The best Aston Martin for 40 years

It’s called Vantage but do not think this is just a faster DB7. Andrew Frankel spends two days on the road to discover the best new Aston Martin since the DB4

It takes startlingly little time, as long as you need to tuma key and press a button, to know this Aston Martin DB7 Vantage is dramatically different. Different not simply to the car upon which it is based but also to whatever your expectations of such a car might be. Expect the Aston Martin DB7 Vantage to be a quick DB7 and you’ll miss its point by a mile. Expect it to do as much as previous Vantage models have for their parents and you’ll still not be close. Expect, instead, a new car merely wearing a familiar suit and you’ll approach this Vantage from the right direction.

This is no illusion. The quad-cam, 48-valve, 6-litre all-alloy V12 motor in its nose is simply the most obvious of a range of changes so extensive it’s a wonder Aston didn’t drop the old name altogether and christen this the DB8. And do not doubt this will be its role. Aston Martin already admits to expecting 90 per cent of the DB7s it will sell for the rest of this year to be V12-powered and my guess is this figure will rise to within a whiff of 100 per cent next year. The simple fact is that, at £92,500 the Vantage costs just £7500 more than the six-cylinder car, a tiny increase which bears no relation to the improvement to the car. Frankly, if you can afford a new Aston Martin, you can afford a DB7 Vantage and, can be blunt, if you’re shopping in that market you would be nuts to deny yourself a car which is so much more able and engaging.

Let us, therefore, start at the beginning. This Aston Martin has a new engine. It has new suspension, brakes, transmissions, fresh bodywork, a stiffer monocoque and a revised interior. Like I said, this is a new car.

The Cosworth-built motor itself is a masterpiece of pragmatic engineering. It is, at its core, two Ford Mondeo V6 motors merged into one. The result displaces 5935cC and has a relaxed 10.3:1 compression ratio to provide 420bhp at 6000rpm, backed by a solid 4001b ft of torque at 5000rpm. Aston Martin are swift to point out that such statistics merely hint at this engine’s potential. When this car finally replaces the DB7 (as it surely will) and calls come for a Vantage Vantage, believe that the required 500bhp will be ready and waiting. Better still for Aston, no-one else on this side of the Atlantic is going to be allowed to use the V12, something of a relief in Newport Pagnell now its Ford-owned stable mates include jaguar and Volvo. Only Lincoln in the US is in the frame for the powerplant.

It runs through a choice of transmissions, both new to the DB7. The manual is a radically revised iteration of the six-speed ‘box first offered a decade ago in Chevrolet’s Corvette while the five-speed auto is the work of ZF and already serves in BMW’s 750i.

The suspension system has also been entirely overhauled, with new upper and lower wishbones at the front and revised spring and damper rates front and back while collossal new Brembo brakes with Teves ABS anchor fresh wheels and Bridgestone SO2 tyres. Those Bridgestones, incidentally are the finest high performance boots money can buy.

Upon first acquaintance, little of this is obvious. The DB7’s designer, Ian Callum, has done little to interfere with the car’s still exquisite lines. Even so, there was a need to provide a greater air-flow over the new motor so the basis of the changes to the body involve providing a larger air intake, which in turn provided the opportunity to incorporate driving lamps allegedly reminiscent of the Project 212, 214 and 215 racers of the early ’60s. The remaining changes simply balance those at the front and extend to beefed up sills and a new rear bumper which incorporates larger diameter tailpipes.

Sit inside and you’ll not miss new and attractive instruments, nor will you fail to notice a red button on the console. Turning the key alone will not start the V12; only when you thumb the button will it ignite. It is, of course, a silly piece of marketing, as is the blip of the throttle that accompanies the motor’s awakening, but in an Aston, or this one at least, it works. It sets the scene, makes a promise that today is going to be different.

And so it proved. I spent two days with the car with no route to follow, no agenda or timetable to stick to. I climbed aboard in London in the thick of the rush hour and emerged for the last time in Paris, a thousand miles the wiser. There was no itinerary, though I could not resist flinging it down the hill past the pits on the old Grand Prix circuit at Rouen and sliding it out of the still cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin at the bottom; most of the time, however, I just drove. Which is exactly how it should be.

Too often in the recent past, such a trip would have flecked with disappointment. I remember testing the first Virage back in 1990 and being shocked by how flabby and dull it was – and the Volante was even worse. The later Vantage variant was fabulously fast but so harsh at first I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live with it, least of all when the Ferrari 456GT was available for less. And even the DB7, the car that saved the company, came with so many manufacturing faults at launch that I wondered whether 1 could recommend a theoretically good car that often proved irksome in reality. So often in Aston’s recent history, the car has failed to live up to our expectations of the marque.

No more. The first of many surprising things I learned in those two days is that two Ford V6 engines make a more charismatic V12 than any made by Ferrari today. It’s not quite so smooth as that fitted to a 550 Maranello but if it’s that multi-layered V12 symphony you’re after, that which Ferrari used to make its own, you’ll now find it under the bonnet of an Aston Martin. This is one of the world’s great powerplants, flexible, urbane and unobtrusive when needed, sharp edged and snarling when wanted. It doesn’t kick like a turbo-motor or even respond from idling with the alacrity of a supercharged engine like the 3.2-litre straight six in the stock DB7; what has instead is good old fashioned V12 relentlessness.

Despite the aluminium engine and bodywork, this DB7 weighs a hefty 1780kgs but the V12 copes effortlessly with its bulk. Changing at 7000rpm, it dismisses the first three of its six gears sufficiently quickly for there not to be enough time to savour the shove. By the time you’re in fourth, 60mph has passed in less than five seconds and 100mph in about the same again. But fourth is the gear, batting you between 70-120mph with contemptuous ease, allowing your hands never to stray from the wheel, surging you onward until prudence dictates you back off. I can’t tell you how fast it ultimately is, only that at 160mph there was still the remains of fifth and all of top to go; judging from the acceleration I do not doubt Aston’s claimed 185mph. Volante and automatic and versions are limited to 165mph, the former by aerodynamic resistance, the latter by the certification limit of the ZF box.

If that were it, if this were no more than the old DB7 with a heaven-sent engine, the extra money would be justified. In fact, this is just the start. If you want to know how good this car’s chassis look no further than those who created it. First, there is Bob Dover, Aston’s chairman, whose final job with his last employer was the Jaguar XK8. On development drives on road and track in Europe and America I saw first-hand how he turns raw material into a finely honed finished product. One technique was to employ Mike Cross, a driver with car control that amazed Jackie Stewart and one of’ the most intuitive chassis engineers of all. Then he went to Lotus to see former F1 driver John Miles, who is one of the reasons that Lotuses handle better than anything else on the road, and Alastair McQueen, a chassis man with more car control than any other I’ve met. Finally, there is Richard Parry-Jones, vice-president of Ford and the man who turned Fords into the best riding and handling cars the mass market has to offer. Every one of them played a part in the development of the DB7 Vantage.

The results are astonishing, not for anything as crude as the speed at which the DB7 will take a given corner, but for the subtlety and proficiency of a chassis which knows that, for every empty open A-road there will be a dozen or more congested streets and motorways. This DB7 has a refined and thrilling chassis that rides as well as it handles.

It’s not an easy balance to reach. Too many sportscars fail to involve the driver these days, leaving the impression you are no more than a programmer issuing instructions for a computer-controlled device to execute. And while the Aston is not averse to electronic intervention in extremis, most of the time it’s clear that you call the shots. At once involving and relaxing, there’s nothing manic about its progress, no matter how fast the pace, yet, through the chassis, this Vantage talks to you.

Ultimately, however, it can’t disguise its weight and understeers with or without traction control unless provoked violently to do otherwise; for some this will disappoint. This is not a car to be driven on the limit, fluently balanced on the throttle; it is too big, too heavy and lacks the reactions and steering feel for such treatment. Then again, this Aston is not that sort of car; it is a ground coverer, one which will deliver you to your destination with the maximum involvement available for a minimum effort. An alternative to the Ferrari 360 Modena it is not.

It is, instead, a rival for a Ferrari 456GT, and the very fact that this DB7 can stand up straight in the same sentence as the finest GT car yet to be built is praise enough. In fact the Aston is damn near a match for the Ferrari. Certainly its engine, performance, handling and ride are at least as good, it’s undeniably prettier and it is vastly cheaper. Counting against it is the Ferrari’s superior interior room, better build (the test Vantage still had a few irritating faults that have no place in a car costing nearly £100,000), much snappier gearchange, a considerably more stylish interior and a bigger boot.

This is to be celebrated. It has been 40 years since Newport Pagnell had a car to genuinely rival its opposite number from Maranello; 40 years since the DB4 kicked the stuffing out of the 250GT. Now Aston is back with its best car in two generations, one which exceeds the remit of its Vantage badge to take Astons into the next century in better shape than you would credit.

The losers are those who have recently taken delivery of a standard DB7, a car I rate below the cheaper Jaguar XK8. But if you are still in the queue for one of the 600 DB7s to be made in the next year and your order form doesn’t say Vantage, do yourself a favour: put down this magazine right now, pick up the telephone and change it.