1,530kg dry; a standard 911 Carrera GTS full of fluids and ready to drive is 1,450kg. That being said, on track the Vantage is still the most entertaining, deft, exciting and enjoyable Aston in memory.
Even on a huge circuit like Portimao, the twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 never feels overawed; on the contrary it's punching so hard, everywhere, that it makes the performance of the eLSD and rear P Zeros even more impressive. Only once in a total 45 minutes of track driving did the gearbox not deliver a shift when expected, so well calibrated is the ZF automatic. Those ratios mean you're getting meaningful performance from a lot of gears, and the paddles are a joy to use. Plus, of course, it sounds great; less OTT than something AMG, but more raucous than anything BMW or Audi currently makes - it's a lovely balance, one that will no doubt be the subject of many a dodgy metaphor in due course.
Perhaps more impressive, endearing and - let's be honest - relevant aspect of the Vantage though is its road behaviour. Because instead of locking away its best bits only for track - an accusation easily and justifiably levelled at some 911s - the Vantage is exploitable, involving and simply damn good fun at road speed.
What it is patently not, however, is a GT car. Again this was a conscious decision by Aston to distance the Vantage from the DB11, with elements like the solidly mounted rear subframe and a lack of GT mode for the dampers specifically there to give the car more edge. And while you would never call the end result raw, it does mean that you always feel part of the Vantage action, even at a cruise, so it will be interesting to see how that transfers to the UK. For now it feels like a perfectly liveable compromise, albeit one that will leave those people approaching this car like a junior DB9 (as they might have in the past) in for something of a shock.
So those gear ratios that worked so well on the track are also a boon on road, keeping the driver busy with those lovely aluminium paddles. Of course you don't really have to change gear, though you'll find yourself doing it because of the noise, the feel, and the immersion. The steering is faithful and accurate, not feelsome like the old hydraulic rack but now boasting a speed more befitting of a proper sports car and one that complements an eager, effervescent dynamic package. The Track setting for the DSC that worked so well on circuit also gives you just the right amount of slip on the road, again giving you as the driver what feels like some control over proceedings. Combine all this with strong, progressive brakes in a package that feels just about compact and wieldy enough on the road and hopefully you can see why it's deserving of such praise. There was no doubting the driver interaction of previous Astons, the question mark instead fell on outright ability; this car doesn't feel to have sacrificed anything significant in the former category, while making huge strides forward in the latter. You don't have to make excuses for it, or give the Vantage an easier ride because it's an Aston and it's cool and you can pretend at being James Bond - it's simply an excellent sports car.
SPECIFICATION - ASTON MARTIN VANTAGE
Engine: 3,982cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 510@6,000-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 505@2,000-5,000rpm
Top speed: 195mph
Weight: 1,530kg (dry)
Price: £120,900 (as standard. Price as tested £160,690 comprised of Morning Frost White Paint AML Special for £3,495, Metallic Black Caithness Leather AML Special for £1,995, Lime Graphics Pack for £3,995, Silver Coarse Thread for £395, Tech Pack (glass switches, keyless entry, blind spot monitoring, auto park, touchpad control, electric wheel adjustment) for £2,995, Comfort Pack (heated seats, closed stowage, 16-way seat adjustment) for £1,795, Pure Black Alcantara headlining for £495, Obsidian Black Heavyweight Carpet Contemporary for £995, Aston Martin Premium Audio for £1,495, Trim Inlay - Satin Carbon Fibre Twill for £1,495, Dark Chrome Jewellery Pack for £995, Ventilated Front Seats for £995, Headrest Embroidery - Aston Martin Wings for £495, Placed Perforated Leather Seat Inserts for £495, Sports Steering Wheel for £995, Brake Calipers - Black for £995, Twin Matte Black exhaust finish for £495, Twill Gloss Carbon Fibre exterior body pack for £6,995, Matte Black Front Grille Mesh for £395, Carbon Fibre Roof Panel for £2,995, 20-inch Forged Gloss Black wheels with diamond turned finish for £3,495, Black Side Window Surround for £1,295)