A true GT

The arrival of an Aston Martin in our lives was not a quiet occasion. A large truck disgorged AM V8 from its wheeled garage, the authoritative boom of its V8 scattering wild life even more effectively than the automatic fire from a neighbouring bird deterrent.

The Virage V8 has the kind of sheer presence that makes the price tag in excess of £134,000 seem natural. Finished in a magnificent metallic racing green sheen, it stunned onlookers with its John Heffernan and Ken Greenley lines, cream white leather cockpit and double-barrelled exhausts. It seemed the personification of a Bentley Boy matured by a smooth body of the '90s.

Our week at the helm of the 5.3-litre Aston Martin contained few disappointments. The 150 mph maximum is not what Aston Martin claims, and acceleration is hampered by high kerb weight, so we counted ourselves lucky to average over 15 mpg. Yet we parted company thoroughly impressed with that rarity a true gentleman's Grand Tourer of impeccable character.

UK range

This was a one model range at test time, so customers' permutations for variety were through options such as colour, trim or floor finishes and taking a telephone.

March and April brought new Virage possibilities to light: an estate that is called a Shooting Brake and, for spring, the factory has brought the Volante convertible forward from its original November schedule. The order book is very healthy for this model, and we can see over half of the minuscule (220 units per year is the practical limit - see Walter Hayes interview on page 366) production being allocated to the soft top Volante.

There is currently a factory power conversion that offers 465 bhp in place of the standard 330. If you opt for the all the chassis changes you will pay £50,000 and gain a fair preview of the Virage Vantage (scheduled for November). The latest line in a proud Aston tradition will boast of 500 bhp.

Aston Martin history dates back to 1914 and the use of a proprietary engine (Coventry-Simplex) and chassis (Isotta-Fraschini). Since that venture 78, the company created by Lionel Martin and Robert Bamford has had plenty of owners and shareholders. Most have been colourful, none more so than David Brown (1947-72), for he was at the helm through the glory of that 1959 World Sportscar Championship. Yet there have been long dismal spells of low investment and sales as well.

Aston has hopefully now settled down to life under Ford's 75 per cent shareholding, the balance held by the Livanos family and former Chairman Victor Gauntlett. Yet there is a question mark over how much Ford is prepared to invest at a time of record losses for itself and more recent acquisition Jaguar. It will be autumn before we know if the Virage will have a baby 'DB4' brother. Meanwhile the Virage coupe has been the sole production Aston Martin offering, and has accrued 430 sales since its 1988 public debut.

Technical Analysis

Although it is considerably simplified over its predecessors in respect of individual parts, and contains considerably less odd bracketry in the cause of easier assembly, the Virage body is a complex masterpiece. It is hewn from 40 sheets of steel which are cut and pressed into 400 pieces, ready to carry aluminium doors, bonnet and boot lid.

The central platform and inner heart to the 15 ft 8 in long shell is wrought from steel. Less traditional plastics are used in the front bumper and lower spoiler sections, and both front and rear screens are bonded in place cleanly. All of this contributes to the rather average (for the length) 0.34 Cd.

The hefty 4200 lb kerb weight cannot all be laid at the two doors of the emotive body, for the interior is plush beyond belief. Some nine hides of "superior Connolly leather" (do they manufacture an inferior leather too?) and 17 yards of Wilton carpet support shining centimetres of lustrous burr walnut. Such luxuries ensure that even 5.3 litres cannot provide a better power to weight ratio (174.6 bhp per ton) than popular performance combinations such as the Ford Sierra Cosworth (186.4).

Former Ford Special Vehicle Engineering manager Rod Mansfield ('Mr Cosworth,' if ever there was such a corporate Ford figure) now carries responsibility for all Aston Martin engineering.

Rod has always had a strong interest in providing enjoyable public road handling without severe ride penalties. He has found much the same strain of thinking at Aston, but touching faith in the de Dion rear axle layout and the excessive kerb weight pose fresh challenges. Most were overcome by the factory team before Mansfield arrived, for Aston has used the de Dion system in production since the 1967 DBS.

There is nothing astonishing in the way the de Dion rear end is executed. However, it is very thoroughly located (fore and aft) by a triangulated layout and cushioned by a Watts linkage against sideways forces. Rod also conscientiously lays stress on continuing to provide traditional rear-drive traits, allied to inherent stability at the speeds the car can achieve. Owing to the crowded conditions at our Millbrook test venue, we were forced to apply the brakes when travelling at close to maximum speed a potentially hazardous situation when occupying the banked upper lane at 150 mph and the Aston behaved like the true British gentleman portrayed in the promotional material. It was not a test we had planned to conduct, and it was not one we want to repeat, but it was an impressive display of fuss-free retardation and an amiable chassis.

The brakes are suitably large, measuring a little over 13 in at the typically Aston Martin prow.

Before we leave the question of braking, t should be said that Aston Martin have codeveloped an electronic ABS system for the Virage. It was scheduled to be a standard feature of the car after the first week in March, but our car was not thus equipped.

Michael Peach, who has been with Aston over 30 years, was assigned the 60-hour task of assembling the imposing aluminium V8. He did an excellent, oil-tight job, but the Weber Marelli ignition and fuel injection management was not calibrated with quite the same precision.

On the first start of the day it would roar into life too literally, pushing the tachometer straight to 2500 rpm and causing us to worry for the bearings after a frosty night awaiting ignition. Whilst Walter Hayes speaks freely of the EEC-1V Ford management systems they expect to have in the future, I understand that the 6.3-litre developments of this engine are currently managed by Weber Alpha, the UK arm of Weber Marelli.

It is tempting to regard the quadruple overhead camshaft Aston V8 as a hardy perennial that has simply been repotted and renovated over the years. True, it was part of the recipe for the 1969 Aston Martin V8 series, using the same bore and stroke as today and a lower compression ratio. Now it has 16-valve cylinder heads on each bank carrying four valves per cylinder, electronic fuel injection and twin catalytic converters.

Happy to operate on 95 RON unleaded petrol it produces 330-335 bhp for 1992. Formerly it was harvesting little over 300 bhp from the carburated two-valve per cylinder units of the '80s, which demanded higher octane leaded fuels.

Action

It was a grey and damp day that the Aston Martin faced up to the challenge of Millbrook, circumnavigating the latest in prototype road machinery that is derived from World Grand Prix and Group C technology: if the environmental lobbies and the recession do not finish all of us in the performance business, there are some very exciting cars to come for those who spend by the hundred thousand.

Against the watch, the heavy Aston is not as impressive as it is gaining public road speed, but the more that is amassed the less weight handicaps the performance of that magnificent V8. Incidentally, the de Dion axle did a first class job of feeding power and torque to the tarmac in less than ideal conditions, and we would not expect other front-engined, reardrive cars to get so close to their ultimate acceleration potential in such conditions. We recorded 0-60 mph in an average of 7.6 sec, and would believe the car to be capable of slightly under seven seconds in more favourable conditions, for 0-30 mph occupied nearly half that elapsed time. The 0-100 mph mark boomed up in fractionally over 18 sec and 120 mph demanded comfortably less than half a minute. Compared to the Ferrari Mondial we tested recently - which is also a two-plus-two V8, albeit mid-mounted - the Aston is distinctly slower from rest, though top speed is within three mph of the 300 bhp Ferrari.

We had thought that the Aston might show a distinct advantage in flexibility, but the 50-70 mph band that we check in third, fourth and fifth had the Ferrari maintaining a cushion of about two seconds in the higher ratios.

There are plenty of faster cars than the Virage, but the way the Aston delivers its performance coupled to such compliant road manners has a charm of its own. Besides, the statistical performance gap can be closed if the customer opts (as five have done to date) for the 6.3-litre, 465 bhp conversion. Torque increases by a staggering 110 lb ft, totalling 460. The company says that this will allow 174 mph (remember, they claim 168 mph for the standard Virage. . . ), 0-60 mph in 5.4 sec and 0-100 mph in 11.5. If you pay the full £50,000 the engine change is accompanied by 10Jx18 in wheels, aerodynamic additions and "the largest" brakes fitted to a production car (14x1.4 in at the front, ABS as standard).

If all that is not enough, Aston delivers its promised 500 bhp Vantage version of Virage this November...

The cabin is impressive for the sheer workmanship displayed in wood, leather and carpeting whilst the climate control (fancy air conditioning) and electric seating adjustment proved effective.

Yet all was not sweetness and light within. The two-spoke steering wheel and plastic gear lever knob plays a jarring note within such plushness. An 11-function computer has the smallest, and most numerous, operating buttons encountered in the modern age.

At first, the seven-dial instrumentation beneath a single viewing pane looks rather cheap, but it proved acceptably accurate and had a hint of handcraftsmanship about it, being attributed to John McGavigan & Co. To please the small boys amongst us, the speedometer reads to 200 mph, whilst the 7000 rpm tachometer was redlined at 6250.

Ford influence is so far confined to the wiper and light dimmer rotary units, both of which can be found in a Fiesta. The main ignition key appears to be of GM source, but this worried us not at all in comparison with the wobbly lock barrel to the boot. We worked around it by using an internal release, whenever possible.

Another cumbersome ritual was filling the twin petrol tanks. Initially, you need to release two internal buttons hidden up under the dash by the steering column. Then you can imagine the average busy self-service forecourt mayhem that goes on as you play with twin flaps, twin screw tops and a long pause to dump a decent 95 octane unleaded refill in the 25 gallon reservoirs.

Fuel consumption varied wildly amongst the three drivers employed. A lady and a long motorway journey helped release 19.3 mpg at best. The performance session saw 11.7 mpg recorded and we averaged 15.02 mpg overall.

On the road with the present 5.3 litres, the Aston's imposing bulk means that you have frequently gained more speed than anticipated, particularly as the ride is so soothing above town speeds. Noise levels apart and we love the gruff notes the Aston emits there is a valid comparison to be made with Jaguar in this department. It really is a grand tourer, one that would thoroughly deserve an old fashioned GT badge were it not for the connotations that label now brings, thanks to the marketing departments of every mass manufacturer.

We had two track opportunities to assess the Aston's manners, the machine venturing out for a short burst around Hethel as well as the usual Millbrook sortie. The assessment of the three drivers, one a former Grand Prix regular, was that it was an amiable beast: sometimes vague in the straight ahead steering commands, but unusually responsive in hard cornering situations.

The Virage does not have abundant grip, particularly in greasy conditions, but the former Formula 1 ace showed that it could be motored equably on nearly a turn of opposite lock. That is nearly half the available lock, for the rack is geared at a delightful 2.2 turns overall.

The competent handling of 1.9 tons needs only a slight sharpening in the connection between that suitably geared steering rack and the front wheels. It feels as though deliberate slop has been built into the straight ahead position, so that the car never feels nervous.

Otherwise full cornering capability marks, even though our personal supposition is that a change in tyre brand (or a change in priorities issued to Avon) would bring a worthwhile adhesion bonus.

Verdict

The BRG Virage stopped even the citizens of the wealthiest UK regions dead in their tracks. The engine note is not remotely offensive, but it is very much that of the commanding officer thundering requests to mere mortals from the bridge. The gist is that they stop whatever they were doing and pay attention now. If they obeyed such demands, the populace was treated to an exhibition of craftsmanship and brawn that is uniquely Aston Martin.

In our view the Virage rendition of that Newport Pagnell theme has no rivals. The format of the Jaguar XJ-S is theoretically similar, and it offers the sibilant charms of a V12, but its body dates back to a low point in Jaguar history, whereas the Virage truly makes you feel a little special, a paid up member of the craftsman-constructed car club. There are faults, which we have highlighted where necessary, but in the Virage Aston Martin Lagonda has honestly translated their traditions into the '90s. The Virage customer might be seduced by the similarly distinguished breeding of the Bentley Turbo R, or the new Continental, but these are still basically variations on a saloon car theme.

By contrast the Aston is a pedigree Grand Turismo within a suitably suave 1992 suit to satisfy that very rare customer: the man who values a sporting heritage as much as sheer expertise of craft.