BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Aston Martin's Vantage is a modern high performance icon of unmistakable character, styled to seduce and engineered to thrill. In its day, it was always the most affordable supercar the British brand made, but many will tell you that it's arguably also the very best Aston from its era. There's a choice of either V8 or V12 power under the bonnet but either way, the performance is as sensational as the looks, either in Coupe form, or as a Roadster convertible. This was the first Aston Martin to directly take on Porsche and Maserati and it remains an emotional but very tempting choice.
2-door Coupe / Convertible [4.3 V8 / 4.7 V8 / 5.9 V12] / 2-door Coupe / 2-door Roadster
There was a time late in the last century, when 'Aston Martin' meant something very different. An iconic British brand, to be sure, but a maker of hand built sportscars aimed at older buyers romanced by name and heritage in the face of compelling evidence that German and Italian rivals were better made and finer to drive. The gorgeous DB9 of 2003 was a sign that the future might be different but it was still an old-style GT rather than an out-and-out sportscar, the kind of design still most likely to appeal to Aston enthusiasts. A slightly smaller model with younger, more dynamic orientation was needed. A car that someone with little prior interest in the brand might buy. A car you could seriously choose over a Porsche 911 or a Maserati GT. A car like this one, Aston Martin's Vantage.
Launched in 2005, this was the first thing the Gaydon factory had made that really worried German and Italian rivals. It was slightly more affordable for a start, so would sell in rather larger numbers than Aston's hand-built GTs further up the range. And it was fast, light on its feet and styled to be achingly desirable, either in coupe form or in subsequent open-topped Roadster guise. Rivals consoled themselves that the original model's 380bhp 4.3-litre V8 sounded faster than it actually went (though the special edition N400 variant of 2007 put out 400bhp).
This overall issue was dealt with in 2008 with the installation instead of a 4.7-litre unit that boosted power by 11% to 420bhp. There was also a 430bhp V8 Vantage S model that many customers ended up choosing, which differed from the standard V8 with its bigger brakes, sharper suspension and steering and the standard inclusion of a 7-speed sequential shift semi-automatic gearbox. A special edition N420 model was introduced in 2010, while an N430 model arrived in 2015; both shared the V8S model's 430bhp engine but received various handling and bodystyle tweaks.
Of course you don't have to have a V8 engine in your Vantage. There was also a V12 model, launched in 2009 with V10 and also available in coupe or Roadster guises mated to SportShift II auto transmission. In 2013, an uprated 565bhp V12 Vantage S variant was introduced.
The modern-era Vantage sold in V8 and V12 guises until replaced by a new generation model in late 2017.
What You Get
It's only when you put a Vantage up against one of Aston's other models that you really appreciate its differences in design. It's over a foot shorter than, say, a DB9 and 60mm lower slung. Put the two cars side by side and the DB9 is revealed as the GT car it is, while the Vantage sits foursquare, the big rear wheel arch bulges lending it a pugnacious muscularity. This is widely acclaimed as one of the world's most beautiful cars, a lesson in proportion, stance and sculptural form. The long, low bonnet line and broad rear haunches suggest power and aggression. Pure and understated, yet studded with simple, confident details, the Vantage is unmistakable Aston Martin.
Subtle differences distinguish the three main coupe models, with 'S' and V12 models both showcasing aerodynamic refinements borrowed from the company's GT4 racing programme. At the front, a deeper bumper and a more aggressive carbon fibre splitter pluck more downforce from the airflow for increased stability at speed, while pronounced side sills reduce aerodynamic lift and give the flanks greater definition. At the rear, the tailgate is shaped into a more pronounced upswept 'flip' - again to reduce lift - and a carbon fibre diffuser helps extract air from beneath the car. Go for the gorgeous open-topped Roadster version and you get styling intended to evoke the look of 'an athlete wearing a skin-tight suit', an analogy that doesn't work quite as well as the Thinsulate fabric roof which can be raised or lowered in just 18s at speeds of up to 30mph and stores compactly when down beneath an aluminium tonneau cover.
Interiors have never been an Aston Martin problem and from the moment that the gently assisted 'swan wing' door swings open in a graceful upwards arc and you slide into the supportive driver's seat that sets you low in the car, you know you're about to experience something very special. From the soft, supple hand-stitched leather that swathes the seats, dashboard and door panels to the intricate, aluminium-faced instruments designed to resemble the technical look of a chronograph watch, everything you touch and feel has been as carefully crafted as a Swiss watch or a Saville Row suit. We're not quite so sure though, about the ECU, or 'Emotional Control Unit', a square block that replaces a conventional ignition key or starter button and slots into the middle of the centre console to fire the engine.
Overall, this cabin remains one of Aston's best efforts from this era, much of its architecture and components common with the DB9. That does mean, though, that this Vantage shares that car's problem in having rather too many knobs and buttons scattered around the dash in an age where cheaper brands habitually group all these functions within 'i-Drive'-type control systems. It unfortunately also shares the same fiddly Volvo-sourced optional satellite navigation system.
Behind the front seats, there's no attempt to incorporate the tiny rear seats you find in larger Aston models, with instead a useful carpeted storage area big enough for a briefcase and complete with lovely aluminium roll-over spars. Doing without back seats has helped to optimise space for driver and passenger, meaning that there's enough head and leg room for six-footers, while the width of the cabin and the broad transmission tunnel will make banging elbows a distant memory. Out back, the 300-litre boot you get in the Coupe is big enough for two sets of golf clubs and significantly larger than you'll find on some rivals, though this capacity does fall to just 144-litres if you opt for the Roadster convertible.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
You don't expect a hand-crafted car of this kind to be faultless as it ages - and the Vantage very definitely isn't. If you want something closer to perfection in this segment, buy something German.
Based on our ownership survey, here's some things to look out for when perusing used examples. One owner we came across was fairly typical of others we found. His 2009-era V8 Vantage had had a rear brake light cluster badly fitted, so the fitment leaked water and the indicators malfunctioned intermittently. The window wipers stopped when he put on max speed, the outside temperature gauge kept reading 40 degrees C (in Scotland!) and the main drive belt tensioner / pulley started making an awful squeaking sound - the latter apparently a common problem.
You may also come across an illuminated 'DSC service required' dash warning light, apparently misleading and caused by a faulty brake pedal transducer. Open the bonnet of some older models and you may well find various rusty bits and bolts - particularly associated with the wipers where holding bolts are very rusty. Apparently, water pools will often gather there if the owner hasn't opened the bonnet and physically dried the engine bay after rain or washing (!)
Other things to look out for include minor rattles from behind the dash, poor FM radio reception on models without external antennas, occasional high battery drain, door glass position memory loss and exhaust bypass valves sticking. It's also fair to point out that we came across plenty of complaints about the SportShift semi-automatic transmission, so very definitely try before you buy.
The brakes can squeal irritatingly at low speeds, but there is a fix for this so ensure it has been done. As with any high-performance car, it's worth budgeting for a new set of discs and pads just for peace of mind. Some cars have experienced light bubbling of the paint around the base of the A-pillars and the door handles. This should have been fixed under warranty, though. The front grille can lose its finish and go milky, too, although again this is a warranty job. It's not unusual for first and second gear to be difficult to select on the manual 'box when it's cold. A revised oil spec can help, but it's usually best to just take it easy until things have warmed up a bit.
The V8 frees up noticeably with miles and is at its best once past the 10K mark. Virtually bomb proof, higher mileages are fine. Sometimes the alternator belt can squeal from cold but there is a fix using a revised idler pulley. The only notable failures we've come across have been due to the engine being revved to the limiter when cold. A popular tweak is to fix the exhaust bypass valve open to give a richer engine note at lower speeds.
(approx based on a 2013 Vantage V8 4.7-litre V8 ex VAT) An air filter costs around £31. Brake pads sit in the £35 to £37 bracket for a set. Wiper blades cost in the £22 to £25 bracket. A replacement starter motor is about £320. Abused clutches can require early replacement. If treated properly they should last for 40K miles, but if ridden they may only last 10K. A replacement costs about £1,700 at an independent garage, or around £2,300 at a main dealer. As with any supercar, replacement tyres will be horrendously expensive, but a set could last you as long as 20K miles, depending on your driving style.
On the Road
Here at last is an Aston Martin for which no apologies need by made, no caveats given. Faster models further up the range still largely remain at heart to a lesser or greater extent old-school GTs, true sportscars certainly, but trading the last ounce of handling finesse for an important dose of day-to-day usability. This Vantage must be a car its owner could use everyday too, but from the moment you slip behind the wheel, it's clear that this is a car you might be tempted to take around Silverstone on your way to Sainsburys.
The reasons why aren't just about power - but let's cover that first. The 32-valve V8 engine that usually beats beneath the bonnet put out 380bhp in its earliest 4.3-litre form, but in 2008 was uprated to 4.7-litres in size, in which guise it put out 420bhp in standard form - or 430bhp in the alternative auto-only V8S variant. Either way, barking rasp you get after slotting the ECU ignition key into the centre of the dash and firing things up speaks of the kind of supercar potency you'd expect after spending a six-figure sum. Sixty from rest will detain you for just 4.8s in a standard 4.7-litre Vantage on the way to 180mph, the best bit being when the bypass valve opens in the exhaust at around 4,000rpm so that you can fully enjoy the glorious soundtrack. The performance figures improve to 4.5s and 189mph in the Vantage S with its extra grunt and slick 7-speed Sportshift semi-auto transmission and make it hard to justify the extra money you'll need to pay to go only slightly faster in the 6.0-litre auto-only V12 version (0-60mph in 4.1s en route to 190mph).
You can see why so many original Vantage customers chose the sequential Sportshift II 'box over the 6-speed manual transmission. For a start, as we mentioned, this self-shifter was the only option on the 'S' model with its widened stance, it's extra 10bhp of V8 power, its bigger brakes and its more direct recalibrated steering. But it isn't just that. This transmission suits the demeanour of this car so much better, the beautifully-crafted magnesium alloy paddle shifters behind the steering wheel so much fun to use in manual mode that you're rarely temped to give up and default to full automatic. 'Dual Throttle Map' software offers a choice of 'Comfort' mode - where the engine reacts in a smoother more progressive manner to driver throttle inputs - and 'Sports' mode where the throttle mapping is more aggressive, delivering a more dynamic and sporting feel.
So far so good, but plenty of power and a slick gearbox do not alone a driver's car make. So you'll want to point this car at your favourite twisting secondary road to see if it really is a 911, an M6 or an Audi R8 alternative. It is. This, without doubt, is our favourite Aston Martin, lithe and lighter on its feet not only than a DB9 (which you'd expect) but also than a Virage or a DBS from this era (which you might not). There isn't quite the last enth of steering and road feel that you'd get in a 911 or an R8, but the Vantage compensates with a suppler ride that deals better with mid-corner bumps. And the grip and balance in the bends inspires a degree of confidence that we never thought we'd feel in an Aston Martin. You can make everything stiffer still by finding a car originally specified with the optional Sports Pack, but we don't think we'd want to. The standard model is exactly how an Aston should be.
Without the Vantage, it's doubtful whether Aston Martin would be the company that it is today. Since private ownership of the company kicked in after the Ford era, this has been the car that has kept the tills ringing at Gaydon - and for good reason. For us, it's the best thing the company made in the 2005 to 2017 period, the best to drive and the best looking, so it's nice that it's also the most affordable sportscar in the range too.
Of course, 'affordability' is a relative term when you're talking about a supercar of this exalted price. Especially one that's brilliant but flawed. The fiddly interior, the muscular handling and the high running costs won't after all, suit everybody. But those traits for us are also welcome. They make this car human. There is, after all, something soulless about the clinical perfection of a Porsche or a Mercedes that you just don't get here. And it's one of the reasons why you'll find any Vantage simply overflowing with the special feel you want in the sportscar you've dreamed of owning all your life. More exclusive than a Jaguar XK, more traditional in its layout than a Porsche 911, it's brilliant and it's British. Enough said.