Cigar Aficionado

Aston Martin V8 Vantage

Expect the surge that Aston Martin has ridden in recent years-rolling out a series of compelling products and posting a profit for the first time-to continue its swell as the venerable British maker introduces a sports car that would challenge the Porsche 911: its V8 Vantage.

While sharing platforms with its sexy DB9 sports coupe, the new two-seater takes Aston into entirely uncharted territory: at $110,000, it is priced $50,000 less than its sibling. But it gives up little else. Aston carefully maintained the striking shape of the show car it debuted in January 2003. The Vantage is muscular, but no British bulldog; its lines flow from the yawning Aston grille to the upward curvature of the tail. That's more than decoration. At the speeds Vantage reaches, you need plenty of down force.

By all rights, Aston Martin should have vanished years ago. The automaker has spent most of its 92-year history mired deep in the red. It went bust seven times before being salvaged by Ford Motor Co., which invested in manufacturing facilities and new models that struck a responsive chord with buyers. Back in 1994, Aston sold a grand total of 42 cars. In 2004, sales had surged to 2,500. And the carmaker is looking for even bigger numbers with the introduction of the V8 Vantage.

While Aston is targeting the 911, comparisons with that other British sports coupe, the Continental GT, are inevitable. But where Bentley relies on brute force to propel a heavy platform, Vantage's bonded aluminum chassis is light yet rigid. Aston engineers blended steel, aluminum and composite panels in the body to trim its weight to 3,461 pounds, a ton less than the GT. That's obvious on the road, where Vantage is nimble and responsive, its steering predictable.

We spent several days exploring Italy's Tuscan countryside to get a feel for Aston's newest entry. After taking time to admire the car's design, we figured out the tricky electric doors and slipped into the well-bolstered leather seats.

After we hit the start button, the big V-8 greeted us with a menacing rumble, surprisingly reminiscent of a classic American muscle car. The heart of this refined beast is an all-alloy, quad overhead cam, 32-valve, 4.3-liter V-8 with variable inlet cam timing. With 380 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque, the car speeds from 0 to 60 in a neck-snapping 4.8 seconds. That's not quite a match for a Turbo 911, but Aston officials hint an even faster, supercharged Vantage R may already be under development.

Owning an Aston was once an exercise in masochism. They leaked, they rattled, they stalled unexpectedly. Quality and reliability have made significant gains, so the Vantage likely could serve as the "daily driver" that Aston intends. The hatchback's well-appointed interior is surprisingly roomy and comfortable, and there's a reasonably useful cargo compartment, with space for a pair of golf bags or a long weekend's luggage.

That's good news, because the V8 Vantage beckons to be driven. Will it knock the 911 off its throne as the king of the sports car hill? Not likely, but Aston's new offering should attract folks looking to chart their own course. And that is certain to make it the most successful entry in Aston's long, if troubled, history.