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Aston Martin is a brand with major potential. It could be the British Porsche, a maker of expensive but attainable GT cars with a hard, sporting edge. The branding is perfect: upmarket of Jaguar, hand-built and truly British, something with history. So why has it avoided the obvious for so long?

True, Aston Martin did try to address the problem with the DB7, a quick-fix adaptation of the car that Jaguar had been planning to launch as a possible F-type. It was a good-looking car, but hardly an "authentic" one, with its Jaguar engine and underpinnings. Plus it was too expensive.

Well, Aston Martin has been listening and learning, infused with a new direction under its anglophile German chairman, DrUlrich Bez. As a former chairman of Porsche, he knows the appeal of the evergreen 911. He knows the demand for something with the beauty of a supercar, yet compact enough to use every day and not financially ruinous. The result is before you: meet the Aston Martin Vantage V8.

This is possibly the best-looking sports GT you can buy today. It has the clean lines of a DB9, but it's leaner, bigger in the biceps, smaller in its roadprint, handier. The corners are tucked in hard to make the wheel arches dominate and give the impression of a skin pulled tight over the powerful mechanicals beneath. The tail is stubby, the cabin compact, because this is just a two-seater. The trademark Aston Martin vent on the flank, just behind the front wheel, flows into a ridge which spears towards the rear wheel, giving a visual aggression lacking in the more polite DB9. It's just gorgeous.

You know this car will be a blast to drive, just by looking at it. The engine -- a 4.3-litre V8 -- has 380bhp and the ability to blast the Aston to 62mph in five seconds.

The Vantage is built on a shortened version of the DB9's aluminium structure. To see the bare structure is to see a work of aluminium art. Inside is impressive too, with plenty of satin-finish aluminium and leather, including handsome aluminium bracing bars by the rear-side windows.

You start the Vantage by pressing a big, transparent button. The engine barks into life, a bypass valve in the exhaust system opening to let the sound thrill out. That valve opens again when the Aston is accelerating past 4,000rpm. The bonnet looms large in the forward vista because you sit low and snug and the windscreen is shallow. You can howl into corners. It's taut, alert -- it flicks from bend to bend.

All those high-rev engine fireworks distract from the fact that it pulls strongly from low speeds, just not as bombastically. It's better to stay one gear higher than you first thought and let the Vantage flow. It's quicker, smoother, and you start to notice how supple the ride is for a car with such sharp reflexes. The Vantage doesn't have to play race car; whatever mood you're in, it matches it. Dr Bez won't be drawn on whether the fabulous Vantage is a 911 rival. It is, of course.

ASTON MARTIN VANTAGE V8

Price ??105,000 before tax

Engine 4,280cc, V8 cylinders, 32 valves, 380bhp at 7,300rpm, and 302lb ft at 5,000rpm

Transmission six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Max speed 175mph/280kmph

Acceleration 0-62mph/0-100kmph in 5.0 seconds

By John Simister


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