Road Tests

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Aston Martin Virage
There are two ways of looking at the Aston Martin Virage. There’s the charitable approach that sees the new look, the unique engine specification, bespoke suspension settings, carbon brakes and new name, and considers it a car in its own right. Less kind but as easily argued is to portray it as a kind of DB9 Ghia, a makeover to help keep afloat a model already in the autumn of its life.

For Aston Martin, which argument proves more persuasive among its customers is probably the difference between the Virage hitting its targets and not. For most of the rest of us, however, it’s probably enough simply to know whether it’s good enough to justify the £150,000 Aston Martin asks for it.

It’s a lot of money, the £25,000 Aston wants over the price of a DB9. It’s enough to lift it beyond the Bentley Continental GT and Ferrari California. But you can see the strategy: extraordinarily, since 2007 the average transaction price for an Aston Martin has risen by 50 per cent. According to Aston boss Dr Ulrich Bez, this has allowed the company to stay profitable throughout the slump. And this despite volumes being culled from a 10,000 capacity to fewer than 5000 cars last year. Aside from the Cygnet city car oddity, Aston’s drive is relentlessly upmarket, and the more you charge, the less price sensitive the customer becomes.

Besides, it’s not as if Aston Martin has simply slapped a new badge on the car and sent it out to the showrooms.

Take the engine. By using the airbox from the yet more powerful DBS, with valves that open at 5500rpm to allow better breathing, its output has been tickled up from the 470bhp of the DB9 to 490bhp. But when you drive it, it’s not the extra power you notice so much as the cleaner noise and added eagerness around the redline. Likewise the gearbox is still the same old sixspeed ZF auto that’s been sitting between the DB9’s rear wheels since launch, but a Sport button on the dash now permits faster changes as well as a more aggressive throttle map.

But the biggest changes have been wrought upon the chassis. Firmer springs and new, five-way adaptive dampers seek to offer new levels of control, while those carbon ceramic brakes promise not only fade-free retardation, but substantial savings in unsprung mass at each corner.

We meet at the Ascari Race Resort in the south of Spain, though the track itself is set aside for the new Vantage S, details of which I shall bring you next month. Happily, and in the early spring at least, you can simply drive out of the exit barrier, turn right and be on a road quieter and more suited to a car like the Virage than almost any in the UK at almost any time of year.

I’d liked the new exterior look, which was a relief as Aston’s last attempt to tinker with the DB9’s near-unimprovable appearance had resulted in the rather uncomfortably shaped DBS. This time the approach of chief designer Marek Reichman has been to alter the shape in more subtle ways, reprofiling the front wings, introducing new lights and styling new front and side skirts to give the car a lower, more purposeful look, without making it appear like the victim of an after-market bodykit attack.

Inside thinner sports seats combine with those carbon brakes to make the Virage some 20kg lighter than the DB9, but there’s still not enough room for my 6ft 4in frame. Driving in socks is the only way I can be comfortable behind the wheel, a restriction I’d not mind in an old short-chassis Caterham, but seems a little galling to have to put up with in a £150,000 Aston Martin. At least there is now modern Garmin satellite navigation on board, in place of the utterly antiquated, thoroughly useless old Volvo system that will slowly be removed from all other Astons over the course of the next year. If you’re ordering one, don’t be fobbed off with the old tech.

So off we went, gently ramping up the pace until the Virage reached the delicious gait you hope to find in all pedigree GTs where you’re driving without apparent effort while the rest of the world appears to have selected reverse.

I was reminded of my first drive in the DB9, a car launched in precisely the same week as Ferrari let us drive the 612 Scaglietti, itself now replaced by the all-wheel-drive FF, impressions of which I will also bring you in the next issue. At the time I massively preferred the Aston which, while slower, was more compact, communicative, lighter and fun.

Eight years later, the Virage showed me the enduring nature of these qualities. This is not a car of ultimates: none of us would have to think very hard before naming another available for similar money that was faster in a straight line or around a corner. But I’d defy anyone who appreciates qualities like poise, feel, sound and response not to be captivated by this car.

The V12’s charms are undiminished. It may be big, thirsty and old (first firing up in a Ford concept car 15 years ago), but in its voice and power delivery it provides all the reason you need to mourn the current drive towards smaller turbo motors with fewer cylinders. And while the torque converter gearbox is slower than a double clutch alternative, its smoothness matches the Virage’s urbane nature so well you’d think it was made for the car. In fact it’s an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all component used in millions of mass-produced motors.

But the car is never more in its element than when sweeping through the many wide-open corners you’ll find in this part of the world. What impresses most is how a car weighing 1800kg with that huge lump in its nose can talk back to you, conveying all the information you need about conditions underfoot like a small sports car weighing half a tonne less. Balanced by its rear transaxle, the Virage seems able to distribute near-equal workloads to each tyre, and thanks to its new damping, have the class and suppleness to either accommodate or shrug off all the unexpected surface and camber changes, lumps and bumps that make the public road such a challenging environment for such a car when driven like this.

So I found the Virage a very hard car not to like. I can think of no better way to describe its character than to call it a High Definition DB9. In almost every area of its endeavour it feels a sharper, more lucid, better focused product.

But a DB9 it is, even though it doesn’t suit Aston Martin to say so. You can see why: the DB9 is a very mature product and people would prefer to taste something new than reheated. Therefore in marketing terms, I understand the name change very well. But from a product point of view it is equally important to understand that even now there is very little wrong with a DB9. Like its shape, the car within has aged exceptionally well and the Virage is simply that made better still. From where I’m sitting, I can’t see much wrong with that at all.

Porsche Cayman R
Walter Rohrl is a great brand ambassador. Not only can he drive like few others on earth, if you ask him a question he’ll give you a straight answer. When the Cayman first came out, it was Walter who told us the reason it lacked a limited-slip diff was nothing to do with cost and everything to do with Porsche not wanting it to lap faster than a 911. Now, six years on, when I asked if he could feel the 54kg Porsche has shaved from the Cayman’s weight to make this lightweight Cayman R, he simply said “no, not really”. Compared to some of the rubbish spouted by representatives of exotic car manufacturers, such honesty comes as a gale of fresh air.

It also means that when he praises the car, you listen. As I said, he’s a great ambassador.

So when I headed out onto the roads of Mallorca with Walter’s words about how much more incisive the Cayman R feels relative to the S, I was ready to be impressed.

Besides, while I too cannot feel that the doors are 15kg lighter, there are many pleasant side effects to the diet. There’s more room inside, thanks to slimmer, lighter seats. Unsprung mass has been cut by over a kilo a corner thanks to lighter wheels. And I like the fact that you open the door by pulling a simple strap and that if you want to put back the air conditioning or full sized fuel tank, it won’t cost a penny to do so.

Most of all I like the other stuff Porsche has done to turn the S into the R. I defy anyone to detect the extra 10bhp boasted by its 325bhp, motor, but the fact it breathes more freely and revs more eagerly up to 7500rpm is clear. Similarly the changes wrought by the chassis modifications, including a 22mm drop in ride height, firmer springs, re-rated dampers, a standard LSD and a revised aero package to reduce lift by 40 per cent at the back. By any standards, the Cayman enjoys exceptional road handling, but the R is yet more lucid, involving, neutral under power and controllable beyond the limit.

But what’s best about the R is you’ll need only £4124 over the price of the S to buy it. It’s barely less civilised, less comfortable and just as sensible an everyday option.

Anyone expecting it to be to a normal Cayman what a GT3 is to a 911 will be disappointed. But if you just want a car that offers even more of the things we love about the Cayman and that make it Porsche’s purest driver’s car, the R couldn’t be more recommended.

FACTFILE
Engine: 3.4-litre, flat-six
Top Speed: 175mph
Price: £51,728
Power: 325bhp at 7500rpm
Fuel/co2: 29.1mpg, 228g/km
www.porsche.com/uk

Maserati Grancabrio
As a lover of fast, beautiful Italian cars, it pains me to say that most Maseratis I’ve driven have been desperate disappointments. I think I’ve been in most of the major ones and found the likes of the Khamsin, Indy and Ghibli merely looked and sounded great. To drive they seemed slow and ponderous. The cars of the 1980s and ’90s had some charm but were always ugly and offen incompetent. In fact, and until the modern era, the Bora was the only one I liked, though I’m told the Merak SS is underrated.

Which is why it feels so good to see Maserati with more fine cars on its books than at any time in its history. The Quaff roporte is flawed but still massively desirable, the GranTurismo coupe an interesting alternative to a pricey Jag or a cheap Aston.

So why can Maserati still not figure out how to do a convertible? This GranCabrio is just like those early cars: a treat for the eyes and ears but a waste of time for everything else. It’s not fast because even 434bhp doesn’t go far in a two-tonne car, while the chassis exhibits levels of scuffle-shake you’d not expect to find in a convertible hatchback costing five times less money than the £98,200 asked for this. Which reminds me: it’s outrageously expensive too.

It doesn’t handle or steer as you’d like, which might be forgivable or at least understandable if that meant it rode like a Rolls-Royce Phantom. But it doesn’t. The only thing it does like a Phantom is drink fuel.

What I struggle to understand is why it is so much worse than the GranTurismo upon which it is based. Of course you can’t expect any cabriolet to match a coupe sister because it will always be heavier and less rigid, but if you drive, say, a Porsche, Aston or Jaguar convertible these days, the dynamic shortfall is small and if you raise the roof you’re barely aware it’s made from fabric rather than metal. Not in this Maserati. I guess it will still appeal to fashion victims, but if you are at all interested in the way your hundred-grand convertible drives please take it from me: you won’t be interested in this.

FACTFILE
Engine: 4.7-litre V8
Top Speed: 175mph
Price: £98,200
Power: 434bhp at 7000rpm
Fuel/co2: 18.3mpg, 358g/km
www.maserati.co.uk

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